More Than Words: The Writer as Teacher

by Jose “Butch” Dalisay Jr., Ph.D.

Delivered on 7 July 2006 at the awarding ceremonies of the Concepcion Dadufalza Award Lecture, University of the Philippines Diliman

Good afternoon.

I’m very grateful to the judges and the sponsors of this award for the great honour they are doing me today.          ‘

I don’t mean to sound immodest in say that I’ve received quite a few awards for my writing, and while this Concepcion Dadufalza Award is for distinguished achievement, I’d like to think-because of the person in whose memory it is being given-that this distinction applies as much to one’s teaching as it does to his or her professional work. If there was anything that Ching Dadufalza did well-indeed, better than most others-it was to teach well, sharing her passion for learning and critical inquiry with generations of young Filipinos.

I came into UP at the wrong time and in a different frame of mind to have become one of the so-called Dadufalza kids-former students who loved her with near-fanatical devotion. But I could see, as an undergraduate and then later as a colleague, how and why she could inspire such deep affection and admiration.

I do have an unusual personal connection to Ching Dadufalza. My family and I now occupy the house on No.9 Juan Luna Street that she lived in for many years, on this campus, in Area 2. I remember visiting her in that mango-shaded house several times, when I was department chairman, in the vain hope of dissuading her from classroom teaching-this was when she could barely walk-so she could write her memoirs. Fortunately, or otherwise, she has not repaid me those visits, since she passed away a couple of years ago.

But let me offer up these musings to her memory, and to that of the other distinguished professors of English-among them, Nieves and Silvino Epistola, Pacita Fernandez, Francisco Arcellana, Alejandrino Hufana, Alfeo Nudas, and Filonila Tupas-whom I had the pleasure and the privilege of studying with, and who have since passed on.

I speak as a representative of a relatively small but growing and certainly visible element of our academic community: our writers and artists who, not incidentally, also teach and sometimes even assume administrative posts.

It’s not an odd position to be in. Universities-and the University of the Philippines, in particular-have always been a haven for artists and art studies, and not just in a belletristic way. Here in UP-itself an oasis of critical inquiry and academic freedom in an increasingly intolerant if not mindless political culture-the artist has always been free to express himself or herself, to mold young minds as much as national opinion, and to engage in larger political and artistic struggles beyond the campus.

In other words, in terms of a nurturing environment, I don’t think it will be an exaggeration to say that we in UP have been more privileged than most others-with grants and prizes to support and recognize our work, a growing acknowledgment of the parities between critical and creative endeavours, and the presence if not the prominence of artists in the life of our academic community. As for means such as better salaries, equipment, materials, and supplies-we will always and surely need more of them. But being resourceful Filipinos, we have been able to do much with what little we have.

In a society like ours, which lionizes artists but refuses or is unable to pay them their due, working and teaching in a university may be the best compromise we can hope for. At least, here, kindred spirits know and may even appreciate what one is doing. Teaching exacts a heavy psychic and even physical toll-about which I’ll have more to say, later­ but compared to other universities, our working hours here in UP are more than tolerable, and leave us with enough time to produce new work, if we’re not too busy trying to make ends meet in other ways.

In solidarity with other government workers, we can and should continue to press for better working conditions and better pay. Starving artists don’t produce sublime art; mostly they simply wither away and die. But you didn’t come here today to be told the obvious.

To get to my published topic, the writer as teacher-or the teacher of writing faces several unique problems or situations.

The first is that even within the relatively hospitable environment of academia, there’s a lingering suspicion that writing-particularly creative writing-can’t be taught, and that, therefore, whatever time and money are devoted to it are essentially wasted, and are better devoted to more traditional teaching and scholarship.

I’m not sure where this perception comes from perhaps the romantic notion that artists are born, and not made.

Curiously enough, this seems to apply only to creative writing. There’s never really been a question, for example, about the necessity for and the place of formal training in music, painting, or dance. Perhaps because of our experience with piano teachers, we have no problems with thinking about music as a discipline requiring rigorous exercises. Similarly, the image of an art teacher guiding a class through an anatomy or portraiture lesson is a familiar one.

But writing? It’s only words. What’s there to teach, and what’s there to learn, that one can’t imbibe directly from one’s own encounters with life and one’s own reading?

Parenthetically, I’ve often observed that-again, curiously enough-music and even math can be intuited, but writing cannot. There have been no real literary prodigies even approaching a Mozart or a Ramanujam. (Well, there was the 18th century poet Thomas Chatterton, whose talent consisted of fooling people into thinking he was a 15th century monk-and who killed himself at the precious young age of 17. But Chatterton was no Shakespeare.)

This suggests to us that writing involves more than a mastery of abstract patterns and concepts. In other words, writing is more than words, more than language. One needs to have lived and to have understood something about life, to have formed an attitude toward that life, and to have found a way of re-expressing it in and through the bold but also the precise indirections that make art out of raw experience.

When we teach writing-and not even creative writing, but composition-to freshmen, we are taking these young people by the hand, helping them make sense out of their lives and their ideas, such as they are. The term “composition” applies as much to the writer as to the text: one composes oneself, drawing out the essentials and leaving out the dross. Creative writing pushes that process one step farther, by turning to the imagination instead of one’s limited experience for material and insight.

The creative writing teacher’s task is not only to encourage but also to guide and to train that imagination, sparing the student from having to re-invent the wheel, but affording him or her the thrill of discovery. Make that “self-discovery”, or finding one’s place in and connection to humanity at large.

It’s an inarguably fine and noble mission. On the other hand, and in economic terms, the teaching of creative writing is brutally inefficient. In a typical workshop class of 20 people, an instructor would be fortunate to find two or three with real talent-an aptitude for language, a maturity of insight, a stylistic flair. In a typical advanced-level workshop-say, the annual Baguio writers workshop–only around five of the chosen 20 will have the discipline and perseverance to still be writing and writing well ten years hence.

So why should even persist, or expend public funds merely to produce boatloads of people who will probably never write the kind of line you will mumble in your half-sleep, or will cry out to the heavens in your most painful or most euphoric moment?

For one, because producing good creative writers is like mining for precious stones, where a ton of ore might have to be torn out of the earth and sifted through to produce one small jewel-grade rock, which has yet to be cut and shaped by expert hands.

It may not always happen that a gifted writer like the late John Gardner will find-as he did in his writing class in Chico State University in 1959-an equally if not even more talented student the likes of Raymond Carver. But when it does, then the teacher feels that one’s classroom labors have been more than amply rewarded.

In this case, Gardner did not simply “find” Carver; he molded him. Carver would later write, in his tribute to his teacher that “He believed in revision, endless revision; it was something very close to his heart and something he felt was vital for writers, at whatever stage of their development. And he never seemed to lose patience reading a student story, even though he might have seen it in five previous incarnations.”

We must also persist in teaching creative writing because the production of new literature reinvigorates and replenishes our imagination as a people, our imagination of ourselves. It is that imagination, however dark, that gives us hope and makes reality tolerable and endurable. The truth of numbers of GDP and ROI and per capita income and population growth rates-is important (I’ve often remarked what a terribly innumerate society we are); but it is a limited and even sometimes deceptive truth that barely begins to tell our story. History does this, but without much latitude for pure conjecture. As in painting and the other arts, creative writers have often simply done, and done first, what critics and theorists would later describe and systematize. Creative writing is a breath of intuition caught on paper.

But I also teach creative writing in the conviction that every student-no matter the person’s background-has at least one good story to tell, and that it is our task as teachers to release that story, to enable the student to make sense of things through artistic indirection, which, like the mirror of Perseus, is sometimes the only way to deal with the truth. Most of my students may come to my classes merely to pass the time, or fulfill a requirement, or satisfy a craving for some critical attention; many may never write another story in their lives. But I want them to come out appreciating and respecting the liberative and ameliorative power of art-which is a fancy way of saying that, for those of us who will never be mistaken on the street for Brad Pitt or Superman, here we can be and do anything, for as long as we make artistic sense.

As K. Patricia Cross, professor emerita of higher education at Berkeley, reminds us, “The task of the excellent teacher is to stimulate ‘apparently ordinary’ people to unusual effort. The tough problem is not in identifying winners: it is in making winners out of ordinary people.”

Anyone can write anything, but not everyone can be a writer. By the same token, not every writer can be a teacher. Creative writing is an intensely private act, while teaching-perhaps only less than politics-is the most public of professions. Time and again we realize that people who have no problems stringing seamless paragraphs of compound-complex sentences can’t give a lecture or an exercise worth an ATM receipt. It takes a different sensibility-and, yes, another set of talents-to teach well and to endure in the classroom.

A big voice helps; but one also needs a whole bunch of P’s-preparation, perseverance, patience, and passion-to move on from week to week without losing one’s wits and one’s humor. I have these P’s in varying quantities, none of them in profusion.

I feel passionate about teaching in this university and in this country, and in giving back to them, through my students, what they have given me. But teaching is not a word I often say in the same breath as love. I cannot honestly say that I love teaching, in the sense of wanting to do it for most of my waking hours, or missing it terribly when I’m doing something else. Most of us in this room know that teaching is one of the most exhausting jobs you can get. The job doesn’t begin or end in the classroom; it just happens there.

Every time I step into a classroom, I pause at the doorway to expel a deep sigh and collect my thoughts, wondering if I have enough to sustain a 90-minute performance. As the American novelist Gail Godwin famously said, “Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theatre.” Indeed I spend the last ten minutes before class writing a script in my head: I will say this; I will do this; I will bring these props and use them at some point; I will ignite an argument; I will leave them with a question that will buzz in their ears for a week. Even bad stories can be turned to great lessons; where’s the teaching point? How can I say it without crushing or diminishing the person?

It doesn’t always work-sometimes I simply collapse into my chair and count away the minutes-but we all attempt some variation of this drill. Basically, we are saying: I will do my best to make this day worth their time and mine. It’s what they expect; it’s what I promised.

It is not love but duty that drives me to teach-although duty, perhaps, can also be a form of love; a love not of the thing itself but of some larger principle. That principle to me is service-service to country, people, university, and service to the great and truly free republic of the imagination.

“How do you know that what you’re doing matters?” I was asked once. “How can you tell if you’re making a difference?” My answer was, I don’t know, I can’t tell. But for a teacher, the only distinguished achievement that counts is the quality of one’s students. You are distinguished by their achievement, and in this sense, I have been distinguished aplenty.

Very recently I lost my temper with a student who was completing an INC. at the very end of the one-year extension period. She could have used that year to get in touch with me for the requirements she had to submit, but instead she waited until the very last few days to try and secure a completion. Her excuse was that she was too poor to see me all the way from Makati. She eventually submitted the requirements and I gave her completion grade-but not before I sent her out of my room in tears, with an outburst she will likely never forget. In retrospect, I could have been kinder; but having been a poor student myself in a rich man’s elementary school, I felt that the best thing I could do for her was to tell her this: “Never use poverty as an excuse for irresponsibility. If you are poor, be even more responsible, and work harder, because you cannot depend on anyone’s pity or sympathy to see you through.”

In the same way, I don’t think that we artists should ever use our art as an excuse for short-changing our students in terms of classroom time, or academic standards. Just like writing, teaching is a discipline, a labour one willingly assumes, a choice one consciously makes and answers for. There will be classes we will miss, just like many other teachers; but it cannot be because we feel deserted by the Muse, or, perhaps worse but more interesting, was partying with her all night.

Artists are often-and I think unfairly-held up as the worst exemplars of morality and decorum, as the bad boys of academe. There’s an interesting corner of the Chronicle of Higher Education that I’d like you to Google, which has a mock advice columnist called Ms. Mentor addressing subjects like “A Portrait of an Artist in Academe.” Let me quote a few choice words of advice from Ms. Mentor for those of my ilk:

“Sexual harassment and peculiar behavior are not unique to creative types,’ of course,” Ms. Mentor says, “but artists seeking permanent jobs in academia do need to take a few mundane steps:

“Be aware of the ‘institutional culture’ and what’s tolerated. Are there others who dress flamboyantly, use cuss words, or discuss intimate personal experiences in class? If there aren’t, don’t be the first.

“Read the faculty handbook, especially for the rules about teacher-student interactions, and especially if you’re in a church-related school.

“Be aware of others’ egos. If your department colleagues are known only locally, they may be embittered souls who won’t be pleased if you brag that you’ve been invited to speak, read, or perform in Japan or Brazil or South Africa. Watch out for envy and revenge.

“Don’t whine. It is a sad truth that the world does not really care whether you ever compose a concerto or paint a work of genius. You must generate your own drive and your own supports.”

Advice well taken, and thank you, Ms. Mentor. I already have a permanent job, but premature death by tenure deserves another advice column and another lecture altogether.

Let me end by noting that in 1981, at the age of 27 and still technically a freshman dropout, I returned to UP to resume my undergraduate studies so I could, as I said, “write, study, and teach for the rest of my life.”

Last week, 25 years later, I launched my fifteenth book, my artistic credo, if you will, titled The Knowing Is in the Writing: Notes on the Practice of Fiction. Next month, I leave with my wife Beng to teach for a semester in the US a course, believe it or not, on the American short story. These past three months, thanks to a new addiction to badminton, I lost 15 pounds.

Interesting things are happening. I’m writing. I’m teaching. I’m alive. What choice do I have but to persist and to persevere?

Thank you all for your attention.