Hey readers! Superstition Review is proud to announce that Ruben Quesada, a former faculty member at Eastern Illinois University who was featured in the Poetry section of Issue 13, has been named a faculty member at the UCLA Extension, and will be teaching a course on Poetry and Popular Culture alongside Rosebud Ben-Oni this summer. Do yourself a favor, and check out Ruben Quesada’s poem “On Witness” here, and stay tuned to the blog for more updates on the beautiful happenings here at Superstition Review.
The Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at ASU is proud to offer four creative writing classes through the Piper Writers Studio. Classes are taught by acclaimed and award-winning writers from the community, and cover topics such as first-draft novel writing, novel revisions, persona poetry, and creative non-fiction.
The faculty for the Fall 2016 session of the Piper Writers Studio are:
- Michael A Stackpole, a New York Times best-selling author known for his extensive fantasy and science fiction work in the Stars Wars, Conan, and World of Warcraft universes. Stackpole will be teaching Winning NaNoWriMo Tuesdays, October 4 – 25, 2016 from 6 – 8 p.m.
- Carol Test, an award-winning short-story writer and former editor in chief of the Sonora Review who has taught workshops for the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, Phoenix College, and Mesa Community College. Test will be teaching Remodel Your Novel: Five Key Scenes for Fiction Writers Wednesdays, October 5 – 26, 2016 from 6 – 8 p.m.
- Marshall Terrill, veteran film, sports, music, history and popular culture writer with over 20 books to his credit, including bestselling biographies of Steve McQueen, Elvis Presley, and Pete Maravich. Terrill will be teaching Beyond the Facts: Writing Compelling Non-fiction Wednesdays, October 5 – 26, 2016 from 6 – 8 p.m.
- Lois Roma-Deeley, an author with three collections of poetry and numerous publications in anthologies in journals who founded the creative writing program at Paradise Valley Community College and received an Artist Research and Development Grant from the Arizona State Commission on the Arts in 2016. Roma-Deeley will be teaching Another Voice: Creating Memorable Poetic Personas Saturday, October 22, 2016 from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Classes are open to individuals of all backgrounds, skill levels, and experiences, and are designed to fit around the schedules of working adults (taking place weekday evenings or weekend afternoons). Most classes are held at the Piper Writers House, the historic President’s Cottage on the ASU Tempe Campus. Class sizes range between 8 and 12 students in order to ensure an intimate, individualized educational experience, and start at $75 (with discounts for individuals who are members of the Piper Circle of Friends). Classes can also qualify for professional development credit with the Arizona Department of Education. Individuals can register for classes through the Piper Center’s website until Monday, October 3rd, 2016.
For more information, please visit the Piper Center’s website at http://piper.asu.edu/programs/piper-writers-studio/current-courses.
When I say Mrs. Dalloway is unforgettable, I don’t mean that I didn’t accidentally leave my copy by my bedside table on a day I was supposed to teach with it. Two days, in fact. It’s the beginning of the semester, and my students keep calling me “Doctor” like we’re suddenly in a hospital. I have a last name, but maybe they’ve forgotten it and are embarrassed about asking. For my part, I was afraid to ask them for page numbers and look like an idiot professor who forgets his book (twice); therefore I kept beginning my questions with, “Just off the top of your head…”
I think I covered fairly well, thanks to the memorable antics of Sally Seton—you know her—Mrs. Dalloway’s youth-hood friend who, to my students’ delight, once forgot her bath sponge and ran naked through the crowded house to fetch it. “I like Sally because she doesn’t care what people think,” a shy student said from the third row. Me, I like Sally because she doesn’t let embarrassment get in the way, and this may be why she’s reached literature stardom even though she shines for only a dozen or so pages of the twentieth century.
Sally knows something that we writers sometimes forget.
You’re at your writing desk, and you have a maybe-great idea, but it’s actually a horrible idea. Because mixing metaphors is always a horrible idea. Wrong, wrong, wrong—do you want people to think you’ve never read a good book or attended a workshop in your whole life? A horrible idea—except maybe this one risky time it could work? Hamlet, after all, does say, without apology, “…to take arms against a sea of troubles.”
In my daydream, Ezra Pound sits at his desk chewing his lips and thinking, “Will anyone take a two-line poem about a metro station seriously?”
Other wrong ideas include putting on a jumpsuit and pretending to be a dancing cat. (You’ve seen this?) Maybe in the production days of this video, those members of Ballet Zoom didn’t admit to their families exactly what they were up to. Maybe when their spouses or children asked, “How was work today?” they changed the subject. Or maybe their cheerful leaps weren’t just performance, but a sincere, artistic moment. Either way, look at the joy they’ve given many of us viewers now.
We often hide from potential embarrassment, but everything new is embarrassing. Every poem, essay, or story draft is gangly before it outgrows adolescence. And taking a risk gives others permission to do the same. From time to time, let’s all dare to eat a peach, even if we might end up with food between our teeth.
So yes, I forgot the book like an idiot, and both days turned out fine. Sally Seton forgot her soap, which led my shy student to speak up in class. And in offices, and kitchens, and empty corners, many of us heard that 1970s beat, and—even if we won’t admit it—tossed up our hands as if they were feline paws and bounced them a bit, laughing like (to mix a metaphor) happy hyenas at a birthday party.
I teach 11th grade English at a high school located in downtown Portland, Oregon. I see my students every day, and as you might imagine, I have my ups and downs. Some days, when the lesson plan is solid and I’m properly caffeinated, I feel like I’m nailing it. The conversation is great, kids are forming opinions and getting passionate about the subject matter, and any minute my trophy will arrive for teacher of the year. But other times, I can’t help but wonder why somebody hasn’t come along and yanked me off the stage already.
I do a lot of talking to the students, and in turn the students do a lot of talking with me and with each other. Mostly, we talk about literature and writing. Stuff like tone, character, plot structure, symbolism, the works. How we feel about the characters. How we feel about the author. How we suspect the author might want us to feel about the characters. I really do love it, and I consider myself incredibly lucky that I get to have these conversations all the time with people who are engaged and informed and excited to learn.
But when it comes to writing, there’s a limit to the value of talking. At a certain point, I truly believe, you have to shut up and listen, and not just to other people, but to the world itself.
So on one particular afternoon, when I saw that the conversation was dragging, the eyelids were getting heavy, and the post-lunch yawns were on the creep, I decided that it was no longer time to yap. It was time to take a walk, as a class, around the neighborhood.
Before we set out, I laid down the rules. No talking. No cell phones. Avoid forms of nonverbal communication with each other (e.g. poking, tripping, massaging, mouthing curse words, etc.). We were going to shut up and walk, taking note of anything that we might come across. This, I hoped, was going to be an important lesson on writing.
A few nightmare scenarios ran through my mind just as we set out. The sky might suddenly open up and cast down rain, hail, lightning, brimstone, etc. upon us, sending my tightly organized and mindful class into a frenzied, save-your-own-ass stampede. One of the many disenfranchised individuals camping on the street might decide it’s the right time to take issue with my face. A student might get so absorbed in the present moment that she wanders into the middle of traffic. Or, more realistically, the whole thing will feel weird and just…kind of silly.
But there we were, walking out of the school building and onto the busy sidewalk. We made our way through the city streets silently, a slow-moving mass emitting no sounds except maybe the rhythmic pads and clicks of our shoes against the pavement. On the first block, we carried with us a kind of shrugging sheepishness; we’d pass by people and greet their puzzled expressions with half-smiles, all too aware of our unusual noiselessness. This was a new thing, to simply observe without the distraction of conversation or the filter of a Spotify playlist or podcast in our earbuds. It felt awkward.
Gradually, we settled into it. It’s a totally bizarre and worthwhile feeling to move in a silent group. You feel calm, reflective, but also sort of badass. Based on their quizzical expressions, the people we passed by on the street were unnerved by us. How often do you see a group of 20 teenagers just walking? Not talking, not looking at their phones. Just walking. Were we some kind of cult?
As we waited for the walk signal at an intersection, a blue BMW with tinted windows boomed and rattled past us. From its slightly cracked windows blasted UB40’s “Red, Red Wine.” The car’s presence was enormous. We resisted the immediate urges to laugh, dance, sing along, or scoff. Instead, we just watched as it trundled down the avenue, rippling its effects across the afternoon.
When you’re doing nothing but observing, every movement in the world becomes a story, and every image becomes a composition: construction workers framed by the cubic bones of an unfinished apartment building; the catch and release of cars at a four-way intersection; the violent hock-hock-spit of a red-faced jogger. And, to me at least, an ineffable humor becomes apparent. From a detached eye, the disparate elements of an urban street corner can come together in a cosmic and gentle punchline.
Now, in full disclosure, I have no idea what my students felt about this exercise. I kind of lost track of time, and when we finally arrived back to the classroom the period was just ending. I dismissed the students with a thank you and a nod. Maybe some of them were wondering why we just wasted fifteen minutes of class time. Maybe some of them were just happy to get outside for a little bit. But I prefer to think that a few of them, at least, were genuinely moved by the experience. Maybe they saw the same old neighborhood with a completely new perspective. And that is as good a place as any to begin writing.
A writer always has a mother and a father, who very often have nothing to do with her biological manufacturers; neither does the mother have to be female or father male. A writer also has a husband/wife of whatever gender that sparks off her desire, often not the one who shares her daily bed and bread. The mother is the reason of why she writes at all. The father is the one who actually puts a pen into her hand and presses it onto the paper. The partner is aka, well, her muse.
The first piece ever that a writer produces is usually about one of this trinity. If I am ever invited to contribute to this blog again, I will tell you about the latter two. But today, it is my mother-in-letters, Maria Ivanovna Moskvina. A little vignette in her honour that I would like to share here was written ten years ago to be performed at an international teachers’ conference. It was received very favorably, and I submitted it to a British literary magazine, where it was accepted at once, my very first publication, which gave me the courage to write on, on, and on.
My name is Svetlana. I learn English every day. I am learning English now. I have learnt some English already. I have been learning English for ten years. If I hadn’t been so lucky I would have never had a chance to learn English. Even the gorgeous Present Perfect Progressive have I mastered, and the mysteries of the nebulous Subjunctive Mood, too, as you can well hear, without ever having visited London, which is the capital of Great Britain and stands on the river Thames.
I live in a fuming Eastern-Ukrainian town with dandelions poking through concrete in some places. Grey people swarm into trolley-buses to get to factories in the morning. In the evening they storm groceries to get some sausage for supper.
I don’t mind an hour’s ride to school in a bursting trolley-bus because I am fortunate to go to the only school in the town where English is taught from the first class. Maria Ivanovna, the town’s premium teacher of English, reigns there. We are all in awe of her. She makes us meek and silky just with the glance of her bespectacled eyes. Maria Ivanovna takes a syringe and injects a dose of success right into our assiduous bottoms. She says, ‘Don’t you dare come to see me in ten years unless you are driving a black Mercedes, working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and own an apartment in Moscow.’
We try to detect Maria Ivanovna’s mood and the degree of her irascibility by her clothes. Experience has shown that Maria Ivanovna is in the worst of her moods when she wears blue Margaret Thatcher suits. It is then that she throws objects around and bangs our heads against the blackboard at even the tiniest mistakes. On the contrary, the nicest queen-like half-smile crosses her face when she wears red. It is usually then that her ears are adorned with rubies the size of peas, and, believe it or not, it is their warm shimmer that melts my brown school uniform and my skin under the uniform and pours the mellow melody of the strange language directly into my veins.
I am jealous of Maria Ivanovna’s jewels, the more so because I know that I myself could get rubies like this by right of inheritance, but I never will. They say my great-grandmother Celia was married to a rich merchant in Odessa. She was an illustrious beauty. She spoke five languages, had relatives in London and never condescended to wearing such vulgar jewels as rubies. Even at the market place, accompanied by her kitchen-maid and a drunkard hired for a kopeck to carry the heavy baskets, she chose the best vegetables and chicken for a Sabbath meal wearing no less than diamonds the size of cherries.
But then the Revolution swept the wealth of the family away together with the diamonds torn directly from her earlobes by a waif on the streets of hungry Odessa. It was only in the thirties that Celia’s surviving children were able to afford to give their mother earrings albeit only rubies the size of peas, so she had to condescend to the red.
The earrings were inherited through the female line. When Celia died, my grandmother wore them, and after that, my mother. Unfortunately, my mother lost them shortly before I went to school. Not once was she reprimanded for that.
I gaze at Maria Ivanovna in scarlet glow and imagine myself not in a black Mercedes, not in the ministry of foreign affairs and not in a flat facing the Kremlin. In my dreams I go to London, step onto a boat on the river Thames and meet a whiskered young lord whose accent is the finest RP. We fall in love and marry and live in his castle with a ghost. To the ghost I also speak in my own finest RP.
I gaze at Maria Ivanovna in scarlet, she is gleaming. I think how lucky I am to be sitting here. Everybody says that it is impossible without connections or heavy bribes, customary and going without saying nowadays, but my parents are ordinary clerks, they have neither money nor connections. English equals freedom and wealth, though nobody dares to say that in our concrete town. So parents tacitly gamble all they possess on their children’s future, because English is a spaceship, a password, a catapult to a different, perilous, much railed against and forbidden world, a world teeming with bright colours and ingenious people.
It is widely known that a healthy bribe is a passport into Maria Ivanovna’s classroom. They say she receives several eager mothers in her flat simultaneously, and she has them all wait in different rooms and holds her audience with them separately so that they can’t see each other. There is even a wild story passed on in a whisper that Maria Ivanovna once locked a mother in the bathroom because all the other rooms had been occupied.
When asked how I had obtained a place, my mother always said, ‘it was your fortune, there was that one last place left.’ I finished school and tried to catapult myself into the longed-for perilous world. The concrete curtain fell and the cord of fate connecting me with Maria Ivanovna was cut.
I must confess I’m neither exactly in London nor exactly married to an English lord, neither exactly living in a castle nor exactly speaking RP. I haven’t fulfilled Maria Ivanovna’s black Mercedes precepts either, but I am trying to teach the English I learned from her to German children, who are not in the least fascinated by London, which is the capital of Great Britain and stands on the river Thames. They are not in the least in awe of me either, and if anything, it is I who would need to bribe them to listen.
Last Sunday I was marking the exercise-books and cursing loudly when the doorbell rang. A man with a concrete-like greyness about him was standing at my doorstep. I had never seen him before. ‘Is your name Svetlana?’ he asked me in my hometown vernacular. ‘Yes it is,’ I answered, surprised. ‘I was asked to hand you this,’ he said, and gave me a plastic bag. Before I could open my mouth he vanished into the dusk of the hallway.
Inside the bag there was a folded letter and a small tightly cellotaped box.
‘Dearest Svetlana,’ the letter said, ‘you forgot me, who taught you the Subjunctive Mood and told you all about London, the capital of Great Britain, and this is a shame. You were my most diligent pupil and I still remember your charmed face. It was a pity to bang it against the blackboard. So for you to remember me I bequeath to you the contents of this box.’
I undid the cellotape and opened the box. The rubies the size of peas shone up on me, unwinding a caravan of scenes and memories, jewels of the vanished world.
I learn English every day. I am learning English now. I have learnt some English already. I have been learning English for thirty years. Even the gorgeous Present Perfect Continuous have I mastered and the mysteries of the nebulous Subjunctive Mood as well. Had it not been for my mother, who had spent the spookiest hour in her life in my teacher’s bathroom locked from outside to offer her the only family treasure, I wouldn’t be struggling for words to tell you this story now, with rubies the size of peas in my ears.
I teach English for a living. I primarily teach the composition sequence to freshmen students at my university, but I also teach creative writing, and now and again, literature classes. Sometimes, getting my students excited about reading and writing feels like trying to coax my kids to eat the green stuff on their plates. I know why reading matters in my life – helping my students see why it is relevant in their lives is often another thing entirely.
This semester, on the first day of classes, I asked my Studies in Literature students why it was important to read literature. It was one of those general, ice-breaker-type questions that I tend to throw out into the mix on the first day. It helps me gauge where my students are coming from – and to get a sense, early on, of the dynamics between them. There was an awkward silence for a few minutes, until the answers began to flow. I wrote their responses on the board.
To be entertained
To transcend loss
To confront big truths (life, and death, and everything in-between)
Because we have to
“Do we?” I asked. “Do we have to read?”
Of course, the answer to that question was ‘yes’ – because, the students told me, if they didn’t read they wouldn’t get the grades they wanted. But I encouraged them to think about reading as a necessity for living; that books provide us with the roadmaps we need to navigate through life. Books are like manuals created just for us – we can even personalize them to our needs and liking. Through them we can learn to be more empathetic and compassionate; we can learn our histories, and those of others; we can learn how to treat the living, and the dying, too. We can learn about hate, and love, and forgiveness. We can learn about motherhood and fatherhood, and sisterhood and brotherhood, and try those roles on from the safety of our couches. Without reading, everything is one-dimensional. Without books, our worlds are narrow and impossibly limited. Sure we can live that way, I pointed out, but would we want to? I mean, really, and truly?
I am lucky in that I get to see firsthand the impact that literature has on a life. While my students do not find all that they are assigned to read entertaining, I know they learn from some of it. Only last week, a student came shyly up to me after class to tell me how much she got from Helena Viramontes’s story The Moths. This story, narrated by a 14-year old girl, is about family, and loss, and love (how often it is difficult to separate the three). While my student did not see herself perfectly mirrored in the narrator’s story, she had an epiphany-type moment after reading it, and she was able to look back on her own 14-year old self with a new clarity. She could now confront some Big Truths about her own family – ones that she had buried deep inside of her. I’ll never forget the student athlete who gobbled up Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone (I never knew people could write about stuff like that, he told me), or, when I taught a night class one semester, the veteran whose voice (and hands) shook with emotion when it was his turn to share a favorite passage from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
I see the impact of books reflected all the time in my own kids. For example, driving to Harris Teeter with my 11-year old daughter last weekend, I found myself, improbably, discussing T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It began when she unexpectedly quoted the first two lines while we sat in traffic at a light.
“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky…Do you know that poem?” she asked from the backseat.
“I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” I replied. “One of my favorite poems! How do you know it?”
She reminded me that Hazel Grace recites the poem in her Favorite Book of All Time: The Fault in Our Stars. She read the book earlier in the summer and, at the time of writing this, has re-read it five times, and watched the movie twice. (This excludes all the viewing and re-viewing of the movie trailer that happened before I decided she was allowed to watch the entire film.) The book changed her life as a young reader – threw the door to a whole new reading experience (and world) wide open. Green’s book led her to Eliot’s poem, which in turn led us into what can only be described as an absolutely delightful yet mind-blowing discussion of Eliot’s poem while we were headed to complete a very mundane errand. Talking with her about The Love Song absolutely made my day. If she hadn’t read TFIOS when, unprompted by teachers or homework obligations, would she have otherwise turned to the Internet to look up the poem by herself? I couldn’t stop thinking about this. The fact that Green took Eliot’s poem and, coming as it does from Hazel Grace, made it new and accessible and interesting and cool and relevant to countless young (and yes, old) readers all over the world – young readers who would perhaps not even have given the poem a second glance outside of the world of the novel – that right there is what books can do; that’s the kind of power they have, and it’s pretty staggering when you think about it.
So, why do we read? We read:
To be entertained
To transcend loss
To confront big truths (life, and death, and everything in-between)
Because we have to – we really, really, just have to.
About a month ago, before any of the awards were given out, my wife and I went with our 14 year old son to see Whiplash, one of the Best Picture nominees for 2014. We went partly because the movie was getting critical praise, but mostly because our son, who is strongly considering a career in music, really wanted to see it. After watching the movie I found it unusually hard to characterize my feelings about it. Was it a “great movie,” as some of my writing students were emphatically declaring the other day? Well, yes, I guess it does rank as that. Certainly it is well-filmed and well-acted—J. K. Simmons without question deserved the Oscar he won for his performance as Terrence Fletcher, the insanely aggressive teacher—and I know it affected me more than any other movie I’ve seen in recent memory. In fact, Whiplash absolutely hit me in the gut. But here’s the thing: The effect it had on my gut is that it made me sick.
I found the movie very hard to watch even if it is brilliantly put together, and even if the young protagonist, Andrew Neiman, is a very sympathetic character. But let me clarify, it wasn’t hard to watch because of the way the Fletcher psychologically and even physically abuses Andrew. As a teacher of creatively ambitious students, I despise and reject every single teaching “method”–if one can call them that–that Fletcher espouses. But it’s not his methods that made me sick. What made me sick is that the movie endorses them. Early on, sensing where it was going, I turned to my wife and whispered something to the effect of “I hope they’re not saying this is okay.” I watched on, waiting and hoping for the “not okay” message that never came. No, what came was the exact opposite, which is why to my students’ announcement that Whiplash is a “great movie” I finally replied: “It may be a great movie, but it’s not a good one.” Because a good movie does not make you leave the theatre revolted and heartsick, with disgusting and dangerous notions echoing through your brain.
For those who haven’t seen Whiplash and don’t intend to, here’s a quick summary. Feel free to skip ahead if you already know the movie. Andrew Neiman, a talented, hard-working, and, most of all, ambitious young jazz drummer enters the prestigious Schaffer Music Academy in New York. Andrew is soon noticed by Fletcher, who promotes him to the “A team,” so to speak; that is, Fletcher’s orchestra. Fletcher’s teaching methods amount to psychological torture and physical demands that border on the lunatic. He literally makes Andrew bleed, but even worse are the constant mind games he plays, as he pits students against each other, lies to them, and consciously undervalues them. His great mantra is that Charlie Parker only became Bird because somebody threw a cymbal at his head. It’s a long story, but Andrew is finally cut from Fletcher’s orchestra and expelled from the school—but not because he isn’t a good player. He reluctantly agrees to participate (on an anonymous basis) in a lawsuit against Fletcher, the result being that Fletcher is fired from Schaffer.
Later, Andrew discovers that Fletcher is playing in a neighborhood jazz bar, and he stops in to listen. Fletcher sees Andrew afterwards and they have a come-to-Jesus meeting in which Andrew seems to abandon all his former reservations about the teacher. Fletcher, in turn, asks Andrew to play drums in an orchestra he has put together for a festival gig at Carnegie Hall. It’s Andrew’s big chance to return, and to be noticed—in a big way! But as it turns out, the request is a set-up. Fletcher—who, it turns out, knew all along that it was Andrew who brought the lawsuit against him—doesn’t inform Andrew about the new song he intends to open the first set with, and Fletcher doesn’t provide him with the sheet music. Andrew tries to fake it but fails miserably. It looks like it’s all over for him. He walks off stage humiliated. But then, rather than quit, he walks back on stage and starts drumming out the opening of “Caravan,” forcing the orchestra and Fletcher to follow along, as if this is planned. Long story short, Andrew gives the drumming performance of his life, including a ridiculously elongated solo. At the very end of the movie, he and Fletcher smile at each other, as if this level of accomplishment is what the teacher had wanted all along, planned for all along, and finally got.
Some disagree about the meaning of that last crucial scene, but it seems pretty clear to me that no matter what Fletcher really intended to have happened, he comes out smelling like a rose. Either his former student, the one who brought a lawsuit against him, would leave thoroughly humiliated by the teacher’s crafty if evil power play—proving that you never mess with the man—or the former student would use the humiliation to come back at him and prove to be Fletcher’s greatest accomplishment as a teacher. Fletcher would have found and formed the next Bird, so to speak. (I know, I know. Bird was not a drummer.) Either way, Fletcher wins. He earns respect. And that’s what really bothers me about the movie. Not only does it not do away with Terrence Fletcher, it winds up endorsing his many misguided and clichéd notions about the art of teaching.
As others commenting on this movie have made clear, there’s no way anyone as openly abusive as Fletcher would be allowed to teach in the first place. You won’t find teachers like him in music schools if only for the fact that the students at those schools are paying ungodly amounts to go there—and not for the sake of being abused. But that’s really beside the point for me. Whether a Terrence Fletcher actually exists is immaterial. What matters is that teachers like him exist in the public’s imagination, and I fear—in fact, I know—that they are romanticized to the point that bad teaching practices become operative cultural myths.
What myths and practices am I talking about? First, the idea, openly embraced by Fletcher, that everything he does as a teacher is for the sake of that one gifted student. He breezily dismisses any and all concern for the rest of his charges. Problem is, all of his students pay tuition. So a teacher who really is one tries to educate them all. It’s called teaching. You try to help all of them, understanding that of course in the end they will each reach different levels of achievement. Because that’s your job. Second, how can Terrence Fletcher, before he decides which particular student should be the focus of his psychopathic attentions, be so sure which student is the one and which isn’t? I had a teacher in grad school who claimed he could tell if you were a poet or not after reading only three lines. Three lines? This is so stupid a claim (and I knew it was stupid then) I don’t even know where to begin. Human beings develop at remarkably different rates. Some shine out loud when they are very young; some shine only a little but shine more and more the older they get. Some shine brightly, but then are too distracted or too lazy or too unfortunate to ever shine any better. Some shine bright for a minute and then burn out. Some shine brightly and only get brighter as they age (e.g., W.B. Yeats). No one can or should make absolute statements about any person’s talent based on one point in that person’s working career. And besides, poems are as different as they come. I don’t mean from poet to poet but within the work of a single poet, even during the same period of her writing life. Three lines of one poem is so paltry a sample of a person’s work it’s laughable. To claim you can judge a poet after three lines—or a musician after three seconds (as Fletcher does repeatedly in the movie)—is to prove oneself ignorant of both human nature and the arts.
An even bigger problem with the myth is that even for the gifted student, Fletcher’s methods are not only not productive; they are counterproductive. No one realizes his inner potential by being ridiculed and humiliated and insulted. That is one of the most toxic, and most enduring, misconceptions of the teaching profession. What happens when someone is ridiculed and insulted is that they are driven away. They are shut down. They become afraid. No one who is afraid ever makes great art. No one who is afraid ever actualizes anything. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not of the school that says you should only praise students. I don’t think any student of mine has ever written something that could not be improved and that I haven’t said as much to them. But at the same time, constructive criticism can and should be delivered without insulting and dismissing the writer of the words. Without claiming that they shouldn’t even try. That’s what you should never do. Because you don’t have the right to. And because there are simply too many cases where teachers who say such things wind up being wrong and looking foolish.
I’m not sure if it’s widely understood just how much of a myth the myth of the bastard teacher is. Far from guaranteeing that the great artists come, there’s no telling how many great artists have been stymied and blunted by the arrogant slash-and-burn school of instruction. Unfortunately, there are people in the world—like the writers of Whiplash—who believe that intimidation, maligning, and mind games really do work as teaching tools. In fact, I’m willing to bet that in the general population there are a higher percentage who believe that this is how “real” artists are shaped than who know better. I can swear to you that there are many people in the world who believe that a teacher of writing should just tell some of her students to give up. (Just ask my wife how many of her Teaching Creative Writing students have asked her exactly when they are supposed to tell a young student this. The ironic thing is that these people are almost never good writers themselves.) The charismatic teacher who dominates his room like an old school general may be cinematic, but he’s really of no use to anyone or anything except his own ego. Actual teachers know that there is no one-note system guaranteed to reach all your students or even all your best students. Every single student learns a little differently and that makes broadly effective teaching an amazingly complex and multi-dimensional endeavor, one that requires knowledge and smarts and confidence, but even more intuition and mind-reading, acute sensitivity and the ability on rare occasions to turn off that sensitivity; good humor, an infinite amount of patience, as well as the ability to become impatient once in a while. See, it really is a ridiculously complicated task. But that’s no fun for screenwriters. You can’t make an unforgettable and cinematic a**hole out of complication, intuition, and patience.
But you can get J.K. Simmons an Oscar. And you can get a lot of college students talking.
[Note: This is an updated version of a post that originally appeared on Vanderslice’s own blog Payperazzi.]