Saturday, January 3, 2009

Jayne Anne Phillips: “Teaching Shoots Writing in the Head”

Many writers confess to a love-hate relationship with teaching, a near-polar ambivalence. On the one hand, teaching appears to occupy—in a total, exclusive, and painfully distracting fashion— a part of the brain that is necessary for writing. On the other hand, teaching is a deeply satisfying and rewarding activity, one that keeps not only the writer, but also civilization itself, alive.

Jayne Anne Phillips, a beloved teacher and writer-in-residence at Boston and Brandeis Universities for many years, had this to say about the pressures of teaching in a 1998 essay that appears in the collection Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction (1998), edited by Will Blythe:

“[T]eaching shoots writing in the head. Sometimes the writer lives on afterward, blinking to say what he wants. But it's like when you stop smoking: the writer quits teaching, and the lungs pick up in ten weeks, the brain relearns its functions. The writer is an autonomic nervous system, a heart that won't stop pumping.”

Ten years later she has succeeded in striking an impressive balance between competing professions. The architect of a newly-created creative writing program at Rutgers Newark that The Atlantic calls, “one of the most exciting in the country,” Phillips has also completed— despite the demands of her first full year as director of the program— a major new novel, Lark and Termite (January 2009).

Note: Fiction writer Jayne Anne Phillips will visit the Writers Institute on Tuesday, January 27, 2009. She will hold an informal workshop at 4:15 PM in Assembly Hall, Campus Center, on the University at Albany’s uptown campus, 1400 Washington Ave. In the evening, at 8 PM, Phillips will read from and discuss her new novel Lark and Termite in the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center on the uptown campus.