CNF: Writer/Teacher or: Protect Me From What I Want

by Stace Budzko

Students will look at you like you know something. Not in the typical whatever posture of undergraduate indifference, but rather in that you wrote that inquiry. Their wonder feels good. In a way it strikes you as a badge of honor, this questioning. Secretly, you appreciate the academic cred you’ve somehow garnered by encouraging characters who, like yourself, do slightly naughty things, offer inappropriate truths, routinely fail in their desires.

Such is your calling.

How does the cliché go—write what you know?

Ok, to a degree you agree. But always measured against the critical question of any worthwhile expression: Do these lives live among us? Likewise, in the work you seek to publish, in the narratives you attempt to teach, the reader should swoon and suffer and think anew when presented with a dangerous risk. This is your gospel. That struggle for everyday grace.

On the page.

In the classroom.

So while students no doubt focus on whispery things such as your reputation for classroom moodiness or if the characters in your stories are actually you—there’s another thought: the terrific dare of imaginative ideas. In that moment, when confronted by blank paper or just before entering workshop, you are overcome by the affliction of want. To present a stunning fiction lesson, to teach that next smart persuasion – always with the imminent threat of failure.

How’s the other cliché read—there’s nothing to writing, just sit at a typewriter and bleed.

Again, you respect the attitude. And never far away the inescapable truth of our finer empathies: Why care? It’s in this hour you realize that to do anything well is to find yourself in the work. Completely. Which, in itself sounds good, but guarantees jack squat. So instead of focusing on publication, career, reputation, you zero in on the humble act of purposeful writing.

And, as we know, this can be boiled down to one thing: actually giving a shit.

It wasn’t any professor who taught you this. Not the published authors who took you under their wing either. Well intentioned as they were, each of those influences came up shy in the true measure of practical learning—the vulnerability of self.

At least as you learned it.

Here’s why. Mr. Farrelly-Plourde. Your 6th grade teacher. Not once do you recall him teaching from a book, from notes, from a predictable source. When it came to actual knowledge, say in Social Studies, it was always him and you and George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” on a record player that made you see how language can be an incredibly dangerous thing. Or, when reading Henry Miller in honors English, a light bulb flash that censorship has everything to do with ignorance, not an excitable mind. And in Economics, a b/w image of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” was a recognizable measure of basic suffering—from where your empathy sprung.

As you write this, you can relate. When things went sideways at home, back in 6th grade, you can appreciate the controversy of emerging ideas now. As your mother went away for yet another electroshock treatment, you are more prepared today to grapple with broken characters, thanks to this virtue. When your father quit his job in protest of working conditions at the plant, years ago, you’re more encouraging of honest prose and verse with your students, because of this want to find our better self. And yes, grace.

Soon, someday, we face what is lovely and lost in the heart and mind.

Perhaps our understanding begins with the everyday fear of new experiences.

Into the classroom we go.

Stace Budzko has been published in Southeast Review, New World Writing, Versal, Upstreet, Necessary Fiction, Hint Fiction, Press 53, PANK, Hobart, elimae, The Los Angeles Review, Night Train, The Collagist, Field Guide to Flash Fiction, Brevity & Echo, Flash Fiction Forward and elsewhere. Screen adaptations of his work, “How to Set a House on Fire”; “North End, 2010”; and “Why I Don’t Keep A Daily Planner” have received numerous awards and showcases. At present, he is an instructor at Emmanuel College as well as Grub Street, Boston. 

Tell us (please!) anything you can about the origins, writing, revision, and/or anything else about this piece.

Process: Originally, I presented a longer version of this piece to essay and fiction instructors at a reading in Boston. It took on personal meaning when I eventually pulled my head out of my ass only to be confronted by one of the true tenants of writing – the struggle for meaningful grace, and then by the necessity of compression for the journal. So cut, cut, cut. There’s no magic formula for appreciating this technique, sadly. At the end of the day it’s just you, the page, and the terrific dare of imaginative ideas. In those words you wait and hope for the short, sharp shock of language to present itself, often in less. Then, maybe only then, we might hear the music of our work.


Check out the write-up of the journal in The Writer.

Matter Press recently released titles from Meg Boscov, Abby Frucht, Robert McBrearty, Tori Bond, Kathy Fish, and Christopher Allen. Click here.

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