Around two weeks ago, I collected thirty-page manuscripts from students in my college’s capstone creative writing course, Portfolio Development.
The work appeared– as I required– in enormous binders, which involved creative variation on three-hole punching or plastic sleeves, and the final versions were contextualized by drafts, supplemented by artist statements or query letters and their drafts, and multiple copies with the comments of their classmates.
Probably most people reading this blog post would consider me insane. Why not have students do all of this online, comments and drafts included? They’d say, “It would save trees.” I’d counter with graveyards of obsolete computers in Third World landfills. They’d say, “It would be more efficient.” I’d counter with plenty of stories about files that don’t load or get erased entirely.
All of that aside, here’s the truth of the matter. I’m just odd, old-fashioned, and analog. But I was assigned to teach a course about “the writing life” which, to my mind, involves not only writing, but a good deal of reading, as well as research on a publishing landscape which is changing in directions I find terrifying.
I love my students. Most of them knew each other from former creative writing classes, and they reminded me of a basket full of happy puppies, climbing all over each other, showing up long before class began, sharing pictures on their smartphones, talking about who-knows-what, maybe something literary.
So…I started coming early too. And they stopped talking. Mostly. I might have imagined it. In any event, I would putter around awkwardly with my big stacks of analog debris, and try not to get in the way.
Is it a good thing when your students love each other more than they love you?
At some point, I understood that for most of these students, their concerns were not my concerns. Their hopes were not my hopes. And most of all, their fears were not my fears. My boycott of Amazon was something of a running joke. For many of them, self-publishing was not only a viable option, but preferable to wrangling with a corporation which would essentially own their work. They are optimistic where I’m cranky. More to the point, they are open where I’m closed.
So what could I do? I can’t pretend to be someone I’m not. Ultimately, I can demand coherence, precision, and deliberate choices. Most of all, I can insist that they read and read in ways that can inform those choices, and push them to revise and revise. But how much difference will those factors make in the years to come when everything is uploaded, and content is always free and never fixed?
Students, I admire you. I promised you a blog post, and I know you’ll read this as I intend it to be read, as a tribute. After that final class,you exchanged phone numbers, and I dragged my box of binders home, feeling a little blue. You’ll go where I can’t go. You’ll do what I can’t do. I also fear for you in ways you can’t fear for yourselves, maybe.
I returned the portfolios to my students last week in my office, a few days before graduation. The final conferences were enormously gratifying. One-on-one, we didn’t talk about the future of publishing. We talked about the future of their work, in detail. Michael will keep gathering followers on his food blog but will also go to Panama to research his novel-in-progress. Francina already has thousands of readers of her book Real Muslim Housewives of Philadelphia but is determined to apply what she has learned about the craft of fiction to make the book meet her own exacting standards.
In the end, what I have to give my students isn’t any special knowledge about the changing landscape of publishing. I can give them the quality of attention they deserve which, in this fragmented world, may be a rare thing.
Ultimately, no market can determine a writer’s aspirations. Maybe a teacher helps a little. And more to the point, my former students will support each other in forms I can barely imagine.