My Secret Diary -- Part 1 (1983-84)
I have arrived at Creative Writing Stalag 17, otherwise known as the English Department at the University of T____. I have never been to T____ before, and I was disappointed that it is hot. Worse, as a mere visiting lecturer, I have to share a cell with two TAs.
My crime? I am a writer. While this is not formally a chargeable offense, the fact that I wish to eat and live in a domicile, but without actually working at a job, condemns me to imprisonment in this wasteland. And I was also convicted with extenuating circumstances: I have talent.
September 6, 1983
Beginning of the first week of torture sessions, also known as grading my students' papers. One writes a science fiction fantasy obviously lifted from American television; another a ridiculous romance more suited for a scandalous tabloid, and a third a thinly-veiled tale of his first sexual experiences.
Red liquid runs off the table where I am being tortured. I suppose it was a mistake to actually use red ink in a fountain pen. Note to self: get red pencil.
October 5, 1983
I try to begin each class with a bit of Proust, Stendahl, or Trollope. One of the students snickered every time I said "Trollope;" he thought I meant a whore. Faced with À la recherche du temps perdu, only one student had a question: "Has anybody ever read this whole thing?"
I moved on to a discussion of point of view. A student wearing what I later discovered was a cap associated with the American sport of baseball offered this observation: "So, no matter how many people you got, third person is only one person."
Only two more months before I go to Ibiza.
November 14, 1983
The grounds are a sea of orange, less from any autumn foliage -- there seems to be no real autumn in this accursed place -- than from supporters of the University's American football team. Football, as it is practiced here, seems not merely an athletic contest, but a collection of crypto-fascist symbols and roles that recall preparations for war. I thought the United States got itself into enough wars without having to re-enact them, but apparently they do it to keep in fighting psychological trim.
Even my cellmates are caught up in the excitement. One of them -- a callow blonde girl who appeared today in an orange-and-white sweater set, orange trousers, and cowgirl boots -- took it upon herself to explain the rivalry between the University of T____ and their arch-enemies, called "Aggies." Later, a marching band trooped past our window, but I could only hear, not see, them. The window is high up to discourage escape attempts.
February 20, 1984
A new crew of loutish Southerners and would-be hippies. The hippies here think they're in San Francisco, the Southerners seem to yearn for Yoknapatawpha County, though they've never heard of it. Despairing of teaching them European literature, I've tried to interest them in Henry James. No luck.
Yesterday I endured that particular form of torture known as a faculty cocktail party. I had to talk to a little man who seemed particularly interested in South Africa, but when he found out I didn't own any slaves, tottered off in disappointment.
Look around you, I wanted to say: we are all prisoners. But I didn't say anything, because I was afraid they would take away the brie.
March 1, 1984
Only two weeks till the spring holiday, called here "Spring Break." That's what I will do if I am given any more essays like the one today, titled "My Friend Burrball," about a cat. The essay's theme was "Does sleeping count as a hobby? Because my Burrball is best at it." That's a distillation; the essay was nowhere near as succinct. F.
April 17, 1984
The students have taken to asking me, "Will this be on the exam?" After weeks of saying there would be no exam per se, I was taken aback to find that exams are mandatory.
What to do? I could simply take a story and an essay at random from the piles of student homework, hand it out to the class and say, "Correct this." But they haven't learned anything all semester, so it wouldn't be fair. I might as well give them a chapter of Faulkner and ask them to punctuate it.
May 20, 1984
Exams are over. I toss them all, ungraded, in the trash outside the Mathematics Building and go back to my cell to compose grades. Long ago I decided these would be strictly based on attendance. Perfect attendance gets a C.
May 24, 1984
I saw my cellmates for the last time today, and when I mentioned that, based on my good behavior, the authorities have granted me time at Yaddo, neither of them knew what that was. This despite the fact they are both Ph.D. candidates in English at the University of T____. That says it all.
June 5, 1984
To refresh myself, I spent a week in Paris with my husband, followed by a week driving in the south. I recall that, of my 100 students at the University of T____, only ten of them had ever been outside the United States, but of those, six had only gone to Nuevo Laredo. I have been to 23 countries. Why don't they at least go to France? What's wrong with them?
July 31, 1984
At the Yaddo Minimum Security Facility. I've done more work in six weeks than I have in the previous ten months.
For this, I've seemingly been punished with a trip to that torture facility known as a "writers workshop." I appealed. I know I could finish the second draft of my book if I am given just a little more time here, among the Adirondack chairs.
Then I learned that what I thought was good behavior -- doing my work, exercising my rare Talent -- was in fact dooming me to more hard labor. Now I have to read twelve stories by next Thursday. If you want to call them that.
August 8, 1984
If the University of T____ was a concentration camp, and Yaddo a minimum security facility, what do I call the Napa Valley Writers Workshop? A sort of temporary jail. Every morning, a two-hour session with the would-be writers: housewives, delivery truck drivers, high school teachers, pesticide salesmen, insurance agents, all under the false impression that they can write.
What do they know of Talent? (I've taken to capitalizing it when speaking of my own gift, the better to distinguish it from other so-called talents such as juggling or putting on makeup -- the latter being something one girl at the University of T____ claimed was her great gift. Perhaps -- if she were about to go on camera to read the weather.) They know how to cook a roast, or how to amortize a mortgage, but they know nothing of writing, literature, and great art.
I know about all those things. But I can't teach them. It's unthinkable.