Opinion » John Rember

John Rember: Teaching in a Tough Environment

Getting physical with writing


When I taught undergraduates, a number of my classes took advantage of the college's long winter term. A biology colleague and I rented Beckwith's Lodge, a two-bath, four-bedroom cabin in Sawtooth Valley. We recruited 12 students to live there for January and half of February. We offered courses in Backcountry Skiing, the Biology of Extreme Environments, and Environmental Writing.

The cabin was small for 14 people, but we had a strict schedule of cooking and cleaning, and strong rules about respecting the boundaries of others. We went skiing at least four hours every day, no matter the weather. It was important to exhaust everyone before bedtime.

In spite of the 24/7 schedule, personality conflicts, occasional kitchen disaster and limited research materials, most students learned more about writing in six weeks than they did the rest of their college careers. Of course, by writing an hour or two every day, most of them gained a momentum that had been impossible amidst the diversions of the campus.

We didn't have a TV. We didn't have Internet. We didn't have phones. Our computers were antique Macs connected to a dot-matrix printer. Every day, even when we woke up to minus-20 or blizzard conditions, we put on skis and climbed a thousand or so vertical feet and skied back down. Biology students, lacking textbooks to tell them what to look for, sampled life from the edges of hot springs or from under river ice or mountaintop snow and examined it under microscopes, their observations uncorrupted by preconception.

Our texts were fringe books: Peter Hoeg's Borderliners, about the violence inherent to even the most well-meaning systems of education, and Robert Bly's The Sibling Society, on the developmental problems that come when you grow up surrounded by screens and game consoles rather than forest and grassland. We read Ernest Becker's Denial of Death, which softens the tragedy of mortality with the ability of humans to create art. We read books on endangered species that claimed homo sapiens was the most endangered species of all.

Always, we followed E.M. Forster's advice from Howards End, "Only connect." The day's reading, skiing, cooking, sample collecting and even waiting in line for a shower were all raw materials for the day's writing. "Environmental Writing" came to include the whole world, not just Nature with a capital N. In the process, students started seeing themselves as integral to the world, not separate from it.

I came away from this experience with a few lessons of my own. They might seem obvious, but for me they were revelations. They made my own writing less a product of luck and more one of planning. I still depend on writer's luck, but when that luck goes away, as it will now and then, I can still get something on the page if I follow these five guidelines:

1. You'll have more to write about if you pay attention. It wasn't fair, but some students gained far more experience in those six weeks than others. Paying attention is not a matter of resisting distraction. It's a matter of solid engagement with any number of distractions.

2. You'll write better if you take notes. A pencil and notebook will save a lot of material from being lost, even when you have to unzip a parka pocket, pull out your notebook, drop it in the snow, pick it up, dig through the snow again to find the pencil you also dropped, and write down a single word. Sometimes that word will evoke an entire crystalline world.

3. You have to get out the door. Back on campus, I used to assign my comp classes a disturbing task: go through their day and find one aspect of their experience that wasn't once pure idea. Classroom walls were once blueprints. Textbooks were once advances and contracts. Professors were once miserable, half-imaginary grad students. Social lives were bits and bytes punctuated by brief physical encounters during which students themselves existed only as other people's projections. It was an exercise that underscored how hard it is to experience Nature with a capital N, which was once the whole world.

4. You'll write better if you're in good physical shape. After skiing every day, beginning skiers who had once been exhausted by a climb of a few hundred feet were climbing and skiing 8,800-foot Copper Mountain. People who once struggled to write a sentence were writing pages. People once deep into narcissism could write about their own boundaries and the boundaries of others.

5. You're not designed for an entirely artificial world. For most of us, however, getting away from the artificial is impossible. Even on our ski trips, we were equipped with nylon and Gore-Tex, fiberglass skis, avalanche beacons, aluminum ski poles and polarized sunglasses. These things allowed us to survive Sawtooth Valley winters, but they also formed--sometimes literally--the lenses through which we saw Sawtooth Valley. Reconnecting with the real requires a careful identification of the artificial, and compensation for its many distortions.

More than a decade has passed since I taught writing around a wood stove in a log cabin while subzero winds drifted snow onto the windowsills, but it remains my highest and best teaching experience. It wasn't my teaching skills that made it happen, though. It was creating a circumstance where students could begin to enter the world that hides behind the mask of civilization, and start to describe it with careful and perceptive words.

Adapted from John Rember's MFA in a Box blog, mfainabox.com.