Opinion » John Rember

Teaching Women to Write

A dangerous meditation


During my years of teaching writing, my best students were women in their 40s and 50s, recently divorced, acting in their own self-interest for the first time since they were 15 or so. They worked all their adult lives, devoting decades to raising children, raising husbands, saving money for children's college funds, making do with less so their families could do with more. All too often, kids hadn't turned out so well and husbands had left them for people younger, less exhausted and more tolerant of male vanity and self-delusion.

Some of these students were finishing undergraduate degrees interrupted by marriage or pregnancy or both. The others were in a low-residency MFA program, learning to write fiction after living lives that had been revealed to be fiction.

They were fierce, angry and intellectually hungry students who demanded substance for their tuition money. If they didn't understand what I was saying, they would keep asking pointed questions until what I was trying to get across became clear to all of us.

Their presence made for a better classroom, because most of the younger students either thought they already knew what I was talking about even if they didn't, or didn't have anything to say, even though they were in a writing class where having something to say is a necessary precondition.

These older women became good writers. They had no time for the trivial. I seldom had to tell them anything twice. They got better from one story to the next, because they always had the courage to take that next step down. They could think the forbidden thought and write the forbidden sentence that uncovered the next forbidden thought. They had lost a great deal in their lives, but they had learned to live with loss.

Living with loss is an essential skill for a writer. It's an essential skill for everybody, come to think of it.

I still get emails from these students, announcing the publication of books or stories. They tend to give me more credit than I deserve, because the work in question is usually a carefully completed version of something that I long ago handed back with "THIS ISN'T FINISHED" scribbled on it.

There are worse comments for a fetal-stage story. If writing classes are ever successfully taught by computers, "THIS ISN'T FINISHED" will need to be part of the software, along with "NOT ALL MEN ARE LIKE THIS," which is something I also used to write quite a bit.

Fast forward to the present. An article is going around the Internet titled, "Six Reasons Not to Send Your Daughter to College." It contains neither good writing nor good thinking. But given what I've written so far, you can be forgiven if you think I should have titled this piece, "Six Reasons Not to Send Your Daughter to College until She's Divorced, Tough-As-Nails, and Royally Pissed That Her Kids Are Still Living at Home in Their Late 20s."

That's putting it too strongly. But I have wished that 18-year-old women would, during their first four years out of high school, get a job and earn their tuition money and then finally go to college at age 22. They would realize, then, how hard it is to save thousands of dollars and how many of those thousands a college education costs. Of course, there are no out-of-high-school jobs that would pay enough in a year to save enough for a year's worth of college. We've decided as a culture to send 18-year-old women to college whether they're ready or not, and make them pay for it later, with punishing interest.

It's an ethical problem that few universities have acknowledged, even as they raise tuition and fees on a near-annual basis. But it covers up an even bigger ethical problem, one engrained in the culture: Marriage and children aren't a good deal for women, even college-educated women. If a man and woman end up getting married in college, it's usually the woman who drops out to support the man's life script. The man tends to go to grad school, and then the family goes to where the man's job is.

There are better ways to spend your God-given life, if I judge from women who put down the last $25,000 of a divorce settlement for an MFA, ending up with nothing but the freedom to be themselves and to see the world with eyes unafraid. That's something they could have had at 22 except for the loan repayments.

I used to write, "NOT ALL MEN ARE LIKE THIS," on the stories of 18-year-olds, too, usually when I had asked for a two-page description of a perfect day. It's a good early-in-the-workshop prompt, if you can stand the occasional deranged narrative about 24 hours at Costco with unlimited credit.

But when these young women described their perfect days, they usually included a spouse, and that spouse was usually a man, and that man usually resembled Johnny Depp cast as a kind, brave, considerate, debt-assuming soul-mate. Out of kindness, I didn't write, "NO MEN ARE LIKE THIS," even though I sensed that beneath the public image of Johnny Depp lay pathologies that might make perfect hours possible, but not perfect days.

A hazard of teaching writing to undergraduates is you end up thinking people shouldn't be allowed to go to college until their neocortexes are developed enough to understand the subtleties of history, literature and human nature. That would prevent a lot of men from going to college until they're 60, but most women, by the time they're 22, are adults capable of lifelong learning in these fields--if they can find the time, the money and the people who can see them as stars in their own right.