Why We Spend Our Brief Lives Indoors, Alone, and Typing
Or, how I justify teaching my students the dying art of writing
I worry about what to tell Kate.
For most of my students, knowing how to write well will just be an unfair advantage in whatever career they choose — I tell them it’s like being rich, or pretty. But Kate takes art personally: she loves the Dadaists but also thinks they’re a bit cliqueish and silly; in her emails she quotes Rilke and Hurston. She’s one of those students so passionate about writing and literature it makes me feel, briefly, younger to be around her. It also secretly breaks my heart. I once unprofessionally confessed to Kate my misgivings about training her in an art form as archaic as stained glass. She tells me she still thinks about this all the time.
I know better than to blame myself for Kate’s career choice; she was already doomed to this vocation when I met her. You recognize these students less by their intrinsic talent than by their seriousness of purpose: they allow themselves no other options; they’re in it for the long haul. She recently took a year off from studying law, politics, and economics to take nothing but courses in literature: “There is something telling me that if I ever do something to save people from the misery that other people have caused them,” she wrote me, “it will be because of what Ibsen teaches me, and not a class on terrorism.” She worries that by obsessively observing and recording she’s missing out on the experience of being alive. I have assured Kate she is more alive than anyone I know.
How can I justify luring guileless young people into squandering their passion and talents on a life of letters?
But in this dystopian year 2019, with “the newspapers dying like huge moths,” as Ray Bradbury predicted in the ’50s, “Literature” a niche category among all the Book-Shaped Products© on sale, and “the discourse” limited to 280 characters, how can I justify luring guileless young people into squandering their passion and talents on a life of letters? It’s not just that writing is an unmonetizable profession — Kate knows that much already — I worry it’s obsolete. Late in life, the novelist James Salter…