As a Professor, Sometimes I’m Pretty Stupid…

I was worried the past few days. I was getting sick–again. The manic depression that had hurled me into a psychotic attack in December nearly did me in. My family and I got through it, but it was a dangerous time.

Bipolar is a progressive, organic brain disease. And it’s a killer. The brain deteriorates more quickly than the minds of the general population. As you get older, it gets worse. You must avoid as many breakdowns as possible.

So on Monday, when I awoke from a night of nightmares that are my own, I could not stop crying. I wept for over an hour, called my wife at work then wrestled with the ghosts for two days.

I had just finished grading the final batch of papers. As a creative writing professor, I read my students’ lives in their poetry, fiction, nonfiction. I also write a page-long response to each work.

I was exhausted, more than usual. Was the illness catching up with me? Did I not have the same energy to get through grading? I’m getting weaker. And age–I’ve dealt with the disease all my life. But, I’m fifty-six now, and don’t have the same mettle as before.

I was afraid.

My son David called. We caught up with our days. As I told him about my health worries, things suddenly made sense:

Usually, my students write four-page essays. I teach two classes of fifteen students each, that’s thirty students and one-hundred-twenty pages. I said to my son, “Of course, this semester was a wee bit different. . .” and said that, this spring, my students got way out of hand.

My one class, “Literature and Contemporary Issues,” wrote the regular four-page essays. But I also taught a creative writing workshop. Seven students. And they all wrote memoirs, averaging fifty-pages long.

Then I said to David, “And one student wrote a novel. It’s really good, and big–381 pages!”

That’s when it hit me: instead of the usual 120 pages of grading, I had read, and graded, and commented upon, 791 pages in four days. 

That’s the problem when your students do incredible, triumphant things.

David said something like, “Maybe, you think, that’s why you’re tired?” He was kind not to call me obtuse.

I’m still tired, and a little brittle around the edges. But now, I see that no–I’m not weak. Older, yes, with not the same stamina as before. But weak? 791 pages of lives, ones that I had the privilege of reading. I did that.

In such moments, poets come to mind. In Rilke’s “The Panther,” he speaks of a Mighty Will.

I’m sick. I’m weary. I have a Mighty Will.



6 responses to “As a Professor, Sometimes I’m Pretty Stupid…”

  1. Emilia Barbosa Avatar
    Emilia Barbosa

    Marcos, it’s that mighty will of yours and your poetic bluntness that always makes me come back for more. Thank you!
    Emilia Barbosa

    1. Marcos McPeek Villatoro Avatar
      Marcos McPeek Villatoro

      Thanks so much!

  2. Jeff Cann Avatar

    Do you really need to grade the whole novel? That expectation seems disrespectful of your time. I want to go to school for creative writing.

    1. Marcos McPeek Villatoro Avatar
      Marcos McPeek Villatoro

      Actually, the novel wasn’t an assignment. The student had been working on it nearly all her college years, on her own, and not for a class. I didn’t grade it; I read it with pen in hand, just like my editor does with my manuscripts. What’s beautiful about it is, the student didn’t need to go to school for creative writing; she was already a writer. No one needed to push her; she was her hardest taskmaster. So, it was my privilege to read it, edit it, sit with her and write the plot out on the blackboard, consider some changes to the plot, enhance certain characters, etc. Also, pacing, the flow, what Gardner calls “profluence,” as well as the cadence and tone of the narrator’s voice (it’s omniscient). We poured over the manuscript together. She’s now rewriting it. I’ll read it again, because I want to help her get it to submission-ready (it’s nearly there–it’s really good!). This is what I mean by “teaching” creative writing: it’s more helping a young writer find her/his voice. From there, it’s up to her to choose whether or not to continue to write, will it be a part of her daily weave of existence. No writer is made in a classroom. No school will make a person a writer. So, yes, it wore me out!–and it was worth every second.

      1. Jeff Cann Avatar

        I read an interesting blog post recently (but I’ll never find it again) wherre the author made the case that writers, just as any other artist, will have an innate ability but still will benefit greatly from instruction. I never really thought about writing this way before, but she has swayed me. I’ve signed up for a workshop this summer and hope to start getting some schooling in what I’ve been doing on my own for years.

      2. Marcos McPeek Villatoro Avatar
        Marcos McPeek Villatoro

        Wonderful! It’s a good move, I remember when I finally went to my first conference, before I published, and it helped me a great deal. A big part of it was getting to know other people who were working on their own stories. I hope it goes well.

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