At the beginning of the semester, I’d felt sorry for Michael. He seemed too distant from the social rumble of the class. He didn’t have the other seniors’ easy sarcasm, which I seemed to pull out of them. After all, I was only just a few years away from being one of them; at just over 30 I had returned to teach at my alma mater as a “visiting writer.” That double-barreled phrase was such a sweet combination of words that I must have said them to myself eight times a day that first year. What’s more, during my apportioned visit (2-3 years), the department was going to fill the position with a “permanent hire.” Never in my life had I been more high on myself or more desperate to please all available parties.
The man who had brought me back was my undergraduate mentor, one of a trio of professors who had turned me on to fiction writing when I was barely 20, and who I had been diligently modeling myself after ever since. I will refer to him here as Dr. Johnson. The department had changed very little in my time away, and I occupied the small windowless office at the end of the hall that my favored professors had themselves occupied so many years ago. Johnson occupied a palatial, windowed office at the hall’s much more powerful eastern end. During that same spring semester, he also had Michael in a survey of postmodern American literature. Both my course and Johnson’s included readings from the late David Foster Wallace. Johnson’s class was reading Wallace’s first short fiction collection, Girl With Curious Hair. As a sort of ideological motivator, my workshop was reading his long essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” Though both of us assigning Wallace in the same semester was a coincidence, it wasn’t an extreme one. I wanted to replicate as much as possible the formative experience I’d had as an undergraduate with that trio of professors, and emphatically the experience I’d had as Johnson’s student. It was therefore not accidental that my syllabi were slightly dyslexic reflections of his past reading lists, as I was myself a slightly dyslexic sequel to him, a reformatted software update, newly compatible with these times, or so I’d hoped.
I felt kaleidoscopic as I read it, every tint of emotion tumbling through me and trading places: at first blind rage, then contempt, then utter bafflement, then persecution, then paranoia, then self-righteousness, and then the pedagogical certainty that I was going to teach this little shitbubble the lesson he deserved.
I walked down the long hall to Johnson’s office. He was on the phone, and I waited patiently, arms crossed. I was going to nail this fucksickle to the wall.
“What’s the story, Hathcock?” he said.
“I just got a story from Michael.”
“We’re in it.”
“Both of us?”
“Both of us. He’s got us doing crazy shit. It’s all about us and the rest of the class.”
“Is it any good?”
“It . . . it’s about us.”
“Send it to me, let me take a look.”
“What should I do?”
“Just let me take a look. I’ll get back to you.”
“We’re not workshopping that story,” I said. “No way. I’m going to give him a little talk.”
“Let me take a look first.”
So, I walked back down the hall to my office and emailed him the story. A few hours later, still not having heard back, I packed up to go home. Though I had a set of stairs conveniently at my end of the hall, I theatrically walked to the stairs at Johnson’s end to see if he had anything to say yet. His door was locked, gone for the day. Was I somehow unclear in communicating the timeliness and importance of the situation? I took the stairs. As I hit the door at the ground floor my pants started vibrating. I was getting a call from a local number I didn’t recognize.
“Hathcock, you’ve got to do the story.”
“What? Did you read it?”
“Workshop it. It will all be okay.”
“But . . . so.”
“It’s . . . it’s, this is pretty well done.”
“Well, yeah, but . . .”
“Workshop it. Look, I’ll explain later.”
I paused. I was not able to walk. The variety of my possible responses reanimated and tumbled through me.
“Okay,” I said.
“Do it. Send out the packet. It will be worth it.”
So, ever the good student, after I got home that night I included the story in the packet and emailed it out. We were set to workshop the story in a week’s time.
Johnson’s rationale for workshopping the story was simple: you workshop the story that the student submits. Whatever display of attitude or flaunting of professor-student decorum would be machined away in the mechanism of the workshop. In this way a creative writing workshop is like a farmer’s combine—it harvests whatever it encounters into useable material.
Little moments of rhetorical solidarity from my students kept happening as the week progressed.
“I can’t believe he did that.”
“What an asshole.”
“Dick move, professor. Don’t take it personally.”
What brought me up short in their condolences was how they took my side of the situation, and how they confirmed my initial reaction to the story—the gall of that little tit-sucker!—a reaction that Johnson had effectively defused. But let’s be honest, if Johnson had told me to paint half my face and speak in tongues every Tuesday and Thursday, I would have done so, so eager was I for his approval, the students’, and the departments’—in that order.
Why did I feel I needed a persona? What I mean by persona is a slightly exaggerated version of myself, a more public version that I could inhabit when necessary, e.g., when in front of a room of bored teenagers. Perhaps I’m only speaking for myself, but sometimes the only way to lead a classroom is by pretending to be the professor.
What did this mean in practice? Well, for one, my early syllabi were enthusiastically footnoted. They were thick with slang and the high-low mixing of verbal registers that Wallace excelled at. I tried desperately to be funny and attempted to ironize my role of professor-authority, but of course without trying to seem like I was trying to be funny. There was wonderful friction between what I looked like and any type of joke I might utter. I especially enjoyed jokes that weren’t necessarily signaled as such, so that only a few of the intently attuned students would notice, or so I liked to believe. A great deal of psychic energy went into the maintenance of this persona, which was not truly me but more like me hopped up on David Foster Wallace–flavored steroids. It is not a persona I entirely want to disown, even now. (I did not, however, ever wear a bandana.) Nevertheless, over time maintaining a consistent persona, especially in sub-academic, pseudo-social interactions with students, became exhausting. I inevitably became more myself, or more my default persona—a tired, young new father who did not have any of the answers, and who could barely validate himself on a daily basis much less the students seated before him.
Also, I learned that the ability to self-deprecate can have a corrosive effect over time. You can depreciate yourself down into the floor, at first ironically playing with the role of authority and then routinely diminishing it until your students disrespect you as a sign of respect—as an indication that they get the joke. It got so bad that I had a rule for myself: no jokes the first week of class; no jokes the first day of class. (I broke this rule every semester.)
At one point the protagonist in the frame story visits Johnson in his office to directly air his grievances:
The lectures seem purposefully confusing, the student begins to tell him, filled with leading questions that capitalize on directing students’ answers down wrong or illogical paths, positioning Johnson as some sort of learned, infallible deity or classroom superstar. Ultimately though, the student feels that Johnson’s analysis, if it holds water at all, only does so in the final moments of the period, resulting in general confusion for most of the duration of the class. The student does not understand why Johnson cannot just open with a clear statement of his beliefs about any given text and then cultivate discussion. The student claims that more often than not, he learns nothing from the lectures, finding them to reveal only that which is self-evident from having read the assignment and, or, can easily be found and understood by spending five minutes on Wikipedia.org. The student is intentionally incendiary with his comments.
This grievance is the trigger for submitting the [student zero] story to the workshop. As a character in the frame story, I accidentally disseminate it to the rest of the class before reading it and then become caught between the rock of the student’s story and the hard place of displeasing my boss, Johnson. Most of my portions of the story deal with me fretting about what to do regarding the story, how and when to tell Johnson, etc. Here is the paragraph that most succinctly depicts me:
Barrett Hathcock is a well-kept man. His hair is short, though not excessively so. He owns several pairs of khakis. He dresses in the very definition of business casual without appearing as though too much thought has gone into his attire—that is to say, he never seems to be overly coiffed. Depending on the weather, he will sometimes throw a performance fleece over top of a dress shirt or even a brown leather jacket, though it is not of the style—and he certainly does not attempt to wear it as such—of someone who is attempting to make a statement with his clothing. If anything, Barrett is making the anti-statement—he wants only to be appropriate. Barrett does not seek to be controversial. He is not argumentative, not good with awkward situations, and dislikes being the bearer of bad news. He is not one to be confrontational—excluding rare moments when one of his students repeatedly demonstrates an inability to punctuate dialogue correctly—and, in fact, assumes an apologetic comportment in any situation where he is required to be even slightly critical. His doughy cheeks and disposition of forbearance render him more or less universally as a nice man. You would call him jolly if the word did not carry connotations of being either overweight or having a propensity for the consumption of alcohol. Barrett possesses extreme patience. He does not raise his voice. He is tolerant and pleasant. And it is because of this that Barrett still has not reached a decision about the story that still lies on his desk.
I wish I could say that this paragraph is inaccurate.
Also in the story, Johnson is shown writing fiction that is separate from his “published, real” fiction. This secret fiction is absurd, clichéd, written with abandon and is transparently a form of wish fulfillment and revenge. He has a lifelong, secondary oeuvre of this fantasy-fulfillment fiction, and in the course of Michael’s frame story, the Johnson character writes counter-versions of classroom debates with our unnamed Michael stand-in. After he reads the [student zero] story—plucked from my desk unwittingly, rather than deliberately given to him as happened in reality—he writes a counter-version of the story where he debates the Michael-figure, ridicules him, and wins. The Michael-figure flees, weeping and embarrassed.
After reading the story, Johnson and I (as characters) repair to a bar where he asks self-pitying questions, and I attempt to make him feel better, and our general codependent and unequal dispositions are put on full display.
Michael’s story climaxes with my workshopping of the [student zero] story. The class session proceeds in perfect mimicry of a standard workshopping session until I see the expression on the author’s face—he is sporting a “shit-eating grin”—at which point I crack and proceed to assault the Michael character. Actually that puts it too mildly; at that point my character beats the utter shit out of the Michael character. The story ends with the Michael character, encased in casts and sitting woefully at the back of Johnson’s classroom while he wraps up the semester.
What exactly is postmodern literature? A full definition, if such a thing were even possible, is obviously beyond the scope of this essay, so let’s just continue being convenient and define it as fiction that is primarily concerned with exposing the conventions of writing fiction. That is, it’s a novel with the inner-workings of the novel exposed, a Swatch watch of narrative, seeing how it works as it works, in an effort to destroy some of the pretension and artificial nobility encrusted around it. This gesture functions for any art, really, when it gets too staid and formalized and needs its tropes exploded. If the novel is a mirror carried down a road, as Stendhal described it in a fabricated epigraph attributed to a real person—Saint Reál!—in his novel The Red and the Black, then postmodern literature is another mirror positioned in front of the first, so that each catches the other’s reflection. What’s more, none of these mirrors are flat; everything is bent, and we (authors and characters alike) move between the resulting infinitude of wonky reflections.
In Wallace’s story, Professor Ambrose is the grown-up wonky reflection of the adolescent Ambrose of “Lost in the Funhouse,” the story, and also obviously a Barth-like figure of authority. “Westward” tries to suss out in fictional terms many of the same questions Wallace explores in “E Unibus Pluram”—what, in short, happens after postmodernism, after the accumulation of tired tropes that were themselves meant to explode the previous generation’s tired tropes. According to Wallace, fiction of the Barthian sort has run its exhaustive and exhausting self-reflective course. With its clear real-world professor/authority figures, creative writing workshop setting, young ambitious aspirant, Michael’s story seemed to me clearly—clearly—to be another installment in the line of Oedipally motivated, generationally confrontational, metafictional workshop stories. This was simply what young, male, classroom-bound writers did.
strictly served as a form of mental revenge. Both the Michael-protagonist and the Johnson-character use fiction writing as escapist wish-fulfillment.
But then, couldn’t one say the same of this essay? What I’m doing here is not entirely moral. Though you could make the argument that workshopping a story is a type of publication, putting it deliberately before one’s peers, I seem to have a disinclination to discuss publicly something a student wrote strictly for one’s own personal classroom environment. The whole “my classroom is a sacred place” idea. But also, since I have been fictionalized within the story, I feel somewhat less responsible. I feel that Michael can take it. Perhaps I am only justifying my own kind of revenge fiction here. But instead of creating another fiction, another mirror inserted within the hall of mirrors, I have attempted to non-fictionalize the experience. I have tried to escape the funhouse in order to document as truthfully as possible what seemed to occur. Of course, I should admit that I have used pseudonyms for Johnson and Michael and that the dialogue written here is, at best, my imagined recreation of what was really said. My documentary effort is awfully smudged. So perhaps this is a revenge fiction barely under my control.
I am not writing this to get back at Michael or to vindicate myself. I think everything he said of me was essentially correct. I am writing about the experience because it manifests a series of problems within the endeavor of teaching creative writing, and within my life at that time, and within the idea that one can control one’s appearance to unknowable strangers.
I am also writing about the experience because it’s too interesting not to. One has to take a necessarily mercenary approach to life’s own meager material. I feel guilty for airing this private classroom occurrence, but I’m still obviously doing it, so I don’t want to be too theatrical here.
I am trying to do all of this while sparing Michael as an individual, not that he would care. I can see him smirking even now.
I remember how a fraction of my sympathy for Michael dissolved when I realized who his girlfriend was. Kid was going to be just fine.
I’d had friends who felt the same type of rage toward Johnson when I was a student, though not as acute or eloquent. There was something about Johnson, his looks and his intelligence and his disposition, which attracted a competitive affront. (The first sentence of Michael’s story: “Professor Johnson is experiencing some anxiety about his eyebrows, mainly, his lack thereof.”) Maybe it was simply the fact that the female students noticed him more overtly than the other professors in the department. If you were a male English major, you felt his presence. For a certain type of undergraduate male, he seemed to occupy all of the positions of distinction that you desperately wanted to occupy yourself. Perhaps it was really that simple.
I had never let my own relationship with Johnson overflow into Oedipal competition. I was entirely too well-behaved for that. Of the possible flavors of rage felt toward Johnson, that wasn’t one of them. But like Michael foresaw in his story: I was uncomfortably good at playing the sidekick.
The second big laugh came when we debated my likability. I said that I thought Michael was basically making fun of me for being an overly polite ass-kisser. Michael was shocked at this, saying that Johnson was the real target and that what he was trying to show was me, as a character, having to deal with someone like Johnson—a pompous professor, full of doubt. The class rallied behind Michael here, saying that the story was not an indictment of me as being greasily obsequious and desperate for approval. I was, at most, collateral damage in Michael’s larger project.
“Well,” I said, “that’s a good thing, because in real life I am a total asshole.”
These were my two successful attempts at playing off Michael’s playing with my persona. I think it’s indicative of my character that what I remember most about the actual class were the two jokes I successfully landed.
The workshop ended as workshops sometimes do—with a shrug. This is the problem with the name “workshop”; it implies that everything can (or even should) be fixed. Sometimes stories can’t be fixed or don’t need fixing. People just need to air their responses. And at least in the best circumstances, it can be a tonic for an author to hear people breathing the name of her characters. It can also be annoying. But that is the trade-off for violating the occupational narcissism of writing.
“I’ve never read that Wallace story you were talking about,” he said.
“The Westward story? I haven’t read that.”
“‘Westward the Course of Empire Makes Its Way’?” I said. My first, most pedantic thought was: but it was part of your required reading list in the Postmodernism course!
“No, I was kind of playing with another story in that book—‘My Appearance.’”
I tried to contort my facial muscles to indicate that but of course he had been riffing on “My Appearance,” which was a story in the Wallace collection that I had not read. There we were, two men with mutually exclusive reading lists. I felt warm from the undiluted presence of my own ignorance. I felt like such an idiot. I felt like an idiot impersonating an idiot.
“Look, are we okay? Do you have some kind of beef with me? I mean, I can’t really tell from this. I don’t think so, but I kind of feel obligated to ask.”
“No, no, no. I don’t”—he smiled a little, embarrassed for me—“I don’t have a problem with your class, or with you. I actually like this class, not that you can tell. It’s all about Johnson and his class. But as I was writing the story, I could just feel myself getting whiny and annoying, and I wanted to punish myself for what I was doing.”
“Okay,” I said. “That makes sense,” which was verbal filler. “Well, then, I guess my only final question is: now that you’ve now written your patricide story, what’s next? You’ve rebelled against the father figure. What now?”
He appeared completely blank. He appeared mystified by my presence, by my line of inquiry.
“I don’t know,” he said, still smiling.
We left the room without any answers, as opaque to each other as marbles.
“Of course it’s about me,” Johnson said. “He doesn’t have a beef with you. The story doesn’t have anything to do with you—not really. No, that story was about him and me; this is just something that happens from time to time.”
I immediately felt like a rube. What do you mean this story is not about me? It turns out I was misreading the very story I appeared in, according to the author, and I was inaccurately taking everything personally, according to Johnson. I was promoting my role, which was really only secondary— obviously. I was caught wishing I was the true Professor Ambrose.
Later, when I read through the class’s written critiques, their collective response was a bit different on paper: everyone thought it was an apt critique of both Johnson and me. However, they did not indicate who they thought was the main character.
But there was Michael, still sweating in his cap and gown, with his proud father and mother by his side. He seemed genuinely happy to see me. He seemed somehow desperate for conversation. He introduced me to his parents, and I did my dutiful duty. (I am nothing if not good at being polite.)
“Oh, you’re professor Hathcock. We just want to thank you for dealing with our Michael. He told us what he wrote about you, and we just want to say”—sidelong glance at their son—“that we appreciate you being so patient with him and just . . . understanding. We just . . .” exasperated sigh that was still filled with pride.
Michael made a pained expression, an expression that said, they don’t really understand me, which I was familiar with. I had made the same expression when I was graduating. I am tempted to say that the majority of English majors have made the same expression.
“It’s fine. Michael is very talented. I think he’s going to do very well. I was happy to have him in my class.” All of this was banal but still true. Despite everything he was still one of my most talented students. And he was fiercely smart. And often being fiercely smart is contiguous with being kind of a dick.
“And I was honored to be included within his story,” I said. “But Michael should know this: We’ve been making fun of Johnson’s lack of eyebrows for years and years.”
Laughs all around.
Surely I asked him what his post-graduation plans were but I can’t remember what he said. He seemed, and it’s weird to claim this now and with no real anecdotal proof, like he wanted my approval. I didn’t think Michael needed my approval at all, much less on his day of victory. What he needed, surely, was Johnson’s approval. But the way he walked up to me, sweating, the way he introduced me to his parents, the way he hung on just a little and talked to me more than he’d ever talked to me before, made me think he wanted my approval. And I don’t know if I gave it or made it apparent then but I should have. I approve of Michael. I always did.
I won’t lie now and say Michael didn’t briefly tear down the theater I had built for myself that first year and momentarily disrupt the generational swap I was trying to effectuate then at the department. In hindsight, he got me exactly right, just like he got Johnson right, and he got the fundamental inequity of our relationship right, and my desperate need to please everyone. That may not have been his ultimate goal even—I wasn’t even the main character—but it was a side effect.
The problem was that the generational swap didn’t take. Less than a year later I would know for certain that I would not be hired as the full-time tenure-track creative writing professor. I would not get to become the next Johnson. I would be replaced by someone else, someone better than me in every documentable way, someone semi-famous, a Name.
I hung on for a third year as a sabbatical replacement, but in the handful of years since, I was not able to secure another teaching position, and now I am out of academia entirely. It is not an untypical story. (There are many like it, but this one is mine.) Looking back, that first year seems like some far away summer camp—a kind of adolescent island, not without conflict but predominantly innocent. There are adult-world premonitions, but they lie at the far side of the lake.
What Michael’s story could have taught me, if I’d been brave enough to read it more deeply at the time, was that all my effort and ass-kissing and hope and self-transformation and persona-building and desire to be liked and determination to be a more contemporary version of Johnson would never be good enough to effectuate my permanent hiring. How I envisioned myself did not matter. What mattered was that the department did not see me as a permanent hire. I was the triumphant alum, returning for a cameo appearance. If I had read the Wallace story earlier—if I had done the reading when I was supposed to!—I would have known that what really mattered was everyone else’s collective hallucination of me. What teaching taught me is that once you forfeit your own secure notion of what you are and start behaving as a persona, you lose perspective on yourself. You become even more reliant on monitoring the responses to your behavior as reflected in the faces of your audience. Once you become a character, once you step into that hall of mirrors, the seeming infinitude of reflections runs away from you, and you become invisible to yourself. And what kind of person do you suppose you’re left with then?
Barrett Hathcock is the author of The Portable Son, a collection of stories. He lives in Jackson, Mississippi.