Some time ago at a final conference with an earnest, graduate student writer I was caught off guard by the question, “Do you have to like to read to be a writer?” I was taken aback for two reasons: first, because it was an assumption I had never before questioned. I had always assumed that people come to writing from their experience as readers. (This has since proven a wildly optimistic and naïve belief.) Second, this student had written an excellent story and shown herself to be a thoughtful reader of others’ work. When I said, “Yes, you do have to read to be a successful writer,” she wanted to know why. I understood that my responsibility was to somehow do better than Louis Armstrong’s famous remark about jazz: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” I was pleased with my answer at the time, and though I am not sure I could give her a better answer today, the memory troubles me––I probably oversimplified a complex issue. I said that reading and writing are in effect like a conversation. The writer speaks; then she listens, that is, observes and experiences. If these observations and experiences don’t include reading, she’s limiting herself unnecessarily. After a while, I told her, your readers will know you’re not listening; they’ll tire at the sound of your voice.
Like reading and writing, teaching and learning have always been for me inseparable enterprises. I cannot expect to inspire students if I am not inspired by them–and I always am; I cannot expect to teach them if I can’t learn from them–and I always do.
When I work with writers, especially students new to the university experience, or new to graduate school, I tell them that college is part of a historical and ongoing discourse and that their being here constitutes their efforts to enter that discourse, to take from it and give back to it. It is, I tell them, a lively conversation among the best minds. Reading and writing are the tools with which one participates in this discourse. The residency is one of the places where the conversation takes place, a graduate course of study the scene of an elegant, sophisticated conversation.
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