“Writing Teacher”
by John Edgar Wideman
from the January 22, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

John Edgar Wideman has been publishing since the late 1960s. It seems he really hit the pinnacle of his critical acclaim in the 1980s and 1990s, picking up not one but two PEN Faulker Award, an American Book Award, the Rea Award for the Short Story, and an O’Henry Award, as well nominations for a National Book Critics Circle Award and a National Book Award. He’s published only one novel in the past couple of decades, but he has put out a couple of collection of stories. Unfortunately for me, I have not read any of his work. Have any of you? How is it? Please let us know!

Despite his past reception, it appears “Writing Teacher” is the fist piece of Wideman’s fiction The New Yorker has published (he has written three pieces for the magazine). I’m assuming it is taken from his forthcoming collection, American Histories, which will be published in March. “Writing Teacher” certainly has me interested. It’s got a premise that is easy to grasp, but it’s charged and I’m still not sure all that it’s saying.

Wideman himself has been a writing teacher, and I love how he begins this story:

I hear from my former students occasionally. A few have gone on to accomplish remarkable work. Hear equally from the ordinary and, remarkable. Requests for recommendations, announcements of new jobs, marriages, children, a photo, copy of a book or film script, story in a magazine or anthology, perhaps inscribed personally to me or sent directly from the publisher. The gift of a snapshot, book, or story meant to break silence that settles in after they leave the university, the silence that being here, a student for a semester in my fiction-writing class, doesn’t break, silence of living ordinary lives we all endure whether our writing is deemed remarkable by others or not.

It continues nicely, with the writing teacher trying to push a current student from her story that “begins and ends stuck in the midst of an apparently insoluble quandary,” one that is “a well-intentioned display of good intentions,” “a dreary recital of a plight suffered by countless young, underprivileged women,” to one that can “aid actual people.”

The young woman who has written this story “betrays no trace of colored-people’s color,” which is, the writing teacher says, “[m]y color, by the way.”

I think that’s a great premise for a story, especially given recent conversations we’ve had about whether a white writer can or should try to write a story about someone of a different race: “Is it O.K. to borrow another’s identity in order to perpetrate a good deed.” But “Writing Teacher” goes in quite another direction, incorporating the writing teacher’s own sense of fatigue and wariness, his own desire to “help” this student. After all, does his desire to “teach” her the error of her ways come from the same misconceptions, create some of the same problems?

You could say the text is what I desire to help or say that the fact she’s written a text intended to help other people is why I want to help her. None of the above helps much, you might be thinking. World remains as it is — resistant, opaque, you may also be thinking, and is the “you” I’m imagining the same presumptive “you” her story calls out in its initial sentence.

And there’s a latent violence to the story that is unsettling, giving it that charge I mentioned above.

Having read it just once, I’m not sure all that it is saying, but I think it’s well done and that the conversations it instigates will be fascinating. I’m hoping that in the comments you can help me understand a lot of the nuance going on, as well as the implications. I look forward to reading your thoughts!

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By |2018-01-15T16:01:57+00:00January 15th, 2018|Categories: John Edgar Wideman, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. Seth M Guggenheim January 15, 2018 at 2:38 pm

    Trevor, I read this story this morning when the latest edition of the New Yorker popped up on my Kindle. Like you, I intend to read it again–it was that engaging. One thing which struck me on first reading was that the teacher “of color” and his not-of-color student from what is presumed a comfortable home was, for reasons of “appropriateness” given gender, race, age differences and the student-teacher relationship, unable to inform his student of his actual thoughts about her work and its larger philosophical implications. This “story about a story” is brilliant, and serves nicely as an oblique commentary on how social constraints–especially in academia–lead to a former of cultural torpor.

  2. David January 15, 2018 at 7:44 pm

    Trevor, it is good to see a longish introduction to a story from you again. It has been quite a while! I am not at all familiar with Wideman’s other work, but reading this story makes me want to find out more. That’s always a good sign for a story.
    .
    But when I started to read the story this morning I was not optimistic. My fist worry was that as a story about a writing teacher written by a writing teacher it might be too naval-gazy to be of much interest. Then when I started reading it I was worried it might turn into a lecture on cultural authority. That would have been even worse. But then it gradually became clear it was about something else and something much more interesting. I do feel like I have to go back and read it again and read the beginning a bit more closely than I had, but I have no doubt it will be worthwhile.

  3. Sean H January 15, 2018 at 10:47 pm

    Definitely not crap. The choices in diction are interesting so in terms of form he catches my ear form the get-go and doesn’t let go. There’s an earned credibility, as Wideman has long been a practitioner of the non-fiction/fiction blend. Definitely recommendable, if only as a tonic to the ephemera of so much of contemporary fiction (the “Cat Person” phenomena, for example; this story has more wisdom in a handful of sentences than that thing did it its entirety). That said, I don’t know if this is truly a memorable and enduring bit of literary prowess either. It’s quasi-original, pseudo-new-school. The narrator’s self-reflexivity borders on stultifying at times, though there are moments of real insight. Wideman is using gamesmanship to comment on metafiction, which is a solid approach. And the “why not have your young woman kill him and make that the story” is a wonderful surprise. It’s totally in keeping with the milieu of the story (words v. actions), so much so that it feels almost obvious as soon as you hear it, yet at the same time you weren’t remotely prepared for it, it had a glint, an edge, an earned authenticity (even amidst a piece of writing that is constantly questioning various notions of authenticity). The story also deals with sexuality, race, and gender in ways that are not didactic or overtly political. There’s no grandstanding. Everything is properly contextualized. This is a sure-handed piece where almost nothing feels unintentional or unearned.

    In terms of where it comes up short, though, I really wanted to see the story digress and transgress a bit more, as David Foster Wallace does in Oblivion, for example, or in some of the works of David Markson. Take it a bit further, John Edgar. It feels like Wideman left some meat on the bone here. But overall a refreshing and professional piece, and in two genres (writing about writing + the campus story) that are usually pretty damn cliche-riddled and tiresome.

  4. Eric January 21, 2018 at 11:50 pm

    I haven’t read a lot of Wideman, but I’ve enjoyed everything of his that I have read. He’s a pro’s pro, with a prose style that is easy without being dumbed down (even when using unconventional sentence structures), and a constant undercurrent of compassion for every single human being. This particular story could probably have been printed in the “Personal Experience” section without changing anything, but calling it fiction apparently makes it less risky for him to write frankly about his fantasies of killing the parole boards that keep his brother and son locked up, and obliquely about his sexual attraction to the sweet young girls in his classes. Of course, Wideman is far from the first author to realize that it is often possible to convey more truth in fiction than nonfiction.

    The meat of the “story” seems to be yet another rant from a bitter angry old man about the state of the world and the country and his place in it, as well as people he identifies with–other writers, other black people. Putting it that way makes it sound unappealing, but I found myself enjoying this story as much as his others, almost in spite of myself. He is asking the right questions here, and asking them in the right way, and even if he does not offer many comforting or even comprehensible solutions, those of us who choose to spend time thinking about these things would do well to listen to read the words of this old man. Angry and bitter he may be, but this does not seem to get in the way of his compassion or insight or honesty.

  5. David January 22, 2018 at 8:37 am

    Eric, I find it very strange that you are so confident that this story is really fact rather than fiction. Do you have some insider knowledge that this is a true story or are you just assuming? Perhaps he has just done such a good job of making the character he created seem real that you think it must be a description of the author’s own inner thoughts and personality? It seems to me to be quite uncharitable to Wideman both as a person and as a writer to think this isn’t fiction without having good reason for that belief.

  6. Eric January 22, 2018 at 2:36 pm

    David–well, I’ll say a couple of things. First, there’s no doubt in my mind that the story’s protagonist is, in every sense that matters, Wideman himself. If you read a few of his nonfiction pieces and/or interviews with him,it sounds very much like the same guy–same bio, same concerns, same approach to his life and work. As for the rest, when I read your and others’ comments about what the story was saying, I decided to go with Occam’s Razor. That is, the simplest explanation is that the story is “probably” Wideman venting, with a thin fictional exterior, and I don’t see anything to conflict with that interpretation. Don’t know for sure–like most good stories, there is more than one way to interpret it–but I’ve never read a work of fiction that turned out to be demonstrably less autobiographical than it seemed to be on first reading.

  7. David January 22, 2018 at 9:42 pm

    Eric, Thanks for the reply. I understand your assumption better, but still think it not warranted. The film Argo is the perfect example of why.
    .
    When Argo was released it was advertised as the amazing true story of how six Americans escaped Iran during the hostage crisis of 1979-80. The story involved creating a fake science fiction movie project and pretending that six Americans were actually Canadians in Iran working on the non-existent film. Like most films about true stories, this one changed a few facts here and there, but was true to most of what really happened. The problem is (for those wanting to use the film to learn about the true events) that all of the scenes with any tension or excitement were entirely made up. The scene where the Americans go out to a market and find themselves in the middle of an angry crowd? Never happened. The fact that the film studio guys nearly missed the phone call from Iran to verify that the “Canadians” were really working on a film? Not only did that never happen but there never was a call. In fact, when the Americans went to the airport no one questioned their passports and they got on the plane without anyone suspecting anything. So that also means the scene with the pickup truck racing down the runway chasing the plane trying to stop it from taking off with a guy in the back with a very large gun never happened either. In the end the film really is the true story of what happened plus a lot of other things that didn’t happen to make the film exciting to watch. The real story was rather dull.
    .
    We all know cases where people tell what are supposed to be true stories of things that happened to them, but they embellish the story to make it more interesting or dramatic. We probably have all done it ourselves. So it would be easy for me to see how Wideman might have started with a character much like himself and a situation much like one he has actually been in and then asked “how can I make this a more interesting story?” and began to change things. The example you gave of the narrator talking about violent fantasies is a good example. You see this as him using the cover of fiction to express actual violent thoughts he has really had. I see it just as likely (maybe more so) that he thought a character who has these thoughts is a more interesting one, and so gives them to him despite them having no basis in his real life.
    .
    I see this as an important distinction for two reasons. Firstly, if I am going to respond to what is presented as fiction as fiction, then the issue of what is “real” and what is not is immaterial. That something is real doesn’t make the story better. Fidelity to fact is irrelevant in the question of whether this is good writing. Secondly, I am not interested in doing a deep analysis of the character of the author, so just how much is real and how much is his imagination is not material for that reason as well.I have read this story a few times so far and quite like it, but am still not sure I really have a full sense of what is going on here. I get the feeling that the narrator is like a more more well-adjusted version of the underground man (perhaps from a point earlier in his descent). This man is far from going underground just yet, but the cracks are starting to appear and he does not know how to deal with them other than perhaps just giving up. It is an idea I am not yet convinced of and think merits further thought, but I hope you see why considering this possibility seems more disturbing if I am to suppose that this is merely memoir disguised as fiction. Adding that unnecessary assumption seems to me to limit the realm of possibilities of what the story really might be. So unless I see more reason to do otherwise, I will continue to take this story as it was presented – as a work of fiction.

  8. Greg January 27, 2018 at 5:43 pm

    Thanks David for sharing your approach to the fact vs. fiction assumption! Thus, I’m curious, what do you think of this J.M. Coetzee quote:

    “All writing is autobiography: everything that you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it.”

    And speaking of quotes, I loved this one from the story:

    “Nobody wrote John Brown’s story before he committed the acts that created his story. Nobody could pretend to be him or speak for him or hate or love him until John Brown smote his enemies in Kansas and perpetrated a bloody raid on Harpers Ferry to free slaves. No John Brown story, no John Brown, no Civil War until he showed the way. His way. His acts. The war inside him exploding outside.”

  9. David January 28, 2018 at 8:02 pm

    Greg, I almost missed your comment here. But here I am now.
    .
    The quotation is one it would be easy to misinterpret, especially if one were to stop reading at the colon. The first four words take alone might suggest he is saying that the main characters or the events of every story are based on the author who wrote them. That would not only be false, but a rather absurd claim. The rest of the sentence shows he means something quite different from that. But it’s even more clear in the larder context of what he said both before and after this sentence. The idea he has in mind is that writers do not really know what they have to say until they actually start writing. He says there would be no point in writing if the author already knew how it would come out. So the process of writing is the process of the author discovering what is on his (or her) mind, what ideas are of interest to the author and what he thinks about them. In that sense, every piece of writing stands as evidence to any reader, should they be interested in such things, about what ideas matter to this writer and what thoughts he has about them.
    .
    I am sure we all are familiar with examples of authors whose ideas about politics or morality or any number of other matters are revealed in their work. Authors show what kind of people they are by showing us what kind of people they think are admirable, what sorts of lives they think are worth living, what sort of ideas they are preoccupied with. In that sense, all writing tells the reader a lot about the author, and so can be seen as autobiography in that sense, But this is a very different thing from thinking the author actually *is* the character in the story. Even, as it is in this case, where the author and character share a lot of superficial similarities, we cannot assume that the character is a copy of the author.
    .
    When it comes to actual autobiography, Coetzee points out that even a writer who has complete fidelity to the truth and does not get anything factually wrong has to make choices about what to put in and what to leave out, what to mention in passing and what to make central. So he sees actual autobiography as involving some fictional elements as well. He says that the lie of omitting something that did happen is no different from the lie of saying something did happen that did not. With this view of autobiography, it is easy to see how he could think all writing is autobiography, yet none of it fully faithful to the facts at the same time.
    .
    Getting back to “Writing Teacher”, I don’t assume that Wideman is someone who himself has had the sort of violent imaginings that his character does. But it is true that Wideman is, at the very least, the kind of writer who thinks having his character think of violent images is interesting to write about. So in the broader Coetzee-an sense of the idea of autobiography, his inclusion of this element in the story does tell us something about Wideman and how he thinks.
    .
    I am reminded here of a different quotation I like a great deal that is commonly attributed to Anais Nin (but may have Talmudic origins): “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” So how we describe things, even fictional things, as an author does, shows the world how we see things, or how we “are”.

  10. Greg January 28, 2018 at 10:54 pm

    Thank you David for taking the time to completely educate me on what J.M. Coetzee was conveying. I have read your masterful explanation three times. This was my favourite part:

    “Authors show what kind of people they are by showing us what kind of people they think are admirable, what sorts of lives they think are worth living, what sort of ideas they are preoccupied with. In that sense, all writing tells the reader a lot about the author, and so can be seen as autobiography in that sense.”

    Lastly, your critical point on not assuming that the character is a copy of the author made me think of Billy Joel. He hasn’t released a new album in decades as he is sick and tired of people assuming his personal life is implicated in his songs. He doesn’t want the intrusions in his privacy, so David, I believe your approach is the most respectful too!

  11. David January 29, 2018 at 9:41 am

    Greg, related to this, I just read the author interview with Jeffrey Eugenides for this week’s story in The New Yorker. Here are two comments he makes that are most relevant to this discussion:
    .
    “Further complicating things was the fact that I was drawing on a lived experience. Sometimes that can get in the way of the fiction, because you remain too loyal to your memory.”

    “No matter what you write, people will think it’s autobiographical. Naming your characters Droekenwyld or Bilbo won’t help. Of course, readers are often correct in making these assumptions.”
    .
    The first quotation seems to make my point that a writer might often start with something real, but the process of writing a story necessarily involves deciding where and how to deviate from it, when to abandon fidelity to the memory in order to get to where the story needs to go. The second quotation might seem to take it back, but he does qualify the comment with “often”, meaning even then the reader is at least sometimes wrong. Besides, in the case of his new story (“Bronze”) both main characters, both with names derived from his own name and with some qualities also derived from him, are gay and Eugenides is not. As a story of sexual attraction, it probably would be too weird if the reader supposes that both characters are merely two different versions of the author.

  12. Greg January 29, 2018 at 10:24 pm

    Thanks David for making me aware of this interview, and for doing further analysis on the autobiographical component of fiction!

  13. mehbe January 31, 2018 at 11:07 am

    So what did Wideman intend to do by putting some autobiographical elements into this story? I think it is perfectly legitimate to think he did it to encourage the reader to think the entire story is far more autobiographical than not. I also think it is perfectly legit to think he may have done it for totally different reasons. Since we don’t know, it’s anybody’s guess, and he seems to invite guesses.

    My thought is that he may have wanted the reader to at least consider the possibility that those details from his life were meant as cues to read the story as being highly autobiographical. And for the reader to consider what that would mean while reading the story.

    For me, considering that completely transforms the text from some slightly arch, terribly cool study in recent self-referential literary technique to a much more urgent and personal utterance from Mr. Wideman himself about issues that are of utmost importance to him. The first approach doesn’t move me; the latter moved me deeply. I’ll take the latter, although the former has some charm, too.

    The ambiguity involved invites the reader to test out different ways of reading the story, sliding the scale of autobiographical density from “Total” to “Just a Hint”. You know, just to see what happens with the meaning of the story if you do it. And that teaches the reader something important about the story itself (at least it did me), which is that how the story reveals itself depends on the reader’s ability to sense the narrator as being a real person. Once I got that, I felt that Wideman himself was communicating with me in quite an extraordinary way.

  14. David January 31, 2018 at 2:57 pm

    mehbe, the old cliche for writers is “write what you know”. So it is not surprising when an author from Maine sets most of his novels in Maine. It’s a place he knows well. It’s also not surprising when authors set novels in an eras they know well. So if the author went to UCLA in the early 1970s, the novel might be about a student at UCLA in the 1970s. Or if the author once worked as a bouncer, it might inspire him to write about bouncers. Authors draw on their own lives and experiences all the time because it’s what they know, but I don;t see why that should make us think that the character is supposed to be the author or that we are being invited to wonder how much is fact and how much fiction.
    .
    I just finished reading Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1. In an interview he gave for the audiobook he talks about some of the things in the book that come from real life – including using the names of real people he knew in college and describing things they really did – and he also listed many of the things that have no grounding in the real world that he just made up. The fact that he draws a lot of things from real life does not make it a guessing game about what is or is not real. That’s only a question for people who are interested in who the author is rather than what the story is. At its worst, its little better than gossip. (“I bet he’s writing about a man cheating on his wife because he had an affair himself!”)
    .
    One of my favourite TV shows is Seinfeld. It stars Jerry Seinfeld, a stand-up comedian from New York, playing Jerry Seinfeld, a stand-up comedian from New York. In one story line they even have Jerry hired by NBC to create a show based on himself. One might look at that and think that we are supposed to think (or at least wonder) how much of TV-character Jerry is also true of actor/comedian Jerry. But it’s really a thought that has never occurred to me to wonder nor do I think it is intended by the show at all.
    .
    The bottom line for me is: the question “how autobiographical is this?” is only interesting if it’s autobiography you care about. I almost never do nor do I think authors generally are trying to tell us about them through the vehicle of fiction.

  15. Ken February 2, 2018 at 11:29 pm

    In terms of this debate, I doubt Wideman expects most readers to know that much about him so I doubt he expects them to think the story is autobiographical. I’m an educated reader of the New Yorker yet I had never heard of him and had no thoughts about the story being autobiographical. The ultimate merit here HAS to be in his ideas–in his incredible desire for fiction to mean something, to change things and all his doubts about that possibility. All this dialectic of hopeful and hopeless. That said, I kind of enjoy (on a gossipy, superficial level) reading stuff about how Wideman is like the character etc. But…I don’t think that’s the productive way to analyze his FICTION.

  16. Pauline Manos February 3, 2018 at 3:52 am

    I hadn’t heard of Wideman but was intrigued by the story, the unusual sentence structure, the wistful tone, so I googled to learn more. This moving profile from last year should lay to rest much of the discussion on the autobiographical elements in the story. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/26/magazine/john-edgar-wideman-against-the-world.html

  17. William February 9, 2018 at 6:53 pm

    Lots of good thoughts there. But too much discussion of the differences between autobiography and fiction. You all covered that in “The Lazy River” — fiction vs. not-fiction.

    I would have liked to see more critique of THIS STORY qua story. I agree with whoever said that there is some nuance here that we have missed, and that that nuance is entirely independent of whether the writing teacher in the story in Wideman. Give it up.

    Oddly, I got the greatest help with the story from the profile that Pauline linked us to. I’m not sure what she meant by saying that the article “should lay to rest much of the discussion on the autobiographical elements in the story”. Sure, there is autobiography there. But that doesn’t explain what the story is doing,.

    Here are some quotes from the profile that gave me insight into the story:

    “His disposition is to bypass blunt polemic and make his case through description and story, which is by necessity inventive, conditional and ambiguous. Simplicity sells, but the truth is seldom simple.”

    “Wideman grew into his mature style, a learned and distinctively black register that switches naturally between the sublime and the profane, an earthy vernacular and a high literary mode with which he spins tales both true and untrue that overlap and accumulate, like 3-D printing, into tangible landscapes and characters.”

    “Wideman’s writing is, Perry said, “not really something you can designate as belonging to one or the other side of a political spectrum. It’s actually about your disposition toward life.”’

    “Till does not ever beg or plead but keeps quiet, even stoic, in the face of a system that “provides agents ample, perhaps irresistible, opportunities for abuse.”’

    I’m not going to express exactly what insights they provided, because I can’t. Which is what makes “The Writing Teacher” so good. I’ll just write the key word — “Empire”.

  18. Larry Bone June 9, 2018 at 3:58 pm

    Writing Teacher” received 17 reader comments which demonstrates its excellence.  This is many more comments than usual for the Mooks reader comments covering New Yorker short stories.  These comments are mostly well focused.

    There are so many levels to “Writing Teacher.”

    To view it as too nonfiction or autobiograhical is very constricting.  A writer’s personal life or the work of a writer’s mind cannot be strictly categorized as fiction or nonfiction (except nonfiction is usually composed only of solid verifiable fact(s)).  His/her mind resides in the upper head of a physical he or she where it is located in time and space.  Yet when it starts to operate, it can easily go way outside limited time and space within or without its own limitless universe.

    This story encapsulizes a lot of writing advice: write what you know, show don’t tell, read other writers.  It shows the possibilities and at the same time, liabilities and/or contradictions of such advice.

    The word “empire” conjures up the limitations of writing, thinking or living:  a) being born in a black body (b) being born in a white body (c) having male body parts (d) having female body parts (e) growing up in a poor environment (f) growing up in a wealthy environment. 

    As a writer, he or she is trying to transcend all of that into something different yet ordinary or extraordinary within one’s own universe and then trying to share that with others.

    One can be stuck at being only able to write what one knows.  But the gift of this story is to be able to look unflinchingly at what you don’t know to better understand it and see how it might relate to who one is, what one is trying to writing about or do through one’s writing.

    The teacher closely observes his student’s writing to try and offer help knowing that in the end she can only work the story out or how it should go, herself.  She has the benefit of a successful writer trying to understand what she is attempting to do.

    Both teacher and writer student are situate in an environment of limitations yet always attempting to write beyond their applicable limitations or reading other writer’s attempts at transcending their limitations to help reader or writer to escape one’s limits and boundaries if only temporarily.

    The best thing I got out of this story is that we may restrict ourselves way too much in how we look at others and how we look at ourselves.  We let the empire of fixed reality or fixed ideas or physical environmental limit how we think, feel, perceive and write.

    As Wideman writes, “Word by word a story welcomes some readers, shoos others away.”  He could be talking about New Yorker short stories, different individual people seeing others welcoming or shooing them away or mingling with another one after feeling bored when at a party or when first discovering an idea and adopting it or dismissing it.

    I would definitely like to read other short stories he has written.

  19. Greg June 9, 2018 at 5:55 pm

    Thanks Larry for your thoughts….I liked this part best:

    “One can be stuck at being only able to write what one knows. But the gift of this story is to be able to look unflinchingly at what you don’t know to better understand it and see how it might relate to who one is, what one is trying to writing about or do through one’s writing.”

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