The First Day of Class

The worst campus interview I ever had was at Michigan State University, which is located in the sad city of East Lansing, Michigan. I was living in Indiana at the time, and I made an executive decision to drive through a snowstorm (instead of flying through a snowstorm) to get there. Despite leaving as early as I possibly could, I still arrived at the scheduled welcome dinner 45 minutes late, and the search committee was not happy with me. Things went downhill from there.

I made it through the three-day dog and pony show of the campus interview by telling myself that there was a comic book store in East Lansing that I would visit once everything was over. MSU has a strong Visual Arts program, and the university library also has the largest collection of zines in the United States. Many comic book stores sell zines created by the local community, and I was excited to see what sort of cool things the store right next to MSU would have.

So after a great deal of misery this awful, harrowing process is finished, and the last lunch has filled me with so much anxiety that I spend a good fifteen minutes crying in the restaurant bathroom after everyone else has left, but finally I can go to the comic book store. I get there, and it turns out to be a small box of a room with stained carpet and fluorescent lighting and a few cheap particleboard bookshelves from Target displaying a depressing collection of the most mass-market graphic novels you can think of, like, The Complete Far Side and the first five volumes of Naruto.

Thinking that it’s rude to walk in only to then immediately walk out again, I go to one of the shelves and pretend to look at the titles. I start counting in my head, like, “One Mississippi, two Mississippi,” reasoning that maybe it will be okay to leave after three minutes. I pick up Watchmen or something, and I begin to zone out, replaying some particularly mean thing someone said to me during the interview or some idiotic and cringeworthy thing I said in response, and then the store clerk comes up to me.

“Do you need any help?” she asks.

“No,” I reply, panicking. “I already have everything in the store.”

She looks at me, and I look at her, and then I suddenly become aware that I smell like I just spent fifteen minutes crying in a restaurant bathroom, and I put down the book I’m holding and walk right out the door. I already have everything in the store. I wonder if she still tells people that story sometimes, you know?

Anyway, sometimes I get nervous about the first day of class, but it’s comforting to know that at least it won’t be as awkward as this one exchange I had with a clerk in the comic book store of East Lansing, Michigan.

Overcoming the Stigma of Creative Writing

I write a lot of fiction, and I’d like to think I’ve done some good work, but I’ve never done it under my real name. For a good long time I kept an almost daily blog on Dreamwidth that was (among other things) a writing journal for the story ideas I had, a log of the progress I was making, and my thoughts on narrative and genre fiction more generally. Starting this year I decided to quit using Dreamwidth and move everything to the blog portion of my professional website, but for some reason I’ve been nervous about associating my creative writing with my actual name. I have a fantastic post about my current story that I’ve been staring at for days, and I’ve hesitated to post it.

So I guess I have two things I really want to ask myself. First, what is it about academia that makes people feel as if it’s somehow unprofessional to share their creative work? And second, that whole nasty business with people like Anne Rice and Diana Gabaldon saying “fanfic is disgusting” happened more than ten years ago, so why is it that even now in 2018 writing fanfiction feels like it’s some dirty secret?

These are the sort of questions that seem as if they might be worth asking my friends and acquaintances on social media, but I’m not interested in hearing anyone’s simplistic takes on what are very complicated issues. For example, I can imagine someone who has never been through the soul-crushing trauma of grad school answering the first question with something completely off the mark, like, “Well, you wouldn’t want your students to read your fiction, would you?” as if it weren’t a challenge to get most undergrads to read the fiction actually assigned on the syllabus. Meanwhile, I can absolutely imagine the sort of responses I would get to the second question from people who’ve neither written nor read fanfic and can therefore only parrot stereotypes like “You have to admit that most fanfic is unoriginal and not very good.”

What I’m trying to say is that I feel strong pressure never to admit to writing anything, which in turn has prevented me from taking my writing seriously. I kept telling myself that I would keep my head down and go up for tenure and then do whatever the hell I wanted, but I’m starting to feel that life is too short for that sort of cowardly nonsense. Yes, I am a literature professor who writes fiction – some of which is indeed fanfiction – and I want to be proud and look good doing it.