Major Dramatic Question

A writer reflects on the experience of teaching without a college degree.

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I've figured out the absolute worst place to run into the ex you worry about running into: Penn Station before catching the 10:45 p.m. train back upstate, on a day you've left your bed at 6 a.m. and won't get back under the covers until half past 1 a.m. You're bleary-eyed, an angry hormonal period zit forming on your chin. You've gotten your hair cut that day, and you know how day-of haircuts are — weirdish bad even when they're good. You're buying an overpriced mini bottle of Sutter Home pinot noir from a store called Primo! The man pours it into a Coca-Cola paper cup over ice, as he does each week. After teaching two memoir classes in midtown New York City, under fluorescent lights and in stale air and rooms with carpet, your nerves are shot. You want to emotionally eat: a jam-packed falafel, soft pretzels, blueberry bagels with cream cheese. Hershey bars with almonds. And sometimes you do. Fuck it, you think. This shit is hard. You've learned how to healthily self-soothe by now (you're almost 30, for God's sake) with protein and yoga and WATER and sleep, but damn do those mushroom slices go down easy.

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This isn't a story about running into my ex-boyfriend at Penn Station. This is a story about teaching memoir classes in midtown Manhattan without having gone to college. This past fall, I taught one class at 10 a.m. and another at 7 p.m. Each class lasted three hours.

My relationship with teachers has always been fraught, and I loathed them by default. Even the middle-school gym teacher, during Achilles stretches, kicked me out of class. "Chloe, just leave," she said. "Where do you want me to go?" I asked. The office. I'd been talking too much during warm-ups.

My relationship with teachers has always been fraught, and I loathed them by default.

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In the classes I teach at Gotham Writers' Workshop, I am often the youngest, least academically educated and financially stable person in the room. My students' ages range five decades. Some have MFAs and went to highbrow colleges. Some are retired dentists and art critics in their 70s. Others are in their 20s, working at HBO and Victoria's Secret. 

I hate teaching as much as I love teaching, and I love teaching immensely. But who am I to teach writing? 

"Who am I?" David Sedaris says in his infamous essay about teaching creative writing, "The Learning Curve." An outspoken student has asked him the question I'm terrified I will be asked, the question I ask myself all day.

"I am the only person being paid to be in this room," he declares.

"As Mr. Sedaris, I lived in constant fear," he writes.

In 2008, I took the exact memoir class I am teaching. I signed up without a computer and with a sense of entitlement. I'd take my sweet time getting ready — listening to M.I.A. while I showered, choosing an "outfit" off the stinky floor of the bedroom I shared with my friend. I was never realistic about how long it'd take me to take the G to the L and then walk-run from the Eighth Avenue stop toward the Hudson River, where class was held. I'd stroll in, arrogant and rude — while my teacher was speaking. After loudly plopping my bag and journal down, I'd leave for the bathroom. When I returned, I'd ask the person next to me for a pen. I'd raise my hand and ask the teacher something she'd already covered while I was in the bathroom.

I assumed my teacher was rich since she was teaching memoir class and had been published in an anthology called Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers. She was not rich. She looked like someone who was trying to look like someone. Fake-leather boots and purse. I admired her deeply for no reason but the fact she was teaching a writing class.

I attempt to wear my most expensive clothes and shoes on the days I teach, which is saying a lot, because I don't own expensive clothes and shoes. Over the summer getting a blowout at Drybar, I turned to my right and saw one of my students in the chair next to me. Shit. I worried she'd think I was frivolous, or worse, rich. Appearance is a motherfucker. A broke writer, I'm happy to model for people, but a broke teacher?

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My teacher was 29 to my 21, the same age I am now. She came to my book-release party last year — she'd had a baby and gotten married. It was difficult to find time to write, she said.

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"It changed my life," I took to saying when asked about my writing education, or lack thereof. "Taking memoir classes at Gotham changed my life." It shaped the way I look back on the narrative of my life. I found my voice, I wrote part of my first book, I fell in love for the first time, with both a person in class and writing.

After I was hired to teach, the dean of faculty emailed me: "I forgot to ask where you went to university, I'd like to add where you graduated from to your bio."

Panic. She'd tell me she was sorry, but they couldn't have me teach writing since I didn't go to college. I overcompensated in my reply, writing, "I actually didn't go — Gotham was my writing school!"

Coming-of-age memoirs were scattered around my house while I was coming of age. My mother's favorite genre was personal nonfiction, and it became mine, too. "If it's a cancer memoir, they've read it," a boyfriend once said.

My mother's favorite genre was personal nonfiction, and it became mine, too.

On the flip side, my dad cannot stand most memoirs or mumblecore movies. Last winter during a snowpocalypse, my brother and I watched films on my dad's projector. When Frances Ha, Tiny Furniture, and Happy Christmas ended, my dad had a disgusted look on his face and commented, "Everyone in this movie just kept making stupid choices." My brother and I rolled our eyes and groaned: "Ever's the point! That's life! That's what the movie is about!"

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It was the same when my dad read the same memoirs I was reading, like The Chronology of Water, by Lidia Yuknavitch. 

"'I fucked up, then I fucked up again, then I fucked up some more,'" he summed it up.

"Just because you admit you're an asshole, doesn't make you less of an asshole," he said.

Doesn't it, though? Isn't there something to be said for self-awareness and failure? Humility?

I've read about my students' suffering from alopecia areata, molestation, miscarriages, abortions, countless rapes, mothers with butcher knives, suicide attempts, dead sisters, newborn open-heart surgery, toddlers with leukemia, toddlers getting hit by cars, fathers who leave, mothers who leave, divorce, crippling eating disorders, cerebral palsy, and wrist-slitting.

I read these first-person narratives on my couch, over the stove waiting for my rice to boil, on the F train, while getting a pedicure, while cozy in bed, their words bleeding into my dreams. In class, I have to look into my students' eyes and speak to their writing, but in that, their life.

The edits on my own essay collection were due in the midst of my teaching two in-person nonfiction classes and one online. I read stories about depression and anxiety in the morning and in the evening edited my own. It felt, at times, like a nonfiction nightmare.

It felt, at times, like a nonfiction nightmare.

"Cliché," my editor wrote on my manuscript. "Cliché," I wrote on my students' pages. I upped my self-care. I splurged on massages. I hit the yoga hard and the wine harder.

Regardless of where I was and what I was doing, an hour before class began, I had diarrhea. I told a friend, and she said David Foster Wallace spoke of having irritable bowel syndrome before teaching, too.

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When class ended, though, I felt an adrenaline rush and a sense of purpose. Since age 15, I've sought out jobs in which I was replaceable. The less responsibility, the better — that way I could live inside my own head and wouldn't be drained when I returned home to write. Teaching is the first job I actually care — too much? — about.

No one counts on me, in my life. My friends and family, sure, but even they can go on functioning without me. No dog waits for me to feed him, no boss waits for me to show at 9 a.m., no child waits for me to pick them up at day care. If I hike in the woods or walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, no one will know where I am or expect me home at a certain time. Memoir class is the first time in years people have counted on me, needed me to show up, to be prepared, to hold their stories. I don't take this need of my nonfiction writers lightly, because I am one of them.

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I've adapted the I-am-the-only-person-being-paid-to-be-in-this-room teaching philosophy and am hyper-vigilantly ready to use it at all times; alas, my students are too polite to ask me who I am. They don't ask me where I went to college. They don't ask me about my books. I am simultaneously relieved and disappointed.

Over breakfast with a writer friend, I tell her I am afraid I will fuck up a student's relationship with their writing. I told a someone her voice was "flippant" and she seemed hurt and I spent that night in bed worrying. "Maybe you're nicer than me because I think if something like that hurts someone, maybe they're not supposed to be a writer," my friend said. She has a point. When I took the memoir class, the older ladies hated my use of the words "fucking" and "pussy" and I fought them on it. I didn't care about being liked then as much as I do now.

I didn't care about being liked then as much as I do now.

The girl without a pen is now an adult woman with five pens in case someone needs one. I arrive half an hour early rather than late. I don't leave for the bathroom when I'm uncomfortable or bored. I listen rather than interrupting to hear the sound of my own voice (mostly). I make jokes when there's an opportunity. We all crack up. The sense of camaraderie in the classroom gives me more unexpected joy than I've felt in a long time.

"What if you could just show up?" my therapist asked me when I was complaining about the lackadaisical teenagers in a writing course I was teaching.

"What if you didn't have to teach them anything?"

"What if you could still be learning and teach at the same time?" she asked.

I've always thought of writing as similar to Fight Club. Do it, don't talk about the magic of it. But now my job is talking about it, instructing others to do something I have no concept of myself.

When I waitressed, I wanted to sit at the table. When I poured drinks at a wedding, I wanted to be the person drinking. When I worked as a sales girl, I wanted to be a shopper. This feeling is most excruciating in writing class. When students ask me questions about plot and tell me they're blocked deciding on major dramatic questions for their memoirs, I want to say, But don't you see? I don't fucking know! I'm one of you!

But I don't. I answer to the best of my ability. Some days I eat complete shit. Other days I nail it. Mostly I fall somewhere in the middle. This, I've heard, is called being human.

On the Amtrak back to Hudson, I pull my students' pages out of my backpack, sip my wine on ice, and escape into the tragic comfort of their unhappy endings. I draw tiny red hearts above the sentences I love.

Chloe Caldwell is the author of the novella Women. Her essay collection I'll Tell You in Person will be out in October from Coffee House and Emily Books.

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