A strong coda


My wife, Rosellen Brown, retired from her teaching position in the graduate writing program at the School of the Art Institute on May 12th, which also happened to be her 85th birthday. She had logged 28 years in that position, following 13 years at the University of Houston and a shorter time at Boston University. Add to that a number of workshops and residencies, most prominently 13 years at the Spoleto (Umbria) Writers’ Conference, with memorable stops in Napa and Aspen, at the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference and at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida.

That adds up to a heap of teaching and by all accounts she was darn good at it. Her students found her warm, enthusiastic and supportive. She despised the cutthroat atmosphere that prevails in many writing programs, which are often marked by students engaging in a scorched earth treatment of each other’s work. She created an atmosphere of kindness and mutual support in her classrooms which made it easier for students to accept and act on suggestions for improving their work. She read every single word that every student wrote – and they knew it. In contrast, an illustrious colleague had the students read their pieces aloud in class so he would not have to bother reading them ahead of time.

Although she loved her students and truly enjoyed the time they spent together, either in person or online, she also despaired of them at times. Some were enormously talented, while others really didn’t belong in a graduate writing program. Most teachers of writing agree that a key to producing quality work is inhaling huge quantities of good writing. Yet Rosellen complained all the time about how little her students had read. When she mentioned the names of the superstars of present and past generations like Alice Munro or Edith Wharton, they drew nothing but blank stares. And the students knew so little history. Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Sputnik. Nothing, no one. Every time I heard these laments, my response was, “But you’re their teacher. It’s your job to help them fill in those gaps. I’m betting your teachers at the same stage of your writing life, also complained about how little you knew, and then they set about doing something about it.”

Rosellen worried that her teaching was sloppy, lacking rigor. She is, by nature, an enthusiast, not a task master. There’s room in the world for both. My seventh-grade teacher, Miss Richmond, taught me how to diagram sentences, thus improving the mechanics of my writing, but her approach did not inspire me to write.

A key complaint of academics – and writers in particular – about their jobs in the university is the amount of time they’re forced to devote to “business” — committee meetings, hiring interviews, etc. She found ways to contain those onerous aspects of the work so she could concentrate on teaching and on her own writing. She even gave up her tenure at the University of Houston to create space for herself. There was a cost to these choices – lower salary and less job security – but it paid off in longevity and satisfaction.

So, why did she decide to leave now? She still enjoyed her students and liked the way preparing for class created structure in her weekly routines. The ghosts of Dianne Feinstein and Ruth Bader Ginsburg haunted her. No matter that they were in a different line of work; they overstayed their time. Rosellen wanted to go out on top, while she was still able to perform at a high level. She also complained constantly that she no longer understood the world her students inhabited, not their music, nor their reading preferences or the way they were drawn to writing futuristic sci-fi rather than realistic fiction.

When she announced her intention to retire to her department chair, he immediately proposed a party, an idea that she vetoed without a moment of hesitation. At the eleventh hour before our wedding, Rosellen announced that she couldn’t marry me “because you don’t like parties.” “Neither do you,” I reminded her. She was still singing the same tune 61 years later, but when a colleague whom she respects offered to do something small at her beautiful house, her defenses had been penetrated.

So, when 25+ plus colleagues, writing group partners and former students gathered last weekend for a lovely sit-down dinner, Rosellen had a chance to vanquish the very enemy that turned her against parties. Guests arrive, seek out the people they already know and never learn about the other fascinating people present. While people were eating, she stood at the head of the table and introduced every person seated there, focusing especially on how they had come to be part of her life.

After dinner, people gathered in the living room to share their stories about Rosellen and to make her uncomfortable by showering their praises on her. Truth to tell, she needed that, just as she’s needed to read the reviews and letters about her early novels, which she’s been poring over recently in preparation for finding a place that will archive her work. During a long, quiet period in her writing, she had lost the story of her notable accomplishments and her reputation as a writer of consequence in her generation.

Earlier, there had been a constant stream of acknowledgements of her and her work – glowing reviews, invitations to conferences and to do campus and book store readings, but all of that has a short half-life, so I was delighted to witness this new wave of adulation.

It’s made me think of the way praise and rewards are distributed in different professions. As a teacher and teacher educator there has been very little of that public acclaim. The rewards tend to come in very small packages, usually in interactions with individual students, parents and colleagues. I cherish those gifts, but on behalf of practitioners in so many fields like teaching, I wish there were more large stages on which their work could get its due. Make no mistake, I was thrilled by all the public acclaim my very special writer/wife received. I can’t express how happy that’s made me, but I think she would join me in wishing there was more of it to go around to people who labor in the shadows.

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Marv Hoffman

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