Help me out here. Last week, I was in the audience for Famous Writer X, who had been invited to my university, and whom said university had paid a handsome sum. We were a diverse audience, made up of community members, university dignitaries, faculty members, graduate students, and a large number of undergraduate students. In short, this was a very big deal, and the audience filled a performance hall in our student union.
Ever since then, I’ve been conflicted when it comes to deciding how I feel about the rather earthy language that Famous Writer X used in his presentation—not the earthy language from the selections of his work that he read, but the language that he used when talking to the audience members or answering their questions during the q and a. One of those questions happened to be, “Why do you use so much profanity in your work?” Famous Writer X responded by saying, “I suppose you’re also wondering why I use so much profanity in my presentation.”
“Well, yes,” I might have said. “I’m curious about that myself.”
Famous Writer X gave an answer to why he used profanity in his work, an answer that I confess I’ve forgotten, but one that I found convincing at the time. Characters are characters, after all, and they speak from their worlds in stories and novels. I understand that. Famous Writer X never got around to addressing the question of why he used so much profanity in his presentation, something I would see repeated at an awards banquet later that evening, a banquet at which he delivered the keynote address. A more formal setting with student scholarship recipients and their families on hand. I was left, then, to try to figure out I felt about our famous guest using such language at these two events.
One part of me understands that such language, such swagger, is part of his persona and obviously an attempt to bond with undergraduate students whom he must assume will relate to his street-wise irreverence. Another part of me thinks, though, that we should all be careful not to assume too much.
I remember when I was an MFA student and just learning how to be a teacher. The professor in charge of teacher training was a wonderful person from whom to learn. He taught us about practical courtesies such as always remembering to erase your chalkboard after your class was done, and being sure not to linger too long into the ten-minute break between classes. “Five minutes belong to you,” he said, “and the other five belong to the instructor of the next class.” One thing he taught us that I’ve always tried to remember was that we should never alienate a student, and, if we thought we had through something we’d said or done, we should correct the matter in private with the student.
I’ve thought of this advice in the days following Famous Writer X’s visit. I’ve thought about how the language he used assumed that his audience used similar language. I should say here that I’m no prude, but I can’t stop thinking about those members of the audience whose vocabulary didn’t include those words that Famous Writer X used and how there may have been some students who felt excluded from the audience that he was assuming would welcome his kind of talk. I’ve also thought about an essay, “No Ears Have Heard,” that I published last year in The Sun Magazine. In that essay, I recall a time when I was a teenager and I came home to find my parents visiting with some friends from church. When my father asked me where I’d been, I said I’d just been out “screwing around.” Mild language compared to the words Famous Writer X favored, but provocative nonetheless. After my parents’ friends were gone, my mother told me I was better than language like that. She asked me whether that phrase was something that I thought those friends would use. I couldn’t answer; I was too ashamed. My mother was a timid, soft-spoken woman. “Then you shouldn’t use it around them,” she said. “Do you understand?”
I did, and I still do. I sometimes fall short of my mother’s lesson, but I try my best to remember not to offend by assuming something about my audience I have no right to assume.
So this is ultimately a lesson about teaching, which as I grow older seems to be more and more about how successfully I can make students comfortable, make them trust me, make them open themselves to what I have to share with them about the craft of writing, invite them to take chances, to try things they haven’t tried before, to push them forward in the development of their talents. To my way of thinking, this is a process that takes a good deal of humility and courtesy, but then again, I’m not Famous Writer X. I could be wrong about all of this. What do you think?