Superfluous

I try not to ponder, very often, the irrelevance of a MFA in creative writing. I try not to picture myself emerging at the end of my schooling in my mid-thirties, qualified only for the same soul-suffocating jobs I’ve worked my entire life. I try not to dwell on the fact that, like a PhD, a MFA is considered a “terminal” degree, a hopeless disease for which I’ll spend a few years studying.

Many years ago a MFA may have helped the writer land a college-level teaching position. But those days are long gone. More and more schools are discovering that a graduate writing program can be a dependable source of revenue, and like the algae that spread over my neglected childhood aquarium these programs have proliferated. I counted twenty-six ads for MFA programs in the most recent issue of “Poets and Writers” magazine, each ad promising that aspiring writers such as myself will “find your voice”. And with each new program more over-educated writers are let loose upon the choked marketplace.

Publication, along with education, has become the new minimum qualification for college-level teaching jobs. A well-regarded book or two will get you a job faster than any degree.

I don’t even know if I’d like teaching. I haven’t had the experience. But since teaching is one of the few career paths available to the writer, I often wonder lately if I’d make a helpful presence at the front of a classroom, or if my anxieties about everything I don’t know would cause me to jerk about like a demented puppet before the bewildered students.

The other night I dreamt, for the first time, that I was a teacher. Or that I was trying to teach. There’s a difference. I dreamt that I was teaching writing to a group of young boys. There were only ten students, proof that it was just a fantasy. About five of them were actually paying attention to me. This seemed like good odds for the situation, so I was working it to the best of my ability.

My agenda for the class was to teach them about adverbs and adjectives. One of the most common pieces of writing advice given out is that strong sentences contain as few of each as possible. A little websurfing brought me to a decent example. First, the bad sentence:

“Making a strange high-pitched noise, the small figure moved very awkwardly away from the dead body of his master.”

Then the better sentence: “Squealing, the dwarf stumbled from his master’s corpse.”

There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but for beginning students it’s a pretty safe concept to introduce. In the dream I passed around copies of a book review written by a former student.

“Now what I want you to do,” I said, walking among the desks, ” is to cut out all of the superfluous words.” The few boys who were paying attention to me furrowed their brows. I kept repeating these directions, over-pronouncing “superfluous” as if through careful diction I could impart the meaning. “Cross out all of the words that aren’t necessary. Cross out the adjectives and the adverbs.” I was warming up, determined to mold this motley gang into a disciplined group of young Hemingways. “We’re pruning each sentence like a tree, down to its essence. So if the sentence reads ‘The brown dog barked crazily,’ then we edit till it reads, simply, ‘The dog barked’.”

Meanwhile strange events were unfolding. As I wandered among the desks I noticed that the class was changing behind my back. I’d turn to find that more students and desks had sprouted up behind me. And the students themselves were growing older, bit by bit, till the class was comprised almost entirely of adults, some of whom I knew in real life. One second there’d be a half-empty row of fidgeting preadolescents. The next second I’d turn to find the row full of friends and co-workers. Bearbait, dressed smartly in a black shirt, was bent over his desk, pencil in hand, staring at the sheet of paper and its paragraph.

I circled the class like a seasoned pro. But anxieties were devouring me from within. Who was I to teach anything? I was walking a tightrope; with each uncertain step my arms pinwheeled for balance. I paced about with a queasy smile frozen around my words, convinced that if I just kept moving nobody could pin me down as a fraud.

“Superfluous,” I repeated.

A few minutes passed like this, the students slashing away at the paragraph before them, the desks filling behind my back with older students. When I had decided that enough time had passed, I asked Bearbait to read his edited paragraph. He reddened slightly and glared at me. I pleaded silently with him. I needed to make him an example. He glanced down at his page and began to read aloud hesitantly. And as he read I realized, with regret, that he had succeeded at the task. He had crossed out all of the adverbs and adjectives. He was not helping. I needed a mistake to demonstrate the principle, but he was giving me none. Until the end, when he read aloud the last sentence; “I enjoyed this excellent book.”

“A ha!” I cried out in spite of myself. I took his mistake and ran for it. “What word needs to be cut in that last sentence, class?” Bearbait blushed again and I turned away from his reproach. The class was quiet, but I felt a palpable energy from them, a hunger of sorts. Each of them toed the line of their uncertainty. I turned slowly, scanning the class. And now every desk was occupied. It was standing room only. They watched me expectantly, their numbers increasing with each of my deliberate steps. And I realized, with a start, that underneath my nerves something thrummed, something threadbare yet alive. I turned, withholding the answer for another second, pride tearing through my desperate disguise.

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