Yesterday after my intermediate poetry writing class, a student had a hard question for me. “You don’t have to answer this,” she said, “but I hope you do. So do you ever regret going into the field you’re in, being a poetry teacher?”
“Well,” I said, trying not to hesitate too much, raw from a recent career-related rejection and in the midst of trying to come to terms with this very issue myself. I took a breath. “Well, I dropped out of law school to do this.”
She nodded. “Yes, I remember you said that.”
I looked at her. I knew she came from the kind of family that considered college a vehicle to making a good living. I knew she’d struggled with the decision to major in creative writing, and she’d been shocked when I suggested she was talented and might consider graduate school. Finally I said, “I believe ‘success’ in pretty much any career is mostly a matter of luck. Let me put it this way: if I’d put all the same hours into being a lawyer that I’ve put into writing and teaching, and then had bad or mediocre luck, I’d be not only depressed about my lack of success but sorry I spent all those hours on something I didn’t love. As it is, I’ve had bad and mediocre luck in my own field, and at least I can say that I don’t regret all that time spent on writing and teaching.”
She let out a breath she’d been holding. “Because I find myself writing poems all the time–when I’m driving, at work, standing in line, cleaning the kitchen. I’m always having ideas for poems!”
I smiled and told her this was a wonderful thing. I really, really believe it is.
I’m still sorting through my feelings and thoughts here. I want to write a longer essay, interrogating the definitions of “success” and admitting to my own jealousy, self-disgust and despair, my own snobbery, the disappointments and the triumphs and the pettiness of making writing/academia one’s career. For now, though, I can say this: students like this one save my life, every day, because I never question whether responding to them is worthwhile. And despite all my own stupidity and mistakes, having something I do that is absolutely worthwhile, that matters–well, that’s enough to give all my choices some kind of meaning.