You taught in the John Hopkins writing program for 26 years before your retirement. What sort of impact did this role have on your own fiction? What were some of the most vital lessons that you endeavored to impart on, what turned out to be, a generation of writers?
I taught for 27 years. Sept., ’80 to June, ’07. Maybe that is 26 years. Teaching had no impact on my writing.
My main characters were often teachers in college, but you rarely saw them teaching. One story, “Eating the Placenta,” in my 1984 collection Time to Go, has a teacher trying to avoid an unavoidable student who wants feedback on a story he’s written. The teacher wants to hurry home to attend to his wife, who called him in his office to say she needs to be taken to the hospital to have their first baby. The student is unrelenting, follows him most of the way home. That’s an example of how I included my teaching experiences into my writing.
Or in Frog, a writing teacher goes crazy in the classroom, turns over a table, needs quick psychiatric help. Otherwise, I found the academic setting void of material. I kept the experience of teaching on the outskirts.
Lessons? I taught line by line, story by story, word by word. I told them there were no rules in fiction writing. I was always encouraging, pointed out where they were writing well, was very easy on them when they weren’t writing well. My young writers were very sensitive about their work, and I didn’t want to hurt any of them. My impression of their work meant a lot to them. Somehow, they all became better writers. Benevolence works. I told them never to fool themselves that something is better than it is. Don’t call a work finished till it’s the best you can do. Never change anything if you don’t agree with the change. Develop self-editing skills, because one day you’ll be out there writing alone. And so on. Practical advice. Don’t let rejections stop you if writing is what you love most to do. And don’t change a word just to get it published. If you do, even once — I don’t care for how much money or recognition — you might soil your writing from then on.
– Stephen Dixon, interviewed by Sean Carroll in the December Bookslut.