Don’t Take Any Jobs

April 10th, 2007

by Matthew Stadler

In 1989 I was in Holland trying to write a novel when I went broke. I wasn’t “legal,” because my stated profession (writer) wasn’t a profession at all, but something I toiled at without pay. The policemen in Groningen had grown tired of me. I wasn’t a student; I wasn’t a tourist; I didn’t take jobs. I claimed to be a writer but no one had published me. I spent my days at the library and the provincial archives, wrote my novel, and lived cheap, a Unabomber-ish existence that fell well off the grid of Dutch legal categories.

I reported once a month to the police department, where they were working to resolve my case. Every month: the same sergeant, the same small, metal desk, the same thin clutch of useless papers, the same exasperated sighs. On the fifth visit, the sergeant told me to just stop coming. “Don’t take any jobs and please don’t bother us,” is actually what he said.

When I went broke I moved back to Seattle, where a private school said they would hire me to teach. My qualifications were better (I taught at a K-12 school in Manhattan before moving to Holland), and I arrived, mid-Winter, to a job in my home town with people very much like my parents teaching children very much like I had been in a building very much like the one where I had gone to school. Everything about “this, my new life” (a phrase that lodged itself inside my head at almost the very moment I debarked from the airplane), seemed fitting for the kind of writer I was (ceaselessly toiling, forever obscure, scholarly, tweedy, etc.), but it didn’t last long.

First, someone (Scribner’s) bought the novel I had written before moving to Holland; and second, I learned that a teacher at the school had been fired for having sex with one of the students. What revelations! The news from Scribner’s was no surprise. (I must have been insufferable: I’d quit my job and moved to Holland presuming someone would publish my novel; a dozen rejections only made me wonder why the process took so long; I even applied for a teaching job at Oberlin College, offering my manuscript as the required “one published book,” which I described as “early on in the publishing process;” Peter Cameron got the job, and I still feel wronged.) The second revelation, about the teacher, was interesting because sex offenders had become my subject. The Dutch research was on hold (separated from me by “this, my new life”) and I had begun writing what some have since characterized as a “sympathetic portrait” of a man arrested for having sex with a boy. The coincidence was uncanny. When I met my new principal for lunch and told her all this delightful news, she looked at me in horror and suggested that it would be better if I didn’t teach at her school.

And that is how I became a professional writer. It’s remarkable how most of our lies eventually come true. Sadly, paradoxically, as much as I liked writing, I truly loved teaching. I even felt a kind of civic duty, a calling, to be a teacher in service of a greater public good. Nothing irked me more than the spoiled complaints of other writers in town who had landed teaching jobs at the big public university. “…the classes are a drag, but I’m on leave every third year, and there are the summers…” These smug shirkers were to me the worst kind of robber barons, pillaging the commons at the expense of people who simply wanted an education. But so it was in this, my new life.

In 1989, Seattle was full of what photographer Charles Peterson called “screaming life.” The pooling magma of my childhood—all those bored teenagers teasing their hair for Battles of the Bands at suburban roller rinks—had come to a head and erupted in trashy little halls all over town: Mountaineers Club; The Crypt; Danceland USA; St. Joseph’s Church basement. There were nearly a dozen places where a band could put on a show for the cost of a PA rental and 1000 flyers. The effulgent flora of this thriving ecosystem were the colorful, overburdened telephone poles onto which every band stapled every bright new flyer announcing every fabulous show. The city finally banned the stapled flyers, in the 1990s, in a brief, misguided attempt to pinch the flower tops off what was, by then, the most ravenously extensive cultural blackberry plant Seattle had ever seen: “Grunge,” as it became known.

It was inspiring, especially the ease and boldness with which these bands declared their earth-shattering importance. A crucial band of the period, Mother Love Bone, was just then passing, as their genius glam singer—a wonderfully deluded rock god, Andrew Wood, aka “Landrew the Love God”—died of a heroin overdose that spring. A common version of the scene’s history takes Andrew’s death as the expulsion from paradise, the beginning of exile to the corrupted lands east of Eden (with heroin as the snake in the garden). The surviving members of Mother Love Bone went on to form a band with a young guy from San Diego named Eddie Vedder. They called their band Mookie Blaylock. (When the eponymous NBA star objected they changed their name to Pearl Jam.)

I didn’t go to many shows, being a scholarly, tweedy kind of guy, but I loved the flyers. One day, while admiring the bee-stung lips cut-and-pasted onto Mark Arm’s horsey face on a Mudhoney flyer, it occurred to me that I could make one too. But for what? Then it all fell into place—I would teach a class in my apartment. I had a table that could seat 11 people, and if I pushed everything else out of the way, it would fit right down the middle of my studio apartment. I went to Kinko’s to cut-and-paste a flyer announcing a ten-week writing class with a “published author” (well, nearly), for $250, at 1020 East Denny Way. My offer was astonishingly simple—give me $250, and I’ll welcome you into my home on ten Wednesday evenings. We’ll have a real good time. We’ll “learn about writing,” whatever that means. A fair exchange.

Though I didn’t know it then, I was initiating a practice that would endure in my life and grow to have more in common with what is now termed “relational art” than with any kind of normative pedagogy or theory of arts education. The landscape of my invention was opened up by the huge gap that separated two essential elements: The class had to be social; while writing— by which I mean the serious, long-haul work we call “writing”—isn’t. In that breach my plans took shape.

We were a funny little group. I had eighteen students! One was a stripper who’d done undergraduate work at Princeton. Another was just emerging from a marriage where her husband had sexually abused the kids. (That again.) Another was a poet/surfer who was straight but only enjoyed poetry by gay men, especially John Ashbery. Another was a research scientist who later won the Nobel Prize (Leland Hartwell; he won for medicine). I made class plans based on things I actually did with other people that seemed to help me write. We played pass the typewriter. One night, everyone wrote words on scraps of paper that we then put into bowls, one bowl for nouns, one for verbs, one for those tiny words that connect things, etc. We composed by drawing words out of the bowls, in a kind of bingo/madlib game that came to be called “word salad.” Another night, I brought vacation slides I’d found in an old box at Goodwill and pulled random selections from them. With each slide, I asked a class member to make up a sentence. And on the next, the next student repeated what had been said and added a new sentence. Around and around the table, two or three times, until we had a good story’s worth. Then I made everyone mash-up a text from their memory of what had been said. (A kind of make-shift, domestic enactment of Rem Koolhaas’s “culture of congestion.”) The resulting misremembered versions of what the slides had triggered were among my favorite compositions.

We drank and ate and played a lot of games. Class made us happy. The other thing we did was read together, but never our own work. “Workshop critiques”—submitting your own work for critique by the group—had only ever confused me, disastrously so in graduate school, where the workshop was full of articulate, educated people who knew a thousand ways to describe failure. I think great writing is, de facto, indefensible. It’s great because the writing is its own only argument—nothing further can be said to explain the pleasure it brings. Throw that kind of meat in front of a pack of hungry wolves, and the results will be predictable. Instead, we read great work by other people and marveled at their successes. We read closely, desirously, word by word, trying to understand how the writing we admired did what it did to us.

These practices—having maximum fun with words together and learning to read—are legitimate social armatures to the solitary work of writing. They’re what writing class is good for, and they are worth $250. With inflation, they might even be worth $500, maybe more.

I take for granted the fact that most writing workshops are rip-off promises to address things that can’t possibly be dealt with in a class, such as the act of writing. University programs and summer writing retreats are a welfare system for the professional writers who teach in them. I think some of it is criminal, but that’s not my subject here. Teaching matters to me. In this, my new life, it turned out that that conviction obliged me to invent new practices which had more in common with art than with professional educating.

The art in question emerged, at least in part, from the same drunken basement shows that had spawned the posters I loved. Somehow those same kids who spent the ‘90s drinking and head-banging (or people much like them), also liked drinking and reading, drinking and conversation, drinking and writing and art. Many of them graduated from the basement by deciding to Get Serious about their writing (or art) and Go Back To School. But some—who were too broke or lacked confidence or didn’t like schools—spatch-cocked their own classes, reading groups, lectures, craft nights, Xerox parties, publishing houses, critical journals, distribution networks—a whole economy. These were typically the ones I met in my class.

I always called the stuff they did DIY (which stands for Don’t Take Any Jobs), but in the last few years theoretical discussions in the curatorial and academic worlds have renamed many such projects “relational practice” or “post studio” work. The reinvention of these perfectly viable habits, like my class, as a form of art that can be historicized— and thus made into an object of both art criticism and professional training—is a potential cash cow for art schools that otherwise risk losing their grip on emerging artists and writers.

I think the policeman in Groningen gave me great career advice. I try to stick by it. And—despite spasms of insecurity and need, looking for a health plan or a secretary or an office or business card, that make me forget and apply, again, to some institution that’s been doing its own ham-fisted job at supporting the things that I love (books and reading and writing)—rejections have helped me succeed. I still have no job. I’m in my kitchen, teaching a class I call the “using global media workshop.” It costs $300 and meets for ten-week sessions, and our subject is the new infrastructure of the arts and how you can make it, use it, or lose it.