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Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Giraldi-Ohlin brouhaha and why I left academia

Many of the posts and twitterings that met William Giraldi’s NYT review of books by Alix Ohlin, a professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, sound a note of hysteria. Like all such kerfuffles, the responses have quickly moved from concrete talk about style and story to accusations of misogyny, jealousy, and viciousness. I am distant and obscure enough, here in the rural hills, to remain unruffled and at times amused. But it has made me think about my choices in life, and now to write with frankness about them for the first time.

Long ago I quit academia after five years of teaching, gaining my tenure two years early and promptly saying good-by. I have never explained here or elsewhere why I left my secure perch because I have so many friends who teach and write. The foremost reason for me was that I found tenure and full-time teaching to be a bad idea for a writer.

Ten books and three forthcoming books later—poetry, novels, and several fantasies for children--I can say that I do not regret my decision. I lost a good deal of security and salary, and I fell from the academic realm of writers, but I gained freedom to do exactly as I liked in words. No book I wrote would be needed for promotion or merit pay. I could strive as I liked, and could spend months in a way that might seem wasteful to others but was the path forward for me. I had no need to throw myself into print. As a young poet, and later as a poet and writer of stories and novels, I had no need to think better of my work than it deserved at the time.

Sudden mad desires that might result in no publication at all could be fulfilled. I could write a book that started with a vivid dream (Catherwood, FSG, 1996.) I could write a post-apocalyptic epic in blank verse (Thaliad, CA: Phoenicia, 2012). I could write a novel set entirely in and on trees (Val/Orson, UK: PS, 2009). My daughter's request for fantasies could lead me to write two Southern fantasies combining Cherokee and Scots-Irish lore (The Curse of the Raven Mocker and Ingledove, FSG 2003 and FSG 2005.) Would A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage (Mercer, 2012) be what it is--perhaps my best novel--if hurry and an academic calendar had governed my decisions?

Nor did I have to pour out my creativity (as I certainly once did) on planning classes in detail, rereading where duty led, or putting on a class performance that would draw in those who were not lured by the assigned reading. I saved all that hard work and verve for my writing and for my three children; both in turn nourished the desire to create and the joy of arranging words in fresh shapes.

Like any life, mine is smeared and marked by what I unfashionably admit to be sin and error and wrong choices. But I have been true to words. Book after book, I have made new worlds as I wished and as my joy in words led. I have in great part ignored the world’s view and clung to my own, whether that was the “smart” thing to do or not. In these matters, to paraphrase Anne Bradstreet, Vie with me if you can.


  1. I tried to plow your road within academe, Marly, and it didn’t get me very much. In the end, I arrived at pretty much the same place where you arrived—independence of mind, the freedom to say and write whatever the hell you want, is more precious than economic security or professional prestige.

    None of this is to say that we don’t want to hear what you think about the “Giraldi-Ohlin brouhaha.” We do.

  2. Yes. I'm not a writer, except by accident, but I too recoiled from an academic life, for the same reasons: it simply demanded too much of my time and too large a piece of my soul to be a reasonable bargain.

  3. D. G. Myers,

    I just imagine we have rather similar thoughts on that little matter, as I tend to enjoy your comments. And when I don't, I'm just as interested.

    Right now I'm buried in books because of a judging stint, and I am having entirely too many thoughts about style, trends, etc. in fiction. Maybe I'll get around to writing about some of them next year.


    Some accidents are meant to be. :) You have the precious deep-down joy in language that leads to fruitfulness.

    Yes, academic life is like Sendakian Wild Things without the dance: "We'll eat you up, we love you so!"

  4. What a perfect 'artist' statement and philosophy of life, Marly, and how you have succeeded - as writer, mother and human being. Bravo.

    My journey has been more modest, giving up teaching art in high-school, having a family and making art independently. Fortunately I had/have my 'patron of the arts' support me for I could not make a living doing what I love. If money and prestige means success, I am a failure, but I feel lucky in life and am happy.

    (Still working on the money part, a little :-)

  5. The only thing I'm sorry about is that I know your students would have profited if you had stayed in academia, but for your own sake and ours, I'm glad you knew yourself better and were true to that. It must have taken courage to leave it behind -- and some people can't; they have to have the income. For myself, I might be mouldering away in some classics department if I had gone the academic route; I too knew it wasn't really what I wanted and bowed out a lot earlier in the process than you did, but have never regretted that decision. I knew freedom was more important to me than security, and independence more important than institutional loyalty. Even though there have been difficult or scary times, I've never looked back.

  6. Your choice completely makes sense to me. i don't remember if you've answered this before: Did you need to find other employment right away, or were you free from needing to provide income in addition to being a mother and writer?

  7. zephyr,

    My new husband and I lived on my savings (luckily I was a good saver) and a NYS fellowship for four years while he went back to school. We also had two of our children during that time. It wasn't easy, but it was worth it in many ways.

  8. marja-leena,

    I think that we simply must start a movement for professional people to marry artists! In that way we will eliminate families with too much wealth (two lawyers, to private doctors, two brokers, etc.) and also keep artists above the poverty line...


  9. Beth,

    Clearly you were smarter than I am! Or was...

    I just had a note commenting on this from one of my former students on facebook. He was remembering when I was living in Albany, and he was in grad school there. Evidently I gave him some advice (because he wanted to be a writer then and not an actor, as he is now) that he thinks must have come from my thinking about these things in a similar way at the time.

    Interesting. Glad I was doling out the right advice...

  10. Marly,
    You have clearly done the right thing because look at what you have produced!
    I am not sure though that your response to this issue is the right one for everyone, for myself especially.
    I love teaching. Being without it, for the most part, I have felt as though part of me has been torn away. Yes, I have produced a lot of poems, finished two manuscripts (one of which has not yet found a home), and been free to think and read where I will. But perhaps because I have to worry a good deal about money and am unable even to get even tutoring because of what happened to my career, I cannot write at this point anyhow for worrying.
    Perhaps if I could get some work, I would work less than I used to and be happy to write more than I was able to when I was teaching 3 classes a semester, but the current state of affairs is unsustainable.

  11. Robbi,

    That is exactly why I have not written about it with frankness before this. It's not right for everybody.

    I am crossing my fingers and toes that you have some good luck on new work soon. This is a difficult time.

  12. Being wise re money--a "good saver"-- (and not feeling squashed by the demand to secure income) is so beneficial.

  13. Yes, we were able to live for four years on my savings and to do many things that were important to us. We could not have started a family (and it was definitely time if we were going to do it), and I could not have written stories and a novella and poems without having saved. Some people were concerned that I wasn't working while he was in school, but we were fine. Technically we were poor--no income over those four years except one NYFA fellowship--and yet we managed.

    Then the year following we moved and had a little income, and I wrote "Catherwood" on the stair landing where I could watch my children play in the room below.

  14. If you are to be judged by your works, then you made all the right choices. There is no-one like you, and I know of no-one writing with your breadth, skill, wisdom and sheer beauty. You made your choices, and every man, woman and child who has picked up one of your books to be absorbed and uplifted by what's within, will be forever grateful that you chose creativity above security.

  15. That's a splendiferous comment, Clive! Thank you.

  16. "I had no need to think better of my work than it deserved at the time"
    That strikes me as a crucial point.

    In an ideal world, only those who felt truly called to teach would teach. I know plenty of such gifted writer-teachers, but also am aware that a certain percentage get pulled into it because they feel it's their only alternative. That's too bad... though it's still better than most other ways that writers could a living, I suspect.

  17. Basically, you found what was right for you, Marly. It was the right choice for you.
    Clearly, very much so!

    I also went against the grain and have lived my life in a way contrary to everyone's expectations or hopes for me - but I love it my life!


  18. Dave,

    Yes, it's good to skip those pressures. And you have certain gone down your own Plum Hollow path!

    I liked teaching, but it does consume one...

  19. Paul,

    I suppose you were forced by health issues at that time but also by Paulian wisdom. I admire that you had some at such a young age!

    You do so many different things in the arts. It's as if you have a big bouquet of many flowers. No matchy-matchy for you...

  20. Well, that is incredibly sweet, Marly - but not strictly true.

    You have pure gold on the end of those fine arrows of yours : )

  21. I'd say it is true! You write music, but you also paint and make films (and films of my poems!) and make bespoke frames and splendid gardens and whatever you feel like building... Etc.

    Thank you, Mr. Digby! XD

  22. i love Clive's comment and feel the same way about you and your works. And, selfishly, i wish i had known someone with your perspective and spirit as i was growing up and trying to "become". Being an artist, of any sort, is always a unique struggle, but being able to see how it can what word am i looking for?...i guess it is this one: lived in such a productive and "growing forward" way would have made a big difference for me, i am sure. The whole money/job thing was a curse placed on me by my scary father and at such an impressionable age that i've never been able to shuck it, and i continue to pay a price. It gets in the way too often. i was supposed to become a teacher and i did as i was expected and made my way into the college system and then also left because it would have squashed me, too. By the way, i'm not looking for pity or cheerleading, simply sharing my perspective and trying to explain why your words on this subject resonate so positively with me, and why i hang around the palace.

  23. zephyr,

    I doubt that I can take credit for anything more than muddling my way to where I needed to be! Perhaps I simply don't remember, but though I remember being obsessed, I don't recall having clarity. It seems to me that I didn't quite grow up until thirty. Then I settled in, knew the right way to be, and got a lot of work done. I admire young people who have more clarity.

    And I think that I went a long way on the wrong path, in part because of the expectations of others. They can be quite powerful, even when left mostly unvoiced. One of my potent influencers had the strong opinion that I could do multiple things well, and that I didn't need to be married and have children. For the past quarter-century, I have worked at books and family, with the occasional speaking/teaching/judging gig on the side.

    Glad you hang around. At the moment I live in a book midden but the major reading will be done by mid-September, and then I shall have more thoughts about this and other things!

    Oh, and thank you for feeling the same way as Clive! That was a beautiful thing to say, and I hope to live up to that good opinion.

  24. We all agree with Clive, I am certain Marly.

  25. Hi there, Robinka, and thanks for the vote of confidence!

  26. Me too, Marly, I agree with Clive:~)


  27. Lucy, thank you! Glad you do... I'd be sad if Box Elder disapproved of me!

  28. Back to follow up the comments... I too agree with Clive's comments! and have enjoyed reading all the others... the artist's struggles and all...following one's heart and voice...

    Is it harder today, I wonder, as I see our daughters struggle even more than I think I did?

  29. I'll have to think about that one--shall do while I'm out walking!

    I do think that there's less encouragement for art that is not mass market, though, and more of a sense that people are idiots for pursuing certain paths that will not lead to lucre.

  30. Oh, and another thing--we're all too busy. Our time is parceled out, and if we have children, they have complicated lives that are also parceled out... There is not enough time for the kind of idleness that leads to creativity.

  31. Marly, I do like your invitation to comment thing above! Nice not to have to squint at house numbers too.

  32. Any invitation with Balrogs has got to be exciting! XD

    I know the new version of word verification had gotten hard to see because I've had a hard time making out the letters and numbers on other blogs.

    Luckily the spam finder appears to have gotten better.

  33. Thank you for writing this, Marly. Being on the cusp of a possible leap into the academic grindhouse, I am thankful to hear of the story of how you made a different choice and were blessed for it. Man... making choices is hard. Sheesh. Almost as hard as being honest about what you really want, for some of us. Sigh. But there is always more grace for us.

  34. Martyn,

    "Always more grace..."

    Good luck with discerning what your gifts are and meditating on where they could lead, whether it's onto an academic path or something else entirely!

  35. Unruffled by the kerfuffles,Marly, you are and will always be one of my heroes, partly because you made this choice.
    Love, Mary

  36. Hey there, Mary--

    I am honored to be a hero of somebody who has gone her own way in art (and is much taller than I am to boot!)



Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.