By Hector Duarte, Jr.
NOM DE PLUME?
“I HAVE GIVEN YOU MY SOUL; LEAVE ME MY NAME!”
The above quote is from John Proctor. The main character in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
I am a writer. Not one you’ve ever heard of, but it’s something I do. It’s my passion.
Writing doesn’t pay the bills for me yet (fingers crossed). Which is why I also teach.
After I recently applied to a new school, one of the first things administration did was run a Google search of my name. One of the first things to pop up was a little fictional number I wrote years back about a high school student fantasizing about his hot high-school English teacher. It doesn’t get too racy. In fact, the teacher smacks the narrator’s desk, knocking him out of his fantasy, before it can get anywhere torrid. That’s part of the rub.
Search up the story now and it’s gone. I was asked by administration if there was any way I could make the story harder to find because, “These kids will find you.” I keep in regular touch with the editor of the site, who gladly obliged and added, “That story has given you enough trouble.”
My new administrator is right. Kids find you. Over the years of teaching middle-high students, the story has come up, along with countless questions and comments ranging from: “Mister, I never expected you to write something like that,” to, “Did that really happen? Is the teacher someone in the school?”
Many students and adults have trouble differentiating between fact and fiction. Many thought that story was true, ignoring the fact it was a clear exercise in narrative voice and point-of-view. So, here I am years later being asked to hide something I spent a lot of time on. Taking that story down was, and continues to be, a tough moment for me. I felt I’d sold out, gone soft, given in to powers that be.
What could I do? I have to eat. And the truth is, as of this moment, the writing game does not pay the bills. It’s a hustle I don’t expect to make money off. That was one of the first things I told myself when I started taking it seriously: “Don’t do this shit for the money.” Would I love to write full-time? Of course. But, admittedly, the paranoiac in me feels once I get paid for it, writing will cease to be a labor of love and just become labor.
So, I have to teach. But, damnit, man, I can’t teach twenty-four hours a day. I need to go home and unwind by doing something I love. Baring my soul for people willing to hear me out. This is the only thing I have to keep me interested enough in the world to go out and teach its future leaders, etc.
This got me thinking about other writers with public-sector careers and steps they take to protect their creative identities. How does it make them feel? Where is the balance?
Alora Danning (an alias used to protect the writer’s identity) is a first-year school teacher, who was instantly instructed to hide their online persona when signing up for an accreditation program. “The college I am getting my teaching credential from is adamant about scrubbing clean my online persona because past co-teachers and interns in the program have been booted from high schools for inappropriate social media posts.”
I’ve come to know Alora Danning well enough to attest to their character as top-notch. The fear expressed in the above quote comes from the fact that a parent might read one of their crime stories and make an immediate assumption about his real-life character, vices, or moral compass based on a fictional account of his own imagining.
It’s tough enough to pursue an artistic passion with so much competition: anyone can “write” and the Internet affords a plethora of publishing opportunities. But, now, those of us lucky, and talented, enough to publish have to worry whether a story—which took God knows how long to write and even that many more submissions before publication—is going to be our downfall.
When I asked Danning how it made them feel to “hide” their online identity, they replied, “It worries me, but my co-teacher said it is a challenge getting these students to read. If they did find my stories online, and read them, it might not be a bad thing (although I don’t want to find out) because it might open their eyes to a style of writing they find interesting.”
Danning’s co-teacher makes an excellent point that hits at the heart of what this overly-long rant is trying to get at. Shouldn’t parents and schools show some pride in the fact that one of their own shows a different, more creative level of mastery in the very subject they are teaching? Isn’t it beneficial to have a writer teaching your kids the ins and outs of the English language? Might not a student’s interest further spark if they found out their teacher was doing something with books other than teaching? High school can be an awkward time for some and admitting you want to be a writer might get more than a couple laughs. An author-teacher at the front of the class, leading by example, could be just the right push that student needs to embrace their calling.
My point: give us a break, society. We’re out here writing our tales as a way to understand you better. It’s our crutch with which to navigate your weird and crooked paths. We’re not all doing this to make millions and kick it in a fat pad for the rest of our lives. Although many wouldn’t fight that kind of a fate, the solid writers I know are in it for the long haul. Good, bad, come what may, they keep writing. Writing itself is the act of baring your soul. Putting words out there that in that moment in life mean something personal and vivid. It’s a sliver of ourselves for you to take and dissect, to trivialize or over-analyze at your will.
So, please, have some compassion. Understand that most of it is fiction. Is some of the material rooted in reality? Of course. The person standing in front of your child, teaching them literary analysis, writes crime fiction. So what? Does this mean they’re going to knock off a bank on the way home? Highly unlikely.
Writers and artists put their emotions out there on a regular basis to keep ourselves moving forward and hopefully entertain you, perhaps give you a different perspective on this strange life we’re all navigating. Don’t be so quick to judge. You need artists to keep a fair barometer on all the unfairness happening out there.
In the words of John Proctor, I beseech you: we’ve given you our souls; leave us our names.
Hector Duarte, Jr. is a writer out of Miami, Florida and current co-editor at The Flash Fiction Offensive. His work has appeared in Flash: The International Short Story Magazine, Sliver of Stone, Foliate Oak, Shotgun Honey, Shadows and Light: An Anthology to Benefit Women’s Aid UK, The Whimsical Project, Spelk Fiction, HorrorSleazeTrash, Pulp Metal Magazine, and The Rumpus. He teaches English-Language Arts to high school students and listens to, (as some friends might argue), too much Phish. He has lectured at The Crime Fiction Here and There and Again Conference in Gdansk, Poland; the second and third Captivating Criminality Conferences in Corsham, England, and Theorizing the Popular at Liverpool’s Hope University. He has also moderated panels at Miami Book Fair and the AWP Conference in Los Angeles. He loves his cat, Felina, very much.
I found this a fascinating post--both for all the points you make and, more personally, because I teach too and have just written (and had accepted, but not published) a story that has resonant content and that I would also describe as an exercise in voice and POV. Selfishly, I wish the story was still available, because I'd love to read it! May reach out offline....
In the meantime, thanks for the fine post and provocative thoughts here.
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