A Love Letter to the Classroom

In Michael Downing’s new novel “Still in Love,” a creative writing class is the setting—and the crucible for change
Michael Downing sitting at his desk with a laptop
“One of the things I love about the creative writing classroom is how unpredictable it is, and the possibility of one’s life path being altered or deepened by an experience inside it,” Michael Downing said. Photo: Melody Ko
March 29, 2019

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In an overcrowded room with twelve black armchairs, a man known only as the Professor lays out his rules: No phones or devices. No extensions on the weekly creative writing exercises. And no excuses. “If you find your expectations defeated and your creative temperament offended, you should probably stick around,” the Professor says. “The rest should leave.”

So begins Michael Downing’s new novel Still in Love (Counterpoint), which follows mild-mannered Mark Sternum—the protagonist of Downing’s earlier novel Perfect Agreement—through his tenth year co-teaching with the intimidating Professor at the fictional Hellman College.

From its spirited group discussions on grammar and syntax, confidences shared during office hours, and snippets of Mark’s own writing—centered on a writing teacher named Mark—emerges something rarely seen nowadays: a love letter to the classroom.

“I think of the classroom as an incredibly important cultural space and personal space, and one that’s increasingly undervalued and under threat,” said Downing, a longtime lecturer in English who teaches creative writing. A classroom “is a chance to understand that we can choose to be in a community, and to understand the individual experiences within it. It often requires an effort, but the rewards are real.”

Still in Love was also inspired by Downing’s appreciation of education’s ability to open our minds to new things. “One of the things I love about the creative writing classroom is how unpredictable it is, and the possibility of one’s life path being altered or deepened by an experience inside it,” he said.

As an undergrad taking a class on Old English at Harvard, squinting at verb conjugations and contemplating whether to withdraw, Downing experienced one of these moments himself. “There are poets standing in an open field in the year 1000 in Britain, trying to speak to you,” his professor, William Alfred, sternly told him. “Is it not worth the effort for you to hear them?”

Downing found that it was. After graduating, he taught creative writing at Wheelock College, published Perfect Agreement in 1997 to great acclaim, and stopped teaching—only to be invited back to the classroom by Jonathan Strong, a lecturer at Tufts he had studied with at Harvard. Twenty years later, Downing hasn’t looked back.

“One of the first things I say every semester is that I want you to feel anxious, to feel self-conscious, to feel all the things you’re not supposed to feel are productive for your work,” Downing said.

He helps students embrace that anxiety by reframing it as an exhilarating emotion that’s part of the delight of writing, and by assigning writing exercises with many limits. One of those exercises—which the Professor assigns his students in the first chapter of Still in Love—asks for a story of 250 words or fewer, in past tense, with third-person narration, featuring a man who returns to find a window open after he has told another man to leave it closed.

Besides offering limits, Downing also aims to give students a firm grounding in grammar and syntax. “I wish I wasn’t,” says a student named Anton in Still in Love, which Mark corrects: “Weren’t.” “Weren’t? I wish I weren’t. Really?” says a student named Leo; another student, Rashid chimes in, “It’s the subjunctive. Isn’t it?”

“Grammar and syntax are what that most often create an immediate sense of anxiety, because they are so fraught with irregularities, but it turns out there are rules and reliable conventions,” Downing said.

“I so wish I was an English major,” a student named Willa says later in Still in Love. “Were,” corrects Rashid. “I wish I were.” “Oh, Mark, how could you?” says Max. “You’ve put us all in the subjunctive mood.” (Mark’s students all have the first names of writers Downing loves. “It reflects the truth, which is that I love my students,” Downing said. “I’m nuts about them.”)

If students can weather the anxiety of the creative writing classroom, the rewards are great, according to Downing. “One of the really astonishing rewards of creative writing classrooms, is the chance they offer to have your very first draft taken seriously by twelve intellectuals,” Downing said. “I don’t know another situation where you can have that.”

Downing has been a prolific writer of not just fiction, but nonfiction. When choosing topics to write about, he goes with his gut. “When the initial thinking and writing yields more questions than answers, and I feel myself a little at sea, that’s a good sign—that’s engaging to me,” he said. Hence his 2005 book Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time. Now his inbox is flooded with requests for media interviews as an expert on the subject twice a year, like clockwork. “It’s a little nutty. It just never stops,” Downing said. “Talk about unpredictable endings.”

Downing is already mulling his next nonfiction project, which may focus on physics or AI—“something that feels deeply influential in the culture, yet far outside mainstream people’s understanding.” But he remains devoted to the creative writing courses he teaches, and to the classroom. Toward the end of Still in Love—after Mark’s true relationship with the Professor is revealed, and before the uplifting final scene—Mark reflects: “This was not a place where people lived beyond or without limits. It was not even a habitable space. It was a moment. It was an opportunity available in the classroom to measure the distance between our intentions and our achievements, the chance to learn to love the lifelong work of mending that gap.”

That gap is at the heart of the classroom, and of creative writing, according to Downing. “We tend to be defensive of our work. We want it to be received well, to be instantly commended for what we’ve done. But the creative writing classroom is a place to develop the habit of wanting our original work to change,” Downing said. “That to me is the project of a life—to change, and to be changed by the people you encounter.”

Monica Jimenez can be reached at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu.

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