The Cortland Review


Robert Fink

Twenty Years Teaching Creative Writing - A sustaining meditation on teaching the craft.

Gibbons Ruark

Thirteen Ways of Listening to the Songbirds - A new series of poems to celebrate Emily Dickinson, W.B. Yeats, & Robert Frost.

William J. Neumire

William Neumire reviews the dichotomy of attachment and detachment in Robert Cording's Against Consolation.

Robert Fink

Robert FinkRobert Fink is the W. D. Bond Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene, Texas. Other literary nonfiction essays have appeared in The Cortland Review, The Iowa Review, River Teeth, The Texas Review, and Texas: Houston Chronicle Magazine.
Robert Fink - Essay



Twenty Years Teaching Creative Writing    

I tell my students to leave their notebooks and follow me. The fiction writers rise from their desks, eyeing each other like boxers coming out of their corners. The poets hesitate, suspicious as mesquites in spring. I lead them to my corner office with its large north and east windows. What will happen? The students turn the corner, queue up before the door I unlock and swing open: an invitation.

They seem reluctant to enter, taking in the walls of books, the walnut desk with its autographed baseballs, the 1950 fielder's mitt, the ceramic moose in a snow dome. I walk behind my desk, sit down in the oak, swivel arm chair. Groups of five come in and wait. No one asks what to do. I lean back in my chair. I smile. On top of the low bookcase beneath the east window, the jade plant bursts from its clay pot—splash of a fat man cannonballing off the high dive. In front of my north window, the ficus stretches to the twelve-foot ceiling like a young woman standing on tiptoe, arms extended over her head.

Each group of poets and fiction writers congregates before the jade plant, gaping like pilgrims departing tour busses at Graceland, like men at forty-nine removing baseball caps and placing them over their hearts, opening day. The students seem to have entered a sanctuary, all the pews filled. They stand and stare. They've never been in a vintage 1930's office with a spreading ficus, a jade plant colossal as Godzilla. One of the poets extends his hand toward the jade, touches a succulent leaf with the tip of his finger. Encouraged, another encloses a limb between thumb and middle finger as if picking a pocket.

They seem to know when it is time to leave, make room for the next group of five and return to the classroom, where one of the writers will pick up her pencil, write something on the yellow legal pad. The others will notice she apparently understands what they are to do. One by one they begin to define what has happened.

A poet, the last to depart the office, looks away from me and snaps a leaf from the jade, catching in her palm the single drop of liquid from the stem. She will root the cutting in potting soil in her apartment. She knows how to make things grow. After she leaves, I decide to wait five minutes before locking my office door and walking back to my class of first-semester, first-night poets and fiction writers already filling page after page of ruled paper.

My best hours now are 3:00 to 5:00 on Friday. At ten minutes to 12:00, I dismiss my freshmen writers, six years younger than my twin sons, loosen my tie, and head to the gym. I always save the 1989 White Rock Marathon tee shirt for my Friday run—a long, slow jog up Simmons to Old Anson, east to Fort Phantom, then north to the I-20 access road. If necessary, I can stay on the access for hours, circling the city. Eight miles is usually enough. Seldom is anyone in the faculty locker room when I return. I like to stretch out on the wooden bench for ten minutes, then take a slow, hot shower before walking to the Student Center snack bar. The snack bar grill shuts down at 1:45 on Fridays, so I grab a rye bagel and a 12 oz. bottle of orange juice from the self-serve counter. Linda, whom the students love like a mother, expects me at her cash register.

I am in my northeast-corner third-floor office a little after 2:00. Laura, the young, English instructor whose office is next to mine, is still there when I return. She is eager to finish all her work so to have the weekend free for her husband. Tonight they will dine out, maybe take in a movie, return home early.

One of my poetry students drops by the office Fridays between 2:00 and 3:00. I am sitting in the wooden, slat-backed rocking chair in the corner between the walnut bookshelf and the jade plant another student writer compared to the tree-house tree in Swiss Family Robinson. The young woman taps the door I've left open, asks if I am busy. She turns the other rocker so we are facing each other. She waits until I lay down the pad and pencil and remove my reading glasses before she begins to weep. She has been my student since she was a freshman. I have read her personal essays and her poems. She has trusted me with her life. I know she thinks of me as her father. She may even imagine I am rocking her in my arms, patting her back, her sobs ceasing. She takes a tissue from the box I offer, dabs her eyes and loudly blows each nostril, then drops the tissue in the waste basket. "Thank you." She feels much better. She will see me in class on Monday. She has to run; she is meeting her latest boyfriend across town in ten minutes.

Laura waits until my student is gone before packing her briefcase, making a noisy show of searching her purse for the key to her office. The lock clicks, and Laura calls out that she is leaving. Sometimes she asks if I am okay. I always wait until I hear the elevator going down before getting up to shut my door.



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