Some twenty years ago, on the coldest January on record, I decided to stop teaching. I decided that I had to be a writer, because a teacher can't be crazy.
The decision was not hard to make. I had worked an entire trimester with no vacation. I was drinking too much and the Canadian history majors for whom I was conducting a writing workshop felt it was beneath them to actually write stuff for me, to be read out loud and criticized by the other students.
"We will not do your assignments. They are too revealing, and it would be an affront to our dignity."
What do you do with a bunch of people who already have their B.A.s but somehow found themselves on welfare, going back to take my course to satisfy requirements for the dole?
Too much assertiveness training, I suppose. Control, control, you gotta have control.
The illusion of possessing and controlling everything is a powerful one, and its charms are not readily surrendered even in adulthood (The Department Head here?) So we encounter in theoreticians of self-referential art both the puzzling contempt for "real" worlds and the sentimental hope for a forcible remaking of the universe as if there were not already a universe to be acknowledged. The Impulse for such creation--Faustian in its aspirations--must spring from a sense of insignificance; for even the infant's delusion of omnipotence is compensatory for its actual helplessness.
BA's on welfare, going back to a kind of Kindergarten so they could collect their welfare cheques, going back to me for specialized writing skills, to write with a purpose. But they weren't doing any writing. And it was all my fault, they said, much as the killer instinct of their department head was also my fault, as it were. He wanted my job. Or he wanted a promotion to be over me at my job.
There was no small amount of paranoia here, as any marginal employee knows. I was untenured and rather low on the food chain.
My students were starting to drive me crazy.
There were two ways to go. One was Plan A, which was all testosterone, confronting the under-producing students and their department head who wanted my job in the first place, or Plan B.
Plan B wasn't too good. I could be found most afternoons absorbing the amber haze of a local pub, constructing great sprawling novels in the smoky air, impressing, I thought, my l920's-style flapper girlfriend, blonde hair abob, who was affecting artist's berets and silk stocking, the date of a published writer, the local Nicholas Gogol who somehow happened to be her teacher of English.
Married, thirty-something, bored and not yet decided between an academic nunnery down there at York or the house of the rising sun.
Scott and Zelda, Ivan and Celia.
Yet the untrammeled killer instinct of my enemy at the College was showing some of its force. What thugs academics are. Build an empire. Screw the students. Manipulate the students to your purpose. Become department head and course director, then Dean.
Someone was looking for a deanship and he had set his homeroom on a children's crusade to get old Ivan.
Enough that I'd quit, quit even though they offered me some plum. I surrendered the vows and took off with my glamorous girlfriend for Mexico. I would be Gaugin in Tahiti. I would come back with my marvelous sprawling novels, meet some Don Juan up on some mesa and know at last the meaning of life.
The hell of it was that it worked.
I came back from Mexico with the novel. The girlfriend I'd somehow lost in transit.
Back in Newmarket, manuscript tucked under one arm, I came across the department head. He seemed shaken and not altogether sure of himself. He had just gone through his second divorce and had had a negative experience with his psychiatrist.
"So how have you been?" he had asked.
"I did well," I answered. "Came back with a manuscript and a new degree."
And that's where the department head revealed himself.
"You know, I haven't seen you for some time, but now I already feel I have seen too much of you."
Why you little prick.
Academics are slime.
I fussed and fumed over this for some time, then I had a coffee with Chief Armand LaBarge, local cop and a personal friend. Armand has a sense of humour: "But you're an academic too."