Thursday, May 4, 2023


 Wendall -- every other Thursday

As I was reorganizing some books and papers (i.e. moving them from one place to another, until I need that space and I move them back...) I came across some photos, including the one below. They made me think about my teaching life and how it has affected my writing life. 


My first teaching job


As an undergraduate, I was lucky enough to study with two accomplished, working novelists—Doris Betts and Lee Smith. I was particularly close to Doris. 



My professor and mentor at UNC, Doris Betts

She was the first person I knew who made a happy writing life seem possible. Although she never finished college, she still received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a full Professorship and Emerita status at UNC. Her many writing awards and nominations (The National Book Award, the John Dos Passos Award, etc.) included an Oscar for the short film “Violet,” based on one of the stories from her collection Beasts of the Southern Wild.


She was by far the most well-read person I’ve ever met—I’m still working through the mimeographed list of books she considered “necessary for life”— managed a happy, sixty year marriage, was tough as nails on a manuscript but always had time for a chat, had a great, raucous laugh, smoked unapologetically, and wrote me the kindest recommendation I’ve ever received. Although she passed in 2012, no matter what I write, I’m always wondering what Doris would make of it.


Seriously good stories.

So I never took the old adage, “Those who can’t, teach,” seriously.


Until I became a teacher—a profession that chose me, rather than the other way around.


In 1981, I became the first single woman in her twenties to teach at the (then) all-male Deerfield Academy in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts—Jeff’s old stomping ground. I didn’t apply for the job. My friend Philip Galanes (some of you may recognize the name from his etiquette column in the New York Times) felt the school needed female teachers and wrote the Dean of Faculty at his alma mater without telling me.


Initially, I thought the invitation to fly up for an interview was a prank—until I received a plane ticket. I didn’t even have a resume and had to borrow outfits from my stepmother, since my university attire was jeans only. I treated the trip as a bit of a lark, since I didn’t want the job and I couldn’t imagine that, once they met me, they would want me either.


So, I was absolutely stunned to get an offer. It wasn’t what I’d planned for myself (I wanted to work in the music business), but I figured so many stars had to align for this to happen, it had to be fate. Somehow I was supposed to be there. I said yes.


So, while most of my friends headed to law or medical school or to burn up the NYC nightlife as junior bankers, at twenty-two, I moved in as the “dorm master” for a dozen seventeen year old boys.


Me and my first year of "dorm charges" on top of my two-toned, bumper-less 1970 VW Bug

It’s hard to contemplate now the extent to which I didn’t know what I was doing. Not only had I never taught before (imagine discussing The Scarlet Letter or explaining gerunds to this crowd), I had no concept of the responsibility involved in being in loco parentis for real. If anything happened to the students, if they became ill, if they hurt themselves while sneaking out to drink (which they always did), or if there were a fire, it was on me. Nothing will age you faster than running a fire drill for three floors of adolescent boys. 


At 22, I disguised myself as a 55 year old, full-on schoolmarm. What choice did I have?

In addition to my teaching and dorm responsibilities, they insisted I coach skiing. Apparently it didn’t matter that I had never skiied. This travesty consisted mainly of my low-level team yelling from the lift, “Plant your poles, Miss T, plant your poles!”

For six nights a week, I also served as head of a dining table for nine students. There, I was expected to carve, and equally distribute, whole roast beefs, whole chickens, and my bete noir, angel food cake. There was a collective moan when, on my first try with a knife, I collapsed the whole cake. My favorite student came to my rescue, explaining it was better to cut the pieces with two forks. 


Imagine all of these tables full of nine boys and one faculty member each...

I will never forget him. He first came to my attention when his name tag read “Trout Almondine.” He changed it every day, based on the nightly special at the Deerfield Inn. Another one of my students actually listened to me when I taught On the Road and ran away to Denver. 


Deerfield was so small, my post office box number was 3. . .

As a prep school teacher there, and later at The Hotchkiss School, I had absolutely no time to write. I worried that I wasn’t committed enough or didn’t have the talent to carve out time for myself. But years later, I wrote a script about that time in my life called Lunatic Lit which got me an agent.


So, like my teaching experiences in Australia, it lead me to more than few stories. I have been teaching now, on and off, for forty-two years, and I still find it challenging to juggle my schedule and especially—since I teach screenwriting—to save enough creative energy for my own work. Whether I “can” is not for me to judge, but I guess for me, “Those who teach, try.”   


With some of my wonderful students in Brisbane, in slightly more casual environments!


Looking back, if I may quote Mr. Dylan, "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."







  1. What a history, Wendall. Talk about being dropped in at the deep end. But the experience must have given you the confidence that, whatever life threw at you, you could handle it.

  2. Ha! Zoë, I don't know about that, but it certainly was my first real experience with "faking it" and I guess that has made some things in life easier. . .

  3. What writer doesn't suffer from Imposter Syndrome, though? The feeling that we'll be delivering a talk or taking part in a panel discussion, when somebody in the audience will suddenly stand up, point the finger and shout, "You're not a *real* author!"

  4. I really enjoyed this, Wendall! I did some teaching too and was a non-resident (I had dogs) fellow in a university hall of residence--and I know I'm not cut out for teaching but hope I can someday take screenwriting lessons from you!

  5. Thanks, Ovidia! I actually am about to start looking for some possible venues for doing screenwriting lectures in Singapore, so we should talk! x

  6. Oh how I remember my years up in Deerfield environs. Loved them. Friends who worked at the Deerfield Inn affectionately told tales of dining room tables filled with young boys from DA all property dressed with jacket and tie, and courteous, ordering their meals and then paying with their OWN Gold American Express cards! That always conjured up images for me of British Colonial rule.:) On your teaching experience I felt the same way when I first stepped into my college level professorial role, one that also included a stint as "house adult" in a women's dorm. I never did though dress as a 55-year-old schoolmarm...though some may have thought I should. :)