Jim Shepard: The Importance of Being a Teacher

On May 6, One Story, at its annual Debutante Ball honored Jim Shepard with its mentor of the year award. Accepting the award, Jim gave an inspiring speech about what teaching means to him, and why he puts so much of his time and energy into mentoring and help others to become better writers.  The text of that speech is below.

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Thank you Josh, and thank you Hannah and Maribeth, and all of the One Story staffers, for the work you’ve poured into this celebration, a celebration that it helps me, when I’m feeling particularly unworthy, to remember is both a fundraiser and an acknowledgement of the indispensability of One Story in particular, and small literary magazines in general, to what remains of American intellectual culture.

Because if I don’t think of it that way, I end up being very moved, and a little appalled, that so many of you came so far to be a part of this.  I trust and hope that running into lots of old friends, and a shitload of free liquor, has helped to make it all worthwhile.   If it hasn’t, then once I’m finished talking, there’s still time to chat up some celebrities like Josh Ferris or Dani Shapiro or Karen Russell.

I recently introduced three ex-students, each of whom are here tonight, who were giving a reading in Manhattan, by noting that when you teach for as long as I have – and at this point some of my undergraduates think I was a contemporary of John Quincy Adams – you not only get to know a mass of students who are strikingly talented, but also a number who are just astonishingly appealing and impressive human beings.

In other words, when you teach, if you take it seriously, you not only occasionally have to deal with people who make you want to hang yourself from a shower head.   Because of the peculiar intimacy of what you’re up to, you also encounter an increasing number of people who move into the category of your favorite people on earth.   And right now a startling percentage of that category in my case is gathered in this room.

It’s always seemed to me that humility, for all its importance, should be one of the easiest virtues to cultivate.   Given that mostly what we’re doing when engaged in literary writing is confronting our own limitations, I’ve always been in the mode of trying to learn something myself, and doing my best to allow whomever wanted to be nearby access to that process.   And I’ve tried to model a way in which one method for dealing with the hopelessness of our limitations, and for maximizing our capacities for patience and for engagement with the world around us, is to remember to stay in touch with play.

With the passionate engagement that we all manage, as children.   That’s been part of what’s been behind my strategy – if such a thing could be called a strategy — of teasing everyone and everything.    That willingness to play is what keeps us going, and what helps us out of all those cul-de-sacs and unpaved roads down which we’ve strayed, so that every so often we can arrive at those little intersections of accomplishment and joy.  And play is what lets us imagine, each time we arrive there, that this is just the beginning.

I want to thank each and every one of you who has worked with me for your willingness to indulge what you’ve probably experienced as the disconcerting intensity of my obsession with close reading.   Close reading as a  way of waging war on where we’re headed as a collective.   As a way of fighting what feels like a rear-guard holding action on reading and writing’s behalf.

I want to do whatever I can to remind people of the sorts of things that many of you have heard me advocate many times in many different ways:  that all writing is political writing; that privilege will always have the impulse to turn away from suffering; that we need to remain alert to the ways in which we continually fail one another; of the spiritual and practical importance of tenderness; and of the ways that we need to allow hope to grow, even as we see clearly what’s likely to destroy that promise.

I came from a town, and a high school, that polite people called shitholes, and partly for that reason, I cherished those teachers I had who never stopped working to remind me how fortunate any of us who got out of such places truly were, and how much our good fortune so often depended on what others had given us.

As many of you already know very well, giving yourself over to other people is expensive, in terms of time.   Being an adequate teacher, never mind a good one, means having less opportunity and energy to do your own work.   But as a teacher, turning over my imagination to someone else’s work is very much like the way as a writer I’m also turning over my imagination to distant and initially strange sensibilities.

In both cases in doing so I’m continually giving myself away, in both senses of the phrase, and I’m also continuing to try to renew myself, and to make myself a more interesting, and less socially inept, human being.    And many of you right now are looking at me and going, “Well, that didn’t work out.”

When two people work together on something about which they care passionately, it often looks like this:  one offers what help she can, and the other accepts it, and together they construct something amazing.  And in doing that work together, they’re the ones who’ve been smart enough to recognize the luck that has come their way, perceptive enough to see each other with an enviable clarity, and generous enough to have said to one other, Here I am for you.

If all literary writers are in some ways exiles, negotiating an isolation imposed from without and within, then part of what we offer one another when we offer the gift of a more perfect attention is a temporary home.  The feeling there’s at least one place we belong.   The chance to become one another’s relief.

And it’s mostly through that coming together — on the page or across a desk – that we make any progress at all in that search for a more ideal version of ourselves: a version more willing to put in the hard work of making sense of the world, a version more likely to continue to attempt to extend its empathetic reach, and a version that strives to be more even-handed, and even more generative, when it comes to compassion.

So: for everyone here with whom I’ve worked, or even interacted:  thank you – for putting up with this – and for all you’ve done to make me a better person.

  • What a beautifully insightful, selfless individual. I’m only sad that I don’t know him personally. Otherwise, I believe the world is better for having him.