The Perfect Essay, Kafka’s Abyss, and My Mother

The relationship between writer and teacher is no simple thing. For John Kaag, a former professor of expository writing at Harvard, the most vital component of this relationship is intimacy. Despite the persistent image of the writer as solitary figure, Kang sees companionship–specifically critical companionship–as essential. For many writers, the search for a truly compatible teacher–the Gordon Lish to their Raymond Carver–can be a lifelong journey. But for Kaag, the tutelage began at home, under the watchful eyes of his mother, a high school English teacher. From the Opinionator:

The intimate nature of genuine criticism implies something about who is able to give it, namely, someone who knows you well enough to show you how your psychic life is getting in the way of good writing. Conveniently, they’re also the people who care enough to see you through the traumatic aftermath of this realization. For me the aftermath took the form of my first, and I hope only, encounter with writer’s block.

Franz Kafka once said: “Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.” My mother’s criticism had shown me that Kafka is right about the cold abyss, and when you make the introspective descent that writing requires you’re not always pleased by what you find. But, in the years that followed, her sustained tutelage suggested that Kafka might be wrong about the solitude. I was lucky enough to find a critic and teacher who was willing to make the journey of writing with me. “It’s a thing of no great difficulty,” according to Plutarch, “to raise objections against another man’s oration, it is a very easy matter; but to produce a better in its place is a work extremely troublesome.” I’m sure I wrote essays in the later years of high school without my mother’s guidance, but I can’t recall them. What I remember, however, is how she took up the “extremely troublesome” work of ongoing criticism.

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Photo: Smithsonian, Flickr