I should have pursued a degree in psychology. It would have made it much easier to deal with the number of unhinged students who gravitate to creative writing classes. I've had a paranoid schizophrenic, who explained the mind set of a Twinkie in a story in which said snack cake was not the main character but simply a snack cake (sometimes a Twinkie is just a Twinkie). I've had a terminally depressed student, who filled her journal with reflections on the effects of her medications and tales of women having psychotic breakdowns that ended in suicide. I never quite know what I'm supposed to do for them. Therapist is not part of my job description.
And now, early into this new semester, I have this to contend with from a student who's missed pretty well all the classes we've had so far:
I have a Dr. whom is retiring in conjunction with the closing of his clinic. As such I have been passed off, once again, to a clinc where I was told there wasn't Dr.'s familiar with my conditions and would have to wait for a GP, a famously long test of a patients, so to speak. I have 7 more days of med's and have to go to a ER to have them re-filled, by extension the Dr.'s can write me a note to confirm I have a mental illness but won't be able to excuse each individual absence in lack of familiarity etc. etc. It's an alarming way to excuse myself, but I have been through much in the way of sexual abuse, heroin addicted mother, placement in group homes, and the list goes on... I kind of had too much to deal with and became ill - not in any way, "mental" just very unable to cope. I'm trying to be a promising student but life has a funny way of throwing you curve balls. Thank you for your understanding, (sic)
All I understand from this note is that she is going to be a difficult student. She already is a difficult student, who does not come to class, for whatever reason, who has not handed in the homework online, and who has been outrageously unprepared when she has shown up for two half-classes. Truth is, I'd pegged her as someone with a drug problem based on her behavior, so I'm not entirely surprised by this fractured missive (which is just the latest in a string of excuse-laden missives from her). She'd possibly make a good character for a story, but as a student she is a nightmare who is wasting everyone's time, including her own.
Now, I know that the structure of a writing class might help her in unfathomable ways, might allow her to channel and contain her scattered thoughts and troubling experiences and turn them into something productive and workable outside herself from which she can get a new perspective. I do believe creativity can be healing. Being a part of the class might also bring her back into the fold of the regular world, make her part of a group that includes her as one of its own. But she's simply not up to it. Furthermore, the main activity of such a class is to provide constructive criticism of submitted writing, which is tough on everyone no matter how well-adjusted, but even more so for someone who is already finding it hard to cope with life in general. When all is said and done, she may actually be creating more stress and problems for herself. She's certainly creating problems for me.
I am not an unsympathetic person--I am the person my friends call when they are having personal crises, when they need to talk it out and be helped or simply listened to. Perhaps this student's list of ailments and injustices is true, and she is doing her best under difficult circumstances. But dealing with mental breakdowns of students I don't even know, who want me to make exceptions for their miserable history and their messed-up present is above and beyond the call of duty as far as I'm concerned. Creative writing class is not group therapy, and I am not trained for such interventions and judgment calls.
Plus I have 20 other students to consider. My job is to pass on what I know about writing within a structured and reliable environment where our mutual expectations are clear and fulfilled. The less touchy-feely the whole process is, the better. And in the past, I have noticed that one erratic student in such a close-knit environment can affect the class as a whole. There is already palpable tension in the room when she marches in an hour late, and then repeats the same point like a scratched record during critiques, or passes because she hasn't prepared for the discussion.
For the record, I recognize that many brilliant writers have had various forms of mental illness, which often fuelled their work, brought it and their readers in heretofore uncharted realms of the psyche and human condition. But one thing doesn't necessarily lead to the other, as evidenced by this sample:
"Slow and steady, she thinks. Her beauty is to be so wildly enchanting, few walk away without intent on trying and capture her all, replicate; she’s intense like that. He sees none of this,not for lack of trying, her contortions and wild eyes are unsettling, a result of the former. She is stripped of capturing ability, a byproduct. Captured in a least favored state of composure, a response in the last? Captain Composure lost at sea."
Captain Composure is not the only one who's lost.
I've called her into my office next week to discuss her problems as a student, to lay down the law, to say I'm not sure what at this point. All students are graded equally based on their performance and nothing else? Get your head straight and try again next year? Shit or get off the pot? Our time is up and that will be $100? Frankly, I just wish she'd disappear, but somehow I don't think this is going to happen.
PS. Any advice from people who have been in my position would be appreciated...