>James Schaap: On teaching and writing


Dr. Jim Schaap is Professor of English at Dordt College and the author of more than 20 books, including novels, devotionals, collections of short stories, and a denominational history of the CRCNA. His most recently released books appeared nearly simultaneously in November of 2010: Honest to God, a volume of meditations on the Psalms, and Rehoboth: A Place for Us, subtitled An Album of Family Stories. I recently met and interviewed him for Christian Renewal.

Glenda Mathes (GM): Last year you were a writer-in-residence at Covenant College in addition to your regular responsibilities at Dordt, which you wrote resulted in a “blizzard of papers” from working with 42 fiction writers.

Jim Schaap (JS): Yes, 42 fiction writers! Thankfully I’m done with that. I have a feeling that this spring may be a normal semester, but this fall is not because I have a couple books coming out and the promotion for one is somewhat demanding. I did a big project for Rehoboth Christian School in New Mexico on the Rehoboth mission and its history. Rehoboth has been there for 100 years and many people can locate points at which Rehoboth had touched the lives of great-grandparents; some have maintained a relationship to the institutions. That book contains 12 feature journalism stories about families who have been part of Rehoboth for a long time, so my promo for it has kept me really busy this fall, but I honestly think in the spring I’ll have a regular semester.

GM: What’s your regular schedule like at Dordt?

JS: Most teachers have a schedule of four courses per semester, and I have seven. I was teaching less, but now I’m teaching more. I think you’ll be the first announcement in any magazine, but I’m in my twilight because I have just a year and a half left. I told the administration that I’d be done at the end of next year.

GM: That was actually my next question. I was going to ask if you were making any plans to retire and about your reflections regarding retirement.

JS: I started at Dordt in 1976, so it’s been about 34 years, very close to 40 years of teaching, if you include graduate assistantships and high school teaching at the beginning of my professional career. I loved teaching at Covenant, so the idea of teaching writing at some other place doesn’t put me off, but I’ve been at Dordt long enough.

I obviously want to write more and, since it is an early retirement, that’s the plan. But in order to have some income as well, I wouldn’t mind teaching online. It’s the standing in front of class and the preparation stuff that I’m tired of. I don’t mind student papers, but I’m tired of preparation; no more inservices. We shall see where the Lord leads!

GM: How do you view the concept of retirement?

JS: For me, it is a little bit scary right now; because I think all of us are vastly more individualistic than we really believe we are, and the ritual of teaching is something which is just in me. After 40 years, it’s just there! Larry Woiwode said to me once, “If you’d stop teaching, it would take you a long time to adjust,” simply because that’s the natural rhythm in my life. You can well imagine that—for someone like me who’s basically had to write only in the summer—this simple idea of having all year to write just seems like this vast play land, so I can’t begin to think that in any way it’s going to be inhibiting. On the other hand, I remember Larry saying, “Well you know, Jim, if you retire, it’s going to be hard for you to do that.” And it may well be because all that freedom is going to be sort of different.

GM: I know from experience that deadlines force you to write, but when you have unlimited time to write, it’s more difficult.

JS: See, I don’t know that. For all of my life, all I’ve ever done is teach all year and then fill up every summer or Christmas vacation with writing projects. So right now I go out with a kind of wild exuberance. I can hear this voice saying it’s going to take a little acclimation. And that could well be. Hemingway said writing is never a full-time job, and I think he’s right in the sense that if I were to hole up and simply write, I wouldn’t touch the world. And I think you do have to stay in touch with the world more than just reading the latest news online or watching television. You do need to stay in touch, and that’s why the first thing I thought about is teaching online. Because of all the tasks of being an English teacher, the one I like the best is to take something from a kid who really wants to learn to write and help that kid write better. That I still like. I don’t get depressed about a stack of papers, what gets me is the kind of tension which arises from having to prepare for class especially when that span gets wider and wider and wider, as it does. I’ve always taught 20-year-old kids and I haven’t always been 30 years old. I’ve been 40 years old, 50 years old, and now 60 years old, and that span is just getting pretty dumb wide. Things like technology shape the way they think in a way I don’t get in the same way. And culture itself shapes them in new ways. I think for instance at Dordt today there’s a much higher level of spirituality than there was 30 years ago.

At the same time, just as the Pew poll clearly shows, our students have an appalling lack of knowledge of what faith is about. So while they raise their hands in praise and maybe pray more fervently and passionately, their theology is weird. I think that’s very evident and for me, as their prof, it separates us more and more, because I don’t think like they do anymore. And another thing that’s very, very practical—I teach literature, so let’s just take a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that appears in nearly every anthology—I honestly don’t know how they read it anymore. When they look at a story, for a long time in my teaching career, I could say, “This is going to be bothersome to them; they’re not going to get this.” And I don’t know that anymore. I don’t know how they read. My sense is that it’s very difficult for them to stick with something for very long.

For them everything is real short: Twitter and text. You and I were raised in an era in which literature had a more significant place. I’m not Chicken Little here and saying that the sky is falling, but to many students today, literature has little significance. The other day I was in a class with English majors and I asked them if they could name one contemporary poet and they couldn’t.

And then I said, “Well, did you ever hear of Billy Collins?” He’s very popular, popular in the sense of not too heady. Collins is not that hard. No, never heard of him. I said, “Well you have to have heard of Maya Angelou.”

Never heard of Maya Angelou. These are English majors. Why does that happen? It happens because of the fact that literature—in the society in which we exist today—requires more than popular media has time to give it. And I don’t mean to sound like woe and woe, but the fact is that it gets harder to teach literature then. And I believe in literature; and when you believe in it and it doesn’t go, then it gets tougher.

GM: So are students writing less these days?

JS: There are people who argue that students actually write more today than they did 20 years ago. Now that writing may include Twitter and it may include blogs and it may include letters; it certainly will include emails. But the idea is that the only writing most people would have done 25 years ago is student papers, in other words, “Check out the sea imagery in Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea.” And that’s a peculiar kind of writing: American standard English, academic writing.

Some people argue that our students are more creative today because they express themselves more frequently in a variety of media. Whether or not it’s true, I’m not an expert on that; but I do think it’s easier for students to be creative writers now than it was 20 years ago. Now I’m not willing to say that they’re better or anything, I don’t know about that, but they’re quicker to do it. Another thing I think it’s fair to say is that most college students 20 years ago were somewhat reticent; if you give a speech, you get real nervous about it. Today my students would rather say, “Let me give the speech and you sit down, Dr. Schaap.”

They’re very at home standing in front of people. They may not do it all that well, but that’s no problem whatsoever. They’re very good at believing that they’re very good. And honestly, if you’re going to write creatively, you have to believe that you’re going to be good so that makes it somewhat easier, too.

GM: You’ve written novels, short stories, devotionals and other non-fiction; what I call a “multi-genre-tional” writer; and you’re in good company, Marilynne Robinson, C.S. Lewis and so on. Still graduate programs often force graduate students to choose between either a nonfiction or a fiction track. What would you say to the student who wants to pursue a graduate career, but wants to write both fiction and nonfiction?

JS: There’s probably a larger question behind that, which has to do with the whole MFA program and I can go back and forth on that. On the one side, you’ve got the view that says we’d be better off if we didn’t have so many MFA programs because they turn out so many people who think they’re going to be writers. On the other hand, I certainly believe that what’s most important to people who are beginning is that other people read them. When students graduate and they don’t have people to read them anymore, I always tell them to go to a Walden or to a Barnes and Noble, which almost always have a writers group or two.

In other words, they shouldn’t just exist in this little cocoon. Emily Dickinson could do that, but she’s one of very few. I think being read is a big deal. Honestly and truly, through 30 plus years of teaching at a small liberal arts college, I’ve seen a lot of kids who have talent. You know the old prescription, that accomplishment is 90 percent perspiration and 10 percent inspiration? I think there’s a lot of truth to that. You just simply have to stay at it. And that means in any of the arts—whether you want to be a dancer or a flutist or a visual artist—you just have to be willing to continue to do it, even though the rewards are pretty minimal. There are obviously people who make big money writing, but not that many. Just like there are people who make big money as operatic tenors, but not that many.

Basically in an imaginative genre, whether it’s creative nonfiction or fiction, it’s mostly a matter of “show, don’t tell.” There’re only a couple of rules you need to learn and then you need to do it. I would think that if you’re good at fiction, you’re good at some of the other things, too. If you’re good at nonfiction, you can try your hand at some of the other things. I don’t know that that would necessarily be a limitation.

GM: What advice would you give to the talented student who wants more than just to be read by others, who wants to be published?

JS: I had Raymond Carver as a prof at the University of Wisconsin, and he said to me once, “Best rule of thumb as far as I’m concerned is: publish, publish, publish.” I try to live by that, so if the church that I belong to, the Christian Reformed Church, said to me 25 years ago, “Why don’t you try your hand at kids’ devotions?” at the time my kids were little, why not? Let’s try that. “Why don’t you try your hand at a history book?” Okay, let’s try that.

I like the old concept of a man of letters. I think when finally my computer shuts down for the last time and I say, “Well, this is the body that I cranked out; I got several novels, I got this history of the denomination, and these plays and this biography, I hope the Lord says to me, “You did okay.”

I try hard, and I never got reviewed in the New York Times. I would love to still turn out a couple novels that sell well; that never happened, but there’s always for me something more important than writing and that is not only my relationship to God, but also my relationship to my family. I sometimes wonder if I were willing to sacrifice everything for writing whether I might have been a better writer.

In any of the really high-profile professions, you have to give of yourself totally and I don’t. I always liked teaching. Now I just told you I wasn’t going to do it anymore, but I’ve always enjoyed it. I’ve had a good life in terms of writing a variety of different things and enjoying them all. My number one joy is fiction, but it’s also most difficult. I’ve got two novels that I’d love to be able to sell, but neither of them is finished because I’ve re-written them four or five times. I just don’t have them right yet. But writing fiction is better than anything; I’d rather do that than anything.

GM: So you continue working on a novel until you feel that you have it right?

JS: I know when they aren’t there and I also know what it’s like to write a novel and then figure out that it’s there. And I know with both of these it’s not there yet. So on the ride down here this morning from Northwest Iowa—even though I’ve got class preparation on my mind and I’m listening to a book on an iPod—I’m still thinking, “What’s wrong with that pastor? Why can’t he tell that story?” And I don’t get it, but when I retire I’ll have time. Because I do know that it happens; it’s happened to me in the past. All of a sudden, I say, “That’s it!”

This section of the interview with James C. Schaap appeared in the December 15, 2010, issue of Christian Renewal. The second section of this interview, dealing with Dr. Schaap’s perspectives on how the Reformed faith relates to the arts and denominationalism will appear in the next issue of Christian Renewal and will be posted later.


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