Graham Greene Saved Me That Year

The first year of teaching is hard. If you do it right, every year of teaching is hard, but the first is the most difficult. I was a year out of an MFA and part-time teaching all over Los Angeles. Part-time teaching is badly named. When people start teaching at the college level, they teach part-time at three or four colleges or universities. I was teaching eight classes that semester, twice as many as full-timers were supposed to teach, and I was a bit burned out.

So I picked up Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair during finals week. We’d read a lot of Greene in grad school of course. I’d admired his work without ever loving it, but this one hit me in just the right direction at just the right time.

Good books can do that to you. They don’t always do that, but they certainly can. I started reading the night before finals started. I had a stack of research papers to return to students, and I used the novel as my break, snatching six or ten pages between the volumes the students had poured themselves into. I wasn’t used to the heartbreak that students go through or the triumph either. I wasn’t used to seeing college from this side of the chalkboard.

It had been a year of firsts.

And in that year of firsts, I had decided to stop being a writer without knowing I had. I was in love with teaching. I still am. And that love for watching students adapting to the college lifestyle had pushed too many things out of my life. I’d lost friends. I’d stopped going to family functions. I had stopped writing and worse, stopped reading for pleasure.

The End of the Affair brought me back.

It’s probably not Greene’s best book, but it’s up there. A narcissistic writer makes claims like “Anyone who loves is jealous” and “I hate you, God. I hate you as though you actually exist.” By the end, we see our hero’s slow conversion to Catholicism, see that he’s a bad person, but that we like him. We admire and hate him. It’s a fantastically complex book in writing and idea as all Greene’s work is, as Greene was complex himself.

So I read it during lunch and dinner and to my wife, and I read it after they filed out of the finals, and I realized that yes, I was a teacher, but I was a reader too, and that I still truly did still want to be a writer.

And when I finished his novel, I still had papers to grade, but between them and during meals and whenever I could, I started to put together a poem that had occurred to me while reading The End of the Affair.