You know that the whole thing about perfectionism...the perfectionism is very dangerous, because, of course, if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results in...it's actually kind of tragic, because it means you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is. And ugh, there were couple of years where I really struggle with that.
I played (real) serious tennis when I was a child. I played it enough to...to start to feel like it was beautiful.
You were seventeenth in the United States Tennis Association Western Section when you were fourteen years old.
That sounds very impressive. That's a regional ranking, and it means that I was probably four thousandth in the nation for my age group.
But could you have been better? Was it a matter of choice that you didn't pursue it?
I perhaps could have been somewhat better. One of the interesting things about playing competitive sports as a child is that you confront your own limitations rather starkly at a certain point. For the first couple of years I was very good and was regarded as promising. And then after I developed for two or three years, it became very clear exactly how good I was gonna be, which was I could probably be a good college player, but that I was never gonna have professional potential.
And so, you passed up on it.
I didn't pass up on it. I kept playing. But there was a difference between training. I mean, the people who seriously, seriously play, devote their lives to it, sort of the way monks do. I mean, you don't date. You go to bed at a certain time. You eat certain ways. You practice ten to twelve hours a day. And I mean, the difference between practicing three hours a day and practicing twelve hours a day is everything. And I certainly never...I never trained seriously after the age of sixteen.
Were you also, at that point, attracted to other things, like writing?
I wasn't all that attracted to writing originally. I read a great deal. My parents read a great deal. I do know that as my interest in tennis waned, my interest in academics increased. I mean, I started doing my homework in high school and discovering that it was somewhat fun. And then in college, I barely even played on the team because just classes were a lot more interesting.
But then there's also the drug factor here, which plays a major role in this book.
You know, it's really interesting. I was a very difficult person to teach when I was a student. And I thought that I was smarter than my teachers. They told me a lot of things that I thought were retrograde or outdated or B.S. And ugh, I've learned more teaching in the last three years than I ever learned as a student. And a lot of it is that when you see students work, where the point, whether it's stated or not, is basically that they are clever, and to try to articulate to the students how empty and frustrating it is for a reader to invest their time and attention in something and to feel that the agenda is basically to show you that the writer is clever.
All the kind of stuff, right? When I'm doing my little onanistic, clever stuff in grad school, that when my professors would talk to me about it, I would go, "Well, they don't understand. I'm a genius. Blah, blah, blah, blah." Now that I'm the teacher, I'm starting to learn. It's like the older you get, the smarter your parents get. Now I'm starting to learn that they had some smart stuff to tell me.
And you're probably further victimized by all of this because certain kinds of students will gravitate to your class. And those are people who think that they're kindred spirits.
Yeah, in a certain way. Although the only way that I'm well-known at Illinois State is that I'm the "grammar Nazi." And so any student whose deployment of a semi-colon is not absolutely Mozart-esque knows that they're gonna get a C in my class, and so my classes tend to have like four students in them. It's really a lot of fun.