What Our Teacher Taught Us
By Joe Milan Jr.
We write to be loved, admired, or at the very least, taken seriously. However, Professor Doug Unger only promises to converse with us, his students, about how to be a writer in the world.
In that discussion, Doug will often present a sample from writers that we learned to revere in hushed holy tones: Bolano or Borges, Mo Yan or Morrison, and more. He asks, what do you all think? What are they doing? Does it work?
Most of us think, I have no idea. Can we question greats?
Seriously, he asks.
So, we wobble forward on a limb, feel it cracking under our ignorance, and say things that sound like answers. He listens. Doesn’t strike down our answers he must have heard hundreds of times before, as if we were having a discussion where we could agree or disagree with him and the greats. As if we were real writers.
Then he tells us we are already writers.
After a while, we realize that Doug truly means this. That we, in fact, don’t show up to the doorstep of the creative writing program he helped create at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas as lumpy empty vessels desperately in need to be overflowed with writing knowledge, but rather knives to be sharpened, writers to be taken seriously.
Doug shows us how serious writers defend their stories as they would their own children. How serious writers weather bad reviews and good ones and return to the desk and keep writing into the blank. That’s our job in this world. One that we do until we are no longer part of it.
We write, sometimes poorly. We often need guidance. Show Doug a flimsy, themeless, half-written story about a masturbating space circus bear trying to save a local Seven Eleven by believing in itself and belting disco hits at a karaoke competition, Doug will lean in and say – with sincerity and honest kindness welling from some grace brimming vat all teachers should have within their hearts – “I don’t think this is working. Try again. Just keep writing.” Then after a moment of silent contemplation, “Does it have to be a bear?”
And we do keep writing. His students, collectively, have published over 40 books and counting. “Each,” Doug says while beaming like a proud literary parent, “did it differently, in their own unique ways.” As if he was merely a witness, not a sharpening stone.
There are many literary children of Doug Unger. Some of them make up the panel, “What My Teacher Taught Me,” at the Las Vegas Book Festival at 12 pm on October 20. Come. Hear what they have learned. Hear about how they learned to be writers in the world.
Joe Milan Jr. is a BMI PhD Fellow of Creative Writing at UNLV. Wonderful places like The Rumpus, Broad Street, F(r)iction (2017 Short Story winner selected by Celeste Ng), The LA Review of Books’ Blarb, The Kyoto Journal, and others have published his work or is forthcoming. You can read more at joemilanjr.com