Sean Enfield

On Not Caring if You’re Relevant, Turning Your Interests Into Art, Teacher Troubles, and His Debut Essay Collection ‘Holy American Burnout!’

Cover of Sean Enfield: On Not Caring if You’re Relevant, Turning Your Interests Into Art, Teacher Troubles, and His Debut Essay Collection ‘Holy American Burnout!’

I’ve been teaching for nearly a decade—in traditional grade schools, in jails, in colleges, and in community centers—still, there are countless days where I wonder, before, during, and after: Am I really qualified to be doing this? Does this even matter? Is this useful? Even when I teach a class I’ve taught dozens of times, in the days leading up to it, I find myself anxiously revisiting my syllabus, adjusting lessons, editing my lecture notes, and feeling overwhelmed with a sense of dread that I will absolutely fail. Despite years of experience, credentialing, and degrees, I regularly feel underprepared—questions from students catch me off guard, an unfamiliar situation I’ve never had to navigate occurs (ranging from angry students, to crying students, to full-on dangerous interactions), or I simply feel alone and unsure how anyone was crazy enough to trust me with a room full of students. And that’s the craziest part of teaching, that after all that time spent in classrooms as a student learning how to teach with others, in the end, you are all by yourself in your classroom. No administrators or colleagues or peers. Just you and your students. Over the years, I’ve read a lot of books to feel less alone as a teacher. Some have helped. Some didn’t, but none have ever impacted me as much as Sean Enfield’s debut essay collection Holy American Burnout! (Split/Lip, 2023). It’s a collection I wish I had access to when I first started teaching (honestly, I think every first-year teacher should read it!). It’s a book about teaching, about burnout, and about his experience as a Black man coming-of-age in academic spaces.

The essays in Holy American Burnout! are largely centered around the author’s first year teaching at a Texas middle school, but they also speak to his experience growing up in the South. Sean Enfield brings a sharply defined critical lens to his writing, and he manages to create a complex portrait of an American classroom and how it functions as a microcosm of America itself. In his essays, we see him field questions from students about Trump’s election, attempt to coach basketball with students he suspects are more talented than him, and, of course he talks about music, because students love to rag on their teachers about their outdated taste. The small moments in his classroom are immortalized in his collection as they form the framework for what Enfield does best: examining the cultural artifacts representative of life. Enfield writes about Hoop Dreams, mosh pits, James Baldwin, Frank Ocean, The Black Lives Matter Movement, and reconciling his Black experience with his bi-racial family history. No matter what he’s writing about (whether it’s Christian music or famous literary figures), Enfield has a way of making his subject feel crucial to the cultural discourse. He finds connections between subjects that feel ostensibly unrelated and his ability to connect them in unexpected ways creates a sense that nothing is inconsequential and none of us are ever truly alone.

I had the pleasure of getting to talk with Sean via Zoom about his debut collection, Holy American Burnout!


Shelby Hinte: I really admire the way you weave in memoir, pop-culture criticism, lit theory, and race theory into your essays. Do you consider your essays in Holy American Burnout! to be braided essays and what is your process like when it comes to weaving various textual materials together?

Sean Enfield: I don’t really feel like I set out too often to write a braided essay. Maybe the only one that I was intentionally trying to do a braided essay form with was “Call Me Coach.” In that essay, I knew I was going to try to balance the Hoop Dreams movie commentary with my own experiences. But typically, it’s more like I find moments in pop culture that intersect with my own experiences and then try to make sense of them through each other. The Frank Ocean essay is the best example of that. It just so happened to be that the album I was waiting for released the weekend that I was fired, so I was like, “Well, there’s maybe a story there and what does that mean? Maybe nothing, but we can try to make some sense out of it.” I’m always trying to write essays in a way that I’m conversing with the things that I enjoy reading and listening to. So it was like, “What does Frank say about this moment for me at this time in my life?” You know, maybe there’s something in there and the lyrics that I was listening to. Maybe there’s some kind of synchronicity there beyond just these things happening at the same time in my life.

And then the theory element of my work—I don’t know. I spent too much time in school. My desk is a mess. I just have books constantly stacked up because I’ll think about something I read and want to be able to reach for it and dig through it to find the words. Baldwin is one that comes back up all the time for me and I know he’s all over my book. I think it’s my way of having conversations, of trying to talk to these other writers through my essays.

SH: So much of Holy American Burnout! is about teaching. How has teaching impacted your writing?

SE: There’s this way of complaining about teaching, and I don’t mean this in a negative way, but there’s a way that teachers complain that’s a lot like storytelling. It’s like, oh, here’s this thing that happened in my class today, and it’s kind of funny, but it also has these positive moments. I would tell these stories all the time, but I never thought that they’d become anything other than just that. But then I was no longer at the school, and a couple of years had passed, and I was still telling the same stories. Some friends asked if I’d ever written any of them down. I hadn’t, but then I started to. I think the lesson plan essay is the first one that I really wrote about teaching. Jill Talbot has this essay called the Professor of Longing, which is structured as a syllabus for a class she taught at a college. It’s all about her teaching this course in the aftermath of a divorce she went through. I remembered that essay and I remembered that kind of hermit crab form she did. I was looking for a way to tell the story of how I started at this school with not very much experience in the way of formal training for the gig. I was like, “How do I tell the story of beginning to be a teacher while also trying to highlight this moment?” So that form, that idea of using the existing lesson plans, really helped me. I tried it as a syllabus first, but I don’t know how [Talbot] pulled it off because the syllabus is not a very good story form. I was trying to go back and see how she did it, but I was having a hard time telling a story through a syllabus because it’s such a dry document. The lesson plan is a much more open document and the story kind of emerges while the lesson plan disappears into the background, which I think is for the best.

I wrote that one and it just kind of kept going. I can’t really think of a whole lot of non-academic books on teaching where teaching was the primary vehicle or where the main characters were teachers. I thought, maybe there’s something in this and I can explore it. It allowed me to make some sense out of that and to contextualize my experience.

SH: In your essay “The Revolution Will Be Revised” you write, “communicating in the digital age is an ongoing spectacle of revision.” That essay is about the modern dilemma of feeling as though you need to position yourself with a take on current events or even global events in real-time. As a writer, do you feel a lot of pressure to always have a take on current events?

SE: That’s a big one. I don’t know that I feel pressure. Nobody’s looking for my take, which is fine. I don’t want people to be looking for my take. But certainly it’s a pressure that I think we all kind of feel in the broad sense, especially teachers or anyone in any kind of position where they’re in front of people or expected to be a guide for people. I didn’t feel this as much with my college students, but I definitely felt it when I was teaching middle school. Those students were coming to me with big, heavy questions that I was honestly just not expecting. It never occurred to me that there would be thirteen-year-olds who were like, “What do you think about the Trump election?” And I was like, “I was not prepared to talk about this today.” I feel for teachers working in this current environment where there’s so many eyes on what they say and do in the classroom. I think it’s valid for those students to come to teachers with those questions. I think it’s valid for teachers to be honest and open, but I certainly would be nervous to do so if you’re teaching in Florida or Texas or in the American South.

SH: One of the things I really appreciated about your essays was that a lot of the materials you write about aren’t exactly buzzing in the cultural discourse. It takes me a really long time to form an opinion, which doesn’t exactly match the cultural fixation with being relevant. I’m wondering what it’s like for you. What drew you to writing about materials that weren’t necessarily trending or could fit within a buzzy PR model?

SE: I’m in the same boat. I admire journalists and folks who can write like that. I’ve tried my hand at some editorials, but it’s just not who I am. I’ve never been able to formulate in that kind of way. I don’t try to find the things that I want to write about. Writing about Hoop Dreams came out of thinking about my experience as a basketball coach. Hoop Dreams is just a seminal basketball documentary, and it was a seminal movie for me. It felt organic. The I Promise docuseries, which I also wrote about, came from the question: How do I take this movie that’s a little bit older and make a more contemporary connection? It helped that LeBron had documented that first year of his school. Still, I wasn’t searching for it. I’m watching basketball all the time, and his school had been in the news cycle because there was a lot of commentary and criticism about whether a basketball player should be getting involved in education. These things seemed to fit in a way that made sense. In terms of finding the cultural artifacts that felt right to me, it was just organic. It felt true to my experience and to my cultural interest. When I’m trying to force things, the writing never turns out well.

The same with Song of the South. I never would’ve started writing about that movie until I considered it as a symbol for my relationship with my grandmother. Once I started to write about that relationship, I remembered her loving that movie and showing us that movie. And so again, it was there already in the story. I just had to chase into a deeper place. If I had tried to connect it more directly to MAGA or highlight more about Trump, it just wouldn’t have felt as true to that story. It wouldn’t have felt true to that relationship and maybe would’ve been more suited for Slate or a more mainstream publication, but the writing wouldn’t have felt right to me. It’s an essay that I struggled with because It’s about my grandmother and she’s still alive. We still have a relationship. It’s a different kind of relationship now, but if I was going to write about that story, it needed to be something that was carefully reflected upon and spoke to that actual relationship and to that tension in the family. I think to try to force the writing into something that maybe would’ve been more relevant, would’ve just felt cheap and hokey and like selling that story. I don’t want to sell that story. I don’t want to make it into a commodity. I wanted to make it into something that I’m sure is unsaid in a lot of biracial families and hopefully resonates with that experience.

SH: Why do you think you’re interested in using a critical approach—whether it’s criticism of a film or of music or literature—in order to talk about the personal?

SE: Definitely part of it is spending too much time in school. But I think beyond the critical work I’ve done in my studies, I find that so many of my friendships are centered around music. One of my best friends and I were in bands together. So much of it is just that I have this passion for discussing the things I’m listening to, and I’ve formed some pretty lasting friendships by doing that. It felt natural to the writing to honor that and to think about how that can also be a means of artistic connection between writer and reader. Whether or not that person is as obsessed with Frank Ocean as I am, maybe they heard “Thinkin Bout You” on the radio and was like, “oh, okay. There’s maybe something to this.” I hope that there’s a little bit of a bridge that we can meet on—the bridge of Frank Ocean and the story. Even if they’ve never been let go from a teaching job the day before school starts, they’ve probably had a disappointing moment that they’ve soundtracked with their favorite artist whoever that favorite artist is.

An essay has a capacity to capture a moment in amber that other genres can’t do. The essay can hold those things side by side—say a personal experience and a song—to comment on both the emotional experience, the intellectual experience, the critical experience. It looks at all of these things from angles to see how they fit in the puzzle of a moment. That’s what keeps me writing essays. I don’t think I could be a journalist. I don’t think I could just write criticism either. I’m not as interested in what makes the thing work so much as I’m interested in what draws me to the thing. I’m hoping that maybe it is similar to what draws somebody else to it as well.

SH: What is the emotional experience of using critique to go and look at things that are so close to you personally?

SE: In some ways it does feel like a little bit of a remove for myself to look at the experience from a glass window. But there’s also a way it has of putting me back into that space. The critique angle helps, so does time. For “Song of the South, Reprise” there’s a good decade and change between the person I was then and the person I am now. Song of the South was forced upon me. I didn’t choose that one. But I think rewatching those clips, listening to those songs again, it put me back into that space in a way that I wasn’t prepared to be put back into. I think this happens to a lot of us when a song we haven’t heard in a long time comes on. It gives a sense of time traveling.

I don’t do a lot of journaling, and maybe this is tangential, but when I was teaching, I was texting all of my friends about things that were happening. I did keep my old phones and stuff. I would go back and look and be reminded of what my day-to-day was like. But outside of that, I have found that the art that I was consuming at a particular time is one way to remember who I was and what I was doing at that time.

SH: I think you capture the phenomenon of imposter syndrome and the amnesia of labor in your book so perfectly. There’s this line from the Frank Ocean essay where you write,

“Sometimes yours truly would forget he had worked on his own projects and assumed he had wasted yet another day… This wasn’t true, but malicious ideas have a way of burrowing deep and festering and rotting until they become reality. And so the young man believes that he is an imposter, that he has done nothing to improve himself as an educator or to better relate to his students, and that next year he’ll fail again.”

And then it goes on to say how strange it is to not recognize your body in motion and to be at work and yet to feel yourself stagnate. And I just thought that was so beautiful and so relatable. Where do you think that feeling of never doing enough comes from? And how do you combat that feeling of never doing enough?

SE: Yeah, that’s the big question of the book. You know, reflecting on that experience where I was let go from the position, there’s the inner voice that I have with all my own anxieties that is always a part of me. You find skills to cope with and manage it, but it’s hard to always tune it out entirely. But then there’s also the reality, certainly in terms of being an educator, that there is no enough. There certainly is not in the American education system, right? It’s so funny, I’ve always had the hardest time grading essays or grading writing because there’s no way to numerically assess what one hundred percent is on a piece of writing. What is a perfect piece of writing? I wasted time developing so many rubrics to justify why I gave a grade on a certain paper, and I feel it’s the same with educating. There’s no way to put a hundred on a day in the classroom. One moment could be a positive life altering moment, and then the next moment somebody can have a meltdown and run out of the classroom. It doesn’t negate the moment right before it, but it might be the one that sticks with you for that day where you go home and think, goodness, so-and-so had a meltdown and stormed out of the classroom and that erases everything else. So, all of a sudden that A-day becomes an F-day. In teaching there is a sense that you’re always running up against a system that is only assessing you in one particular way. Even if you’re excelling in one thing, but maybe not another, it makes it so you always feel inadequate in some way. Unfortunately, the easiest way I found of dealing with that in my first year was apathy—to kind of tune out self-defeat. That is something I’m conscious of now. There are ways of honoring and reflecting on the positive as well as looking at the things that can be improved upon. There’s no way of assessing what’s going to work well with one student and not another. You have to prepare yourself for lots of different alternatives, but also prepare yourself for lots of different failures and chances to hopefully grow.

SH: In writing, do you feel the same kind of pressure or imposter syndrome?

SE: Oh, sure. All the time. For this particular book in general, I’ve been real nervous because the press marketing has been towards educators and teachers. I’m like, “Oh goodness there’s a lot of this book that’s about me being a bad teacher.” It’s hard to look at your own words and not see how much you struggled with a paragraph or an idea or a sentence and constantly asked: Was that the right choice here? Could I have done this better? I’m grateful for the kind of communities I’ve been able to build with my cohort and my peers and some of my instructors. I think if it was just me, if I was the only person who was ever reading and deciding whether or not my writing should be read by other people, I would never send anything out. But I’m fortunate to have a good community of friends and writers who I can bounce ideas off, share pieces with, and refine things with. That gives me some confidence and encouragement to actually send things out into the world.



Sean Enfield is a writer and educator from Dallas, Texas. His debut collection of essays, holy american burnout!, was published by Split/Lip Press in December 2023. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks where he served as the Editor-in-Chief of Permafrost Magazine, and he is currently pursuing his PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He also serves as an Assistant Non Fiction Editor at His own work has been published in Black Warrior Review, Hayden’s Ferry, Tahoma Literary Review, and The Rumpus, among others, and he was the 2020 recipient of the Fourth Genre’s Steinberg Memorial Essay Prize. You can find his work at

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