Some Notes on the Teaching of Writing

(Originally appeared in the Tishman Review on 8/28/2015. You can link from my Published Works page or read here.)

It struck me one day, when I was in the midst of scribbling notes during a lecture about writing, that I was learning as much about the teaching of writing as I was about the actual act of writing.  And since many, if not most, writers will find themselves in the role of teacher – whether as an actual job or just giving advice to another writer – it also struck me that there is a nice symmetry to the process.  A give and take that is worth thinking about and looking at a little further.  These are some of the things I have learned during my life as both a student and a teacher of writing:

You can have opinions.  I used to think that a teacher should be neutral and present a balanced view of any information he or she is imparting.  But now I believe that the best teachers do have a point of view, and will back up that point of view with concrete examples from their own experiences both as a reader and writer.  Be aware though of the fine line between being confident and being strident and intimidating.  As a teacher of writing you may have some hard and fast rules about writing, but you should also encourage students to experiment with new forms for their work, and the classroom or workshop should be considered a safe place to stretch one’s writing muscles.

The most effective lectures or presentations are ones where the teacher has really thought through and organized the material he or she wants to present.  One of the best lectures on writing I ever attended was a craft seminar with the rather loosey-goosey title: “Some stuff that will make narrative writing easier, and some stuff that will make it far more difficult.”  But the instructor had well-organized pages of printed notes that he presented to the audience in a fast-paced, organized, and coherent manner that had us hanging on (and copying down) every word.

Similarly, a teacher or presenter should take care to actually present the material that was advertised.  If your class or presentation is billed as “Revision: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” don’t veer off into a lengthy discussion of beginnings or character development.  You can certainly discuss those topics within the context of the revision process, but always loop back to the topic at hand.

Handle student interruptions in a firm yet friendly manner.  It seems that in most classroom situations there is always at least one student in the mix who has his or her own agenda, or is just plain annoying.  If you do allow questions or comments during your talk, try to keep students on topic and responses brief.  If someone starts to be unmanageable (i.e. – won’t take a hint or keeps interrupting) a firm, “Why don’t you see me right after the lecture, and we’ll discuss it further,” is the best approach.  Neither you nor your students want valuable time taken up by a rogue student who derails the discussion.

Back up your own suggestions or thoughts about the writing process and the writing life with quotes or examples from authors whom most of your students will identify with and respond to.  Students enjoy hearing real-life stories like how many rejection letters a famous author might have received, quotations from well-known authors that illustrate a point you are trying to make, and inspiring true stories from the publishing trenches.  It is also helpful if you recommend books, short stories, essays, films, or any other art form that might spur your students to further explore the points you are making after your session is over.  I love leaving a lecture with a list of recommended readings by new authors I may never have heard of, or established ones I may have forgotten about.

Use your own personality strengths in teaching, especially if humor is one of them.  Be modest about your own accomplishments, but not so much so that your students think you are trying too hard to be like them.  On the other hand, a teacher who is imperious or unassailable is downright insufferable.  Andrea Barrett (who is the opposite of insufferable) had just won the National Book award for her story collection Ship Fever, when I was lucky enough to have her as my workshop teacher at Bread Loaf.  One of the very first things she said to us, as we sat perched eagerly and nervously at our desks was, “We are all floating on a vast sea of insecurity.”  By putting herself in the sea with us, in her quiet and unassuming manner, she made us relax and trust her.

Along with this last point is the small matter of teaching style.  Are you more professorial or conversational?  Which persona comes more naturally to you?  Humor is very effective, but being overly jokey is not so much.  It’s natural for a teacher to want her students to like her but you are not there to make thirty new best friends.  You should also be able to adapt your style to your venue and audience.  A lecture for an endowed chair in front of a group of tenured professors won’t be the same as a lecture where the students are crammed into desks in a funky auditorium.

You are the expert, but you can learn a lot from your students.  Nowhere have I seen this better illustrated than by writer and teacher Dinah Lenney, at Bennington, in her nonfiction craft seminars.  Ms. Lenney hands out a sheaf of readings to each student, then jumps right in with timed writing exercises that she eagerly engages in with the class.  She is both guide and student also – reminding us that as we teach we learn.  In fact, it is her infectious excitement over the shared learning process that energizes the class and revs up their creative engines.

Accept and embrace your role as expert.  Wow, it turns out that you are really good at something!  And that something is writing.  There are a lot of other people out there who want to write, and you – as someone who has written and published and suffered rejection and piled up the pages and honed your craft – are uniquely qualified to share your skills with apprentices in the field.  It is no small thing to be the encourager and cheerleader for a motivated student who later has some success.  (In fact, it’s a pretty cool thing, almost like taking credit as a parent when your kids do something great.)

One of my basic philosophies as a teacher of writing is that writing is not a zero-sum game.  There are unlimited stories and infinite ways of telling them.  In nearly every writing presentation I have done, I have had a student come up to me afterward and ask, “Aren’t you afraid that someone will steal your ideas?”  They want to know why I would share my hard-won knowledge with people I don’t even know.  Won’t that diminish my chances of competing in a business (yes, it is a business) that is already extremely difficult to gain a foothold in?

What I say to those people is that I am confident that they can’t write my story and I can’t write their story.  But I can help them see different ways to approach their story and get it down.  The sharing of ideas is a critical part of any intellectual pursuit, both in the arts and the sciences, and we writers spend an awful lot of time in a solitary state.  For some, though, the communal sharing of ideas is threatening or maybe even unnatural to their style or personality, and, of course, that is their choice.

Wallace Stegner, both a writer and a teacher said, “I can’t teach my students how to write; all I can do is create the circumstances and atmosphere in which their learning is possible.”  I find it thrilling to look at teaching and learning as pure synergism, student and teacher entwined in the pursuit of grand truths.





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