Some Notes on the Teaching of Writing

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I was in the midst of scribbling notes during a lecture about writing when it struck me that I was learning as much about the teaching of writing as I was about the actual act of writing. There is a nice symmetry in these processes. A give and take that is worth thinking about and looking into a little further. Many, if not most, writers will find themselves at one time or another in the role of teacher – whether in an actual job or in just giving advice to another writer. These are a few of the discoveries I’ve made during my life as both a student and a teacher of writing.

You can have opinions. I used to think that teachers should be neutral and present a balanced view of any information they are imparting. But now I believe that the best teachers, like the best writers, do have a point of view and will back up that point of view with concrete examples from their own experiences. You may have some hard and fast rules about writing. But be aware of the fine line between being confident in your correctness and being strident and intimidating. You should share your guidelines, but also encourage students to experiment with new forms for their work. The classroom or workshop should be considered a safe place to stretch one’s writing muscles.

The most effective lectures or presentations are organized. One of the best lectures on writing I’ve 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.” The lecture itself was far from loosey-goosey. The instructor had well-organized pages of printed notes that he presented to the audience in a fast-paced yet coherent manner that had us hanging on (and copying down) every word.

Present the material as advertised. If your presentation is billed as “Revision: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” talk about the good, bad and ugly of revision; avoid veering 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-type situations there is at least one student who either has an agenda or is just plain annoying. If you allow questions or comments during your talk, keep students on topic and responses brief. If someone starts to become unmanageable (i.e. won’t take a hint or keeps interrupting), a firm, “Why don’t you see me 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 hijacks the discussion.

Support your suggestions or thoughts with quotes or examples from authors with whom most of your students will identify and respond to. We all enjoy hearing real-life tales such as the number of rejection letters a well-known author might have received, quotations from other authors that illustrate a point you are trying to make, or inspiring true success stories from the publishing trenches. Plan to leave behind a list of recommended readings–books, short stories, essays–by new authors the students may never have heard of or established ones I may have forgotten about. Also, recommend films or other art forms that might spur your students to further explore the points you are making after your session ends.

Use your own personality strengths in teaching, especially if humor is one of them. Humor can be a very effective tool in teaching (and in writing), but only if it’s your natural personae. Being overly jokey is never effective. You should adapt your style to your venue and audience. A lecture for an endowed chair in front of a group of tenured professors will not be the same as a lecture where the students are crammed into desks in a funky auditorium.

Instill trust and build camaraderie. Be modest about your own accomplishments, but not so much so that your students think you are trying too hard to be like them. Avoid being boastful and establish a certain camaraderie. A teacher who is imperious or unassailable is downright insufferable. Andrea Barrett (who is quite 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 eager and nervous 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.

You can learn a lot from your students. Nowhere have I seen this better illustrated than by writer and teacher Dinah Lenney in her nonfiction craft talks at the Bennington Writing Seminars. Dinah 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, 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 the creative engine.

Accept and embrace your role as expert. So it turns out that you are really good at writing. There are a lot of other people who also want to write well, 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 the pride a parent feels when your kid does something great.

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.” 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 out into the world.

 

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The essays and short stories of Kathy Stevenson have appeared in an eclectic array of magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, Newsweek, Red Rock Review, Chicago Tribune, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, South Boston Literary Gazette, Los Angeles Times, Clapboard House, and many others. Kathy is a frequent contributor to newsworks.org, the online news source for WHYY (NPR) in Philadelphia. She earned an MFA from Bennington College. A link to her essays can be found at: www.kathleenstevenson.blogspot.com

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