As I design The Writers’ Croft, my website for writers, I get that journey-of-a-thousand-miles paralysis. Who am I to teach writing, or to claim that I can? Particularly when there’s so much competition online; I just googled “how to write”, and got 2,750,000 hits. (The first four are How to write HTML, How To Write Unmaintainable Code,How to Write a Masterpiece of a Resume, and How to Write a PhD Thesis. Well, I’m not competing with any of them.)
But I have been teaching writing for thirty years, and teaching what is often referred to as “creative writing” (as though there was any good writing, in any form, that wasn’t creative!) for the last half of those. And while I don’t think I have any perspective profound enough, any taxonomy sophisticated enough to evaluate my teaching relative to some Platonic image of The Perfect Teacher, I can look at my students, and know they were changed in two important ways by the end of our course together: they enjoyed writing more, and they were better writers.
“Enjoying writing” comes first because that’s where it starts. Too many English teachers (and for most of us English classes are where we do most of our public writing) spend too much energy correcting mistakes. (And oh, do I ever include myself in this!) If you get fifty comments and forty-six are negative, you feel inadequate even if the comments were all accurate, kind, and insightful. Perhaps even more in that case. And most writing taught in high school is research essays, generally on topics removed from the student’s own experience, and part of the teacher’s expertise. (“Show how the Macbeth of Act l is not the Macbeth of Act V, making sure to use appropriate supportive evidence.”) Notice how something shrivels inside as you read that question?
I find I enjoy writing more when I feel positive about both my writing, and the audience who is receiving my work. And I feel positive about my writing when it’s really mine, not just because I wrote it, but because it says something true about my own life. The first step to becoming a better writer is believing your own experience is worth writing about. That’s hard: Little Steven’s great song Solidarity starts out “Everybody wants the same things, don’t they?”, and lists the things we share, concluding with “...we all want to be somebody else.” Good writing is exciting, and very few of us believe that we have exciting lives. Excitement is out there, in those other lives we see on the screen.
I think the worst assignment I ever gave was a warmup in an early writing class. It went like this: “You’ve just landed in Bangkok, but when you get past customs you find your identification, money, and luggage have all been stolen. Write about what happens next.” The results were generally awful: exaggerated stereotypes, unreal characters, pervasive melodrama. One piece stood out, not just because the student was an excellent writer (though she was) but because she’d been in Bangkok. She made her piece believable because what she wrote was based on her experience. One always has to start -even on that thousand mile journey - from where you are.
And the more I can see where I am, the better my writing gets. Technique is certainly always useful; your reader has to understand the experience you’re describing. But accepting that your own life, in its totality, is worth writing about is the first big step. And that comes sharing that writing with others, and discovering that however personal it is, you don’t die from sharing it and that others are moved, amused, saddened, and changed by your writing. That affects your writing hugely. Suddenly you think of yourself not just as a person who sometimes writes, but as a writer. And so you are.
Years ago, in Teachers’ College, I took a course from Ron Turner who had once evaluated English teachers for the Ontario Ministry of Education. He used to show up in a teacher’s classroom once every three years. Ron would sit with his back to the teacher, and watch the class. He said that he believed that the test of a good lesson wasn’t what the teacher was doing at the front of the class, but what the class was doing. It was a powerful story, and it helped shape the teacher I would become.
My predecessor in the senior writing course, a man of extraordinary erudition, would rant about how his students couldn’t write and had nothing in their shallow lives worth writing about. So he taught literary analysis, and showed how great writing was modeled by great writers. I loved hearing his insights when I wandered into his class room, but I noticed that few of his students ever enjoyed writing again. Was I a better writing teacher? Yes, I was. And the proof wasn’t what I did, but in my students’ writing, and how they felt about having created it. And I believe that it will be the same for you, if you choose to join us in The Writers’ Croft.
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