Improve your craft by teaching writing

Do you want to write better? Try teaching others how to.

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Going back to school, as the teacher not the student, can help your writing. Image by Guillermo del Olmo/Shutterstock

If it sounds like i’m selling you something, just hear me out. We all know that reading improves our writing. But it’s also true that any time we think deeply about writing, we become better writers, and so, too, with any time we talk seriously about writing.

Well, teaching = thinking about writing + talking about writing x 1000.

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The care and effort required to help others improve their skill, facility, and understanding is significant, and it doesn’t matter if you’re leading a free two-hour workshop for senior citizens or you spend every fourth period for nine months with a class of rowdy seventh graders: You put a lot into teaching writing, you’ll get a lot out as a writer.

Of course, I didn’t always take such a view of things. As an undergrad and graduate student, I studied writing and literature and then became a teacher of writing and literature. And while, during these scholastic years, I enjoyed myself immensely and read more good books than seemed fair, for years afterward I lamented that I didn’t pursue marine biology or Enlightenment philosophy or 12th-century Northern Irish ecclesiastical architecture. Or, I would think, maybe I should have hopped into the cab of a long-haul truck or donned the toque blanche of the sous chef. Each of these paths and so many others carries with it a new vocabulary and landscape, a life full of unique experiences and the kinds of people I don’t usually meet: in other words, a whole lot of writing material.

I spent the better part of a decade bemoaning that I was “only” a college teacher, that I didn’t have some exciting/unusual/dangerous vocation to fuel my creative brain and approximately 429 pages of fresh, new writing every calendar year.

Then, a handful of years ago, as a student shared a writing exercise with his peers, my ears told me inelegant thundering where really he’d said an elephant thundering. The class chuckled at my auditory blunder, but I was quite smitten. After class, I rushed to the parking garage and nestled in my car, the city chirping and sloshing around me, and there I drafted a poem. Not a great poem, or even a very good one, but from that image of graceless thunder dawned the realization that for a long time, my writing had been building from things that I’d heard (or misheard) in my classes without my even knowing it.

Since that day in the parking garage, I’ve thought a lot about how teaching enriches my life as a writer. Here are the best benefits that come from sharing what you know with others.

1. Use your students…as your muse

I’d wager a lot of money that most teachers have students who are wildly more creative and less inhibited than they are. I surely do. In their earliest years, writers’ brains and hearts are often unfettered. Not (yet) weighed down by years of “Show me the character’s rage; don’t just tell me she’s mad” and “You haven’t earned that ending!” these students have a way of dreaming on the page. Whether in free-writes, guided exercises, or graded assignments, they develop scenarios that rival Twin Peaks in their oddness and characters who challenge Paul Bunyan in their expansiveness. Students’ minds leap and wander, sprint and glide, and the best thing you can do is hang on for the ride – making sure to pluck a few brightly colored flowers along the way.

No doubt, students’ ideas can at times be far-fetched or half-baked. That’s where you come in, to set them on a straighter path or at least suss out something resembling a path. But when you open yourself up to your students’ flights of fancy, you’ll start to push beyond your own boundaries and comfort zones. Students can reveal how mired you are in the world as you see it and encourage you to flare your wings.

Like everyone else, of course, students come in all varieties. Some are 19 years old, some are 49; some hail from Kansas and others from Kenya; you get former steel workers and future homemakers, aspiring memoirists and committed songwriters. It’s all great, because they all bring different life experiences and perspectives that enrich the conversations taking place both on and off the page.

Those with more years, for instance, can offer a class depth and range. One of my favorite students, M., a writing novice and the wife of a former Marine, shared engaging vignettes about what she considered her “boring” life – tales about cleaning houses, raising children, and teenage love letters sent between Pennsylvania and Vietnam. As I encouraged M. to value her stories and dig for the details that made them both specifically hers and stories anyone could connect to, I started to see the richness of my own daily domesticity and the many things from my own “boring” past that I’d been taking for granted. If M.’s stories mattered, didn’t mine matter, too?

2. Learn what not to do…and how not to do it

One piece of oft-repeated writerly advice: Become a reader for a literary journal. In any given month, you’ll read 75 poems about birds and 14.7 stories featuring protagonists whose parents are dead. What you’ll gain from this experience is the good sense to avoid penning poems about birds and stories about characters with dead parents.

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Teaching takes this one very helpful step further. When you’re guide to two or 20 developing writers, you’re involved in not only identifying the issues in their work (trite topics, extravagantly unbelievable premises, POV switches, typos galore – I could go on, but I won’t) but also – and oh-so-importantly – attending to these issues. I mean, you’re off to a great start if you’ve determined not to write a poem about a bird, but if not a bird, then…what, exactly?

In much the same way, it’s not enough (or in any way advisable) to write in the margin of a student’s story draft, “Overdone. Every fiction writer writing in the last six months has killed her protagonist’s mother in some violent and horrific manner.” You also need to provide thought-provoking questions, suggestions, possibilities (e.g., “What might happen if the garden rake brought about the demise of the sweet next-door neighbor instead of Mom?”). The goal is to help the writer envision a way out of predictability and staleness, to show her that while what she started with isn’t quite working yet, there is a way – correction: any number of ways – forward from here.

Indeed, a big part of teaching writing is equipping students with the ability to ask questions of themselves and their own work and find directions in which to proceed. This is a skill we use again and again with our own writing, and there’s no such thing as too much practice. The more we see the mistakes other writers make and the more we learn how to address these mistakes, the better we get at identifying and addressing them ourselves. As you model these processes for your students and you watch them as they revise, stumble, try again, and revise some more, possibilities start to emerge. You see options where before you saw only cliché. Soon enough, your own birds flutter to mind (who doesn’t have a few robins and jays lurking here or there?), and they begin to morph before your very eyes.

3. Put the class to work for you

Don’t get too excited: I’m not suggesting you employ a fiction class as duty-free copy editors (or dog walkers). Nor do I advise passing out copies of your lyric essay draft for the next workshop (though the words “interesting experiment” leap to mind…).

What I do suggest, however, and what I’ve found to be helpful, is bringing your own ideas to class and testing them out on the group of budding practitioners who sit around your table. It’s legitimate, rather than exploitative, when you do it in service of the lesson at hand; as a practicing writer teaching other practicing writers, you’ll find there are many, many ways and opportunities to use your own work as an example in service of the countless lessons you’ll share with your charges.

Having access to likeminded people, however intermittently, can help you to keep writing in your life when you don’t have anyone else with whom to share your literary penchant. 

In a recent semester of introductory college creative writing, for example, I used an in-progress-but-very-much-stuck short story to illustrate the difference between story and plot. To do so, I mapped the piece’s easy-to-follow chronology (story) on the left-hand side of the chalkboard and the admittedly-fairly-confusing organization of events (plot) on the right side. My students immediately jumped in, asking me the whys and wherefores and pointing out connections that hadn’t registered with me before that class session. Prompted to answer and explain questions I hadn’t even thought to pose, I dug deeper into the work (and on the spot, too!). Even as I’d plucked that example from my brain in that very instant at the front of the classroom (oops for being under-prepared), I walked away from that class meeting “un-stuck.”

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Now I wish I could tell you that the rest of the story just flowed from my electric fingertips. Not quite. I didn’t have all of the answers that my students sought – and I met some of their questions with the world’s most famous cop-out: “That’s a good question. I’ll have to think about that,” and a thoughtful nod. But this showed me something important about my understanding – or rather lack thereof – of my story. I went back home, opened up my document, and got to thinking and writing. Digging around in my brain and on the page for these answers over the course of days and weeks helped me to find a new way back into the piece, and I returned, with enthusiasm, to the business of writing, and, in time, finishing the story.

All of this required a willingness to put myself out there, to take a risk and be vulnerable in front of the very people who are supposed to see me as The Expert, someone who has struggled (past tense) but does not struggle (present tense). Well, that’s baloney. Writing is struggle, plain and simple. Sometimes it’s a delightful struggle; a lot of times it’s a slog. When you teach, it’s still a struggle, but now you have a group of people who can share in the delight – and slog along with you if you let them.

4. Find your readymade writing community

We’ve all got our perfect little writing circle, those four besties we huddle together and share drafts with on foggy Saturday mornings in the corner of the café. Or do we? In reality, many of us stay linked to literary life through magazines and Twitter and the occasional writing conference. We have day jobs and night jobs and concerns like bus schedules, 401Ks, kids’ soccer practice, etc.

Enter: the creative writing class, your readymade writing community, a group of people whose “job” it is, for an hour or two once or twice a week or month, to sit around a table and care about whether this particular grocery cashier would really cry when this particular UPS driver finally brings him peonies or this sonnet’s rhyme scheme is all out of whack. Having access to likeminded people, however intermittently, can help you to keep writing in your life when you don’t have anyone else with whom to share your literary penchant. (Plus, there’s the added benefit that, as the teacher, you get to direct the conversation according to your interests.)

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I shouldn’t use the word job, though, because most members of a creative writing class view their writing as a passion project or something fun and exciting, a favored hobby, not mandatory work. Sure, some students will take your course because they “have” to. But in reality, creative writing is rarely compulsory, and (to the great dismay of creative writing teachers everywhere, including this author) rarely does creative writing satisfy any sort of requirement or help any student check a box on the way from point A to point B. In other words, the vast majority of people in your workshop are there because they want to be. They like words. They enjoy books. They’re compelled to write stories or essays or poems (or all three). They may even think metaphors are cool. These people choose to be present, and choice equals enthusiasm. And enthusiasm, my friend, is great for inspired – and inspiring – discussion.

Now all of this comes full circle, back to the idea that talking about writing makes you a better writer. So here you are, hunched around a table with a handful of retirees or college juniors or high schoolers sweating it out at summer camp, each of them toiling away at the next great masterpiece. They watch you with pens poised, faces expectant. You know something about writing that they want to know. Go on, share it with them. But wait – that’s not all. It’s not even the best part. They know something about writing that you want to know, too. So go on, ask them, and listen well. There’s a conversation here just waiting to unfold.

 

Ashley Kunsa is assistant professor of creative writing at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana. Her fiction appears in Sycamore Review, The Los Angeles Review, and Bayou Magazine, among other places. She loves em dashes and sugary drinks way too much.