Teaching Writing

Recently, I read an article called “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One” by Ryan Boudinot that has been making its way around social media, prompting a lot of controversy. It made me think about my own teaching of writing, and what I’ve learned over the years as a writing teacher. You see, I’ve been teaching writing for more than ten years now, in various ways: I’ve taught both academic and creative writing, to high school students, college students, and graduate MFA students. I’ve taught writing to students who are still learning English. I’ve taught writing to students who have gone on to publish professionally. If I may say so myself, I have a lot of experience in this field.

The lessons I’ve taken away about the teaching of writing are very different than those learned by Boudinot, and I thought I would list them here. They come both from teaching writing and from having been taught writing, in college creative writing classes as well as the professional workshops I attended in order to learn writing myself. Here are the things I’ve learned.

1. You are a terrible judge of who has talent or potential.

I’ve seen it several times: a teacher will “anoint” a particular student: the one with talent, the one who will succeed. The teacher will usually be a celebrated writer, who will assume that he or she can judge who is talented, who has potential. The problem with this assumption is that in real life, it doesn’t work. Over and over again, I’ve seen it fail. In college, when I was taking poetry classes, I was not the anointed one. No, the anointed one was another girl, who wrote weird, dark, innovative poetry. I’ll call her Jane. One day, I was heading to see my poetry professor, who was as famous as poets get nowadays. I stopped outside his office door, which was open a crack, when I realized he was talking to someone else. It was another of the famous poets in the department, and they were discussing who was going to get into the top-level poetry class, with the most famous poet of them all. I heard Jane mentioned — of course she was going to get in. My professor said the class was for students “like Jane.” I walked away before I could hear more, embarrassed that I had overheard a conversation not meant for me. And I never applied for that class, because it was clear to me, in a number of different ways, that I wasn’t one of the anointed. Years later, I wondered what had happened to Jane. I figured she would be a writer of some sort? Her name was distinctive enough that when I googled her, I found her right away. She had become a mother, a community activist — a lovely woman with a lovely life. But not a writer.

Much later, in a writing workshop, I was one of the anointed. There were two of us: the writer in residence, a famous writer, told us that we were the two students who would succeed. It meant a lot to me, to be labeled in that way. It gave me confidence I had not had before. The next summer, I started publishing. The other student? Is no longer writing, as far as I know.

After having taught more than a thousand students (at least a hundred a year), I no longer believe in talent. What I believe in are talents. Different students have different talents, are good at different things. My job as a teacher is to see those talents, even when the student can’t see them himself or herself. To identify them, encourage them, help the student build on them.

2. It’s important to learn writing, both to communicate with others and for its own sake.

We all need to learn to write well. Writing is one of the most important tools we have, as human beings. It allows us to store information outside our heads and to communicate with others. I sometimes have undergraduate business students tell me, in frustration, that they don’t understand why they are required to take two semesters of writing. I tell them, as gently as I can, that I used to be a corporate lawyer, and as business people, their entire lives will be writing. But apart from being enormously useful, writing is important to us as human beings — it allows us to reflect on who we are, where we’re going. Many of my students tell me about keeping journals, about how that personal writing has helped them.

It’s fashionable, nowadays, to question the value of an MFA. People say it’s a bad return on investment, that most MFA students won’t succeed as writers, won’t make back the money they spent on graduate school. But most of my MFA students aren’t there to make a specific amount of money, or even to start an academic career, although many of them hope to teach eventually. They’re there because they want to spend time writing, and spend time with other people who are writing. They want to become better writers. They go for the love of writing itself. Yes, of course you can learn to write in cheaper ways — I went to both Odyssey and Clarion, and of course I read a lot. But sometimes I wish I had gone to an MFA program. I see that my own students are getting things out of the program I never got, and I envy them.

If you mock students for pursuing an MFA on financial grounds, think about what you’re doing. Yes, finances are important. I’m realistic, I went to graduate school. I still buy clothes at Goodwill out of frugality and habit, and if there’s free food, I’m going to eat it. But I chose to give up a legal career in which I was earning $100,000 a year for a $10,000 a year graduate school stipend, because there are more important things in this world than financial considerations. And yes, I still have student loans. But I’m a better writer, and the person I wanted to be. Also, not sitting in an office calculating the number of billable hours until my statistically probably death . . . (Yes, I did that.)

3. Writing can be both taught and learned. Anyone can learn to write better.

Of course writing can be taught. Can you imagine what it would sound like, if we spoke about other arts the way we do about writing?

“Ballet can’t be taught. You either know how to do it or you don’t.” “The cello can’t be taught. Only people with innate talent can learn to play the cello well.” “Acting can’t be taught. You just need to watch a bunch of actors and then do it yourself.” Seriously?

Anything can be taught. It can be taught well or badly. And anything can be learned, if the student is a willing and attentive learner. Writing is a skill, not some sort of mystical holy spirit that descends on you as you’re sitting at your desk. Creative writing, in particular, is a craft and an art. The craft part of it can be taught just as oil painting can be taught: the painter in oils learns certain techniques, and so does the writer. This is how to create a character who comes alive. This is how to write a scene that makes your reader see a particular place, feel a particular emotion. The art of it is individual, but even that can be enhanced and cultivated. You can teach a writer to become greater than himself or herself: to observe the world more acutely, to spend time with music and art in order to learn more about writing. To hear the sound of his or her own voice, find his or her own material. All of that, a good teacher can help bring out.

4. Real life interferes with writing. Deal with it.

If you’re not writing consistently, you must not be serious about it? Oh, come on! I’ve had students with family obligations, mental or physical illnesses. If you don’t think life presents you with situations that are more important than writing, you haven’t been paying attention. I’ve had times in my own life when I could not write consistently, because I had a child to take care of, a PhD thesis to finish. Unless we are already rich from writing, we all have to fit it in somehow, around our work, our family lives. Most of the professional writers I know are a little ruthless about fitting in writing, and feel guilty about how it impacts other parts of their lives. But they also know if they don’t do it, they won’t quite be who they are, who they need to be. That’s what normal looks like, for a writer. You’re pulled in different directions.

As soon as a writer can, he or she goes back to writing, because as I said above, without it the writer does not feel quite whole. It feels as though a hole is opening up in your chest, and getting larger. Also, I don’t know about you, but I get very cranky and unpleasant to be around.

5. The world is filled with stories, and needs stories. Of all kinds.

When I tell my college students to write stories, they astonish me with what they produce. No, most of their stories would not be publishable (although some of them are of almost publishable quality), but there is so much in them — wisdom, feeling, personality. We all have stories to tell, and helping students figure out how to tell their stories better is an important and worthwhile thing to do. There are times when I’m very tired, and wish I could devote more time to my own writing. But I always believe that what I’m doing, in teaching people to write more clearly and effectively, to tell their own stories, is worthwhile. It’s worthwhile to see a student who is still learning English develop a better understanding of sentence structure. It’s worthwhile seeing a graduate student gain his or her own voice and start publishing stories. I believe we’re put on earth to do important, meaningful work. Not to make a certain amount of money, not to gain a certain amount of fame. Certainly not to write snarky articles that gain us a lot of attention.

Writing is not a small club in which only the “best” are allowed. It’s not made up of James Joyce, Hemingway, and David Foster Wallace. We need books for children about Loraxes, and Big Red Dogs, and even potty training. We need trashy romance novels with pirates on the cover. We need cookbooks. We need Hemingway and Virginia Woolf and Agatha Christie and A.A. Milne. Some people need Billy Collins. I, personally, need Louisa May Alcott and Frank L. Baum and Lewis Carroll. Writers are often told to read, and what they are told to read is Important Writers. But if all we had was Important Literature, the world would be a dull place indeed. I don’t know about you, but while I recognize the genius of Anna Karenina, I’m not going to read it in the bathtub.

Personally? I try to write as well as I can. I try to be the best writer I can be, in the way I understand good writing. (Some Serious Writers bore me to tears. But then so do romance novels, although when I was a teenager, I read them as though they were mental candy.) I try to read, not always widely, but deeply. I try to live deeply as well, to experience the world around me so I can write about it. I try to learn from art, from music, from other people. And I learn from my students . . .

6. Good teachers learn more from their students than they teach.

This should be obvious. If you’re a good teacher, it’s because you were once a good student. And the best students can learn from anything, in any circumstances. They can learn from professors they barely understand. They can learn from abject failure.

I feel the same dread, looking at a large pile of papers to grade, as any teacher. But I also know that when I read my students’ writing, when I teach a class, I learn more than I teach. This is partly because to teach anything effectively, you need to know much more about it than you will ever mention in the classroom. In order to teach writing, I had to learn a lot more about writing than I had ever known before — a lot more theoretically and practically. I needed to actually know the comma rules. (A lot of professional writers don’t know the comma rules. Seriously.) I needed to read books on writing by John Gardner, Milan Kundera, Mario Vargas Llosa, Eudora Welty, Ursula Le Guin, Steven King, Dani Shapiro . . . But I also learn from editing the writing itself. I realized recently that from reading writing by non-native English speakers, I was learning different — vigorous, interesting, and non-intuitive — ways of constructing sentences.

7. Great writers are not necessarily great teachers. Teaching writing is itself a separate skill that can be cultivated.

Remember the famous poet I mentioned back at the beginning? His class discouraged me so much that I didn’t write poetry seriously for many years, and still have difficulty seeing myself as a poet. In retrospect, it wasn’t that he was a bad person or a bad poet. He was just a bad teacher. It was a lousy class. We sat around workshopping each other’s poems, which were bad. Because we were college students, and our poetry was bound to be pretty bad at that point. But we were never taught how to make it better, never taught that there were poetic techniques, never taught why modern poetry was written as it was. We were given no historical knowledge or critical apparatus at all.

Great writers can be lousy teachers. Teaching writing is itself a skill, which can be developed. You can learn how to help a student make a manuscript better, how to understand what a student is saying beneath what he or she seems to be saying. You can explain concepts clearly, edit helpfully. I’m a much better teacher now than I was ten years ago. And I look at the great writing teachers I know, like James Patrick Kelly and Elizabeth Hand: I learn about teaching from watching them teach.

Honestly, I think teachers (or former teachers) who are snarky about students are often in that mode because: (a) they have just finished grading a large pile of papers, in which case it’s temporary and understandable, or (b) they feel their own failures as a teacher acutely, and it’s only by blaming students that they can make that feeling — of inadequacy or sometimes shame — go away. It’s actually noble to feel your own inadequacy in that way. There are certainly times I have failed as a teacher — times I have been unhelpful or unclear, times a student was frustrated and it was my fault. What I can say for myself is that I try harder to do better. And I try, always, to give the student the benefit of the doubt. To believe in the student, as I wanted my teachers to believe in me.

In the end, to be a good writing teacher, you need to love teaching as well as writing. Teaching challenges you to reach outside yourself, to see a student as a fellow writer and human being. To see what is of value in writing that may be unclear, or by rote, or filled with proofreading errors. To say both “it’s not acceptable to hand in a manuscript you haven’t thoroughly proofread, so please revise and resubmit it” and “there is something of value in here, and let’s talk about what that is.” It challenges you as much as writing challenges you, on a deep level. Not everyone loves that challenge. I happen to, which is why I teach.

At My Desk

(This is me at my desk, preparing for a class . . .)

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30 Responses to Teaching Writing

  1. You, your writing, your comments on FB, your blog posts, all of these things are inspiring. I want to be a better writer because of them and I am sure there are many others who feel the same way. I know most of your students do. In a small way, I am one of them. Thanks for the lovely and yes, “hopeful” post.

    • Thank you, Melinda! πŸ™‚ I’m always glad to have had some impact, because so many wonderful teachers have had an impact on me. I’m just passing it on . . .

    • Eliot Fintushel says:

      Right, Theodora. You nailed it. A teacher must, most importantly, listen. That fellow Boudinot is, by my lights, a larcenous, dishonest man.

  2. Paul Weimer says:

    Thank you so much for this, Dora. I value your perspective and erudite articulation of writing and writing teachers.

  3. I love what you are saying here, Dora. I started teaching HS English after I’d already been writing novels for more than 15 years and, even though I mostly taught the most basic level of writing to students who often had only rudimentary skills, I was astonished at how much more I learned about writing. It is one thing to know how to do a thing, and quite another to do it. Teaching writing forced me to examine what I knew from so many different angles. Explaining to others how to write, then re-explaining it when the light didn’t go on in their eyes – that taught me a lot too.

    Thanks again.

    • Yes, it’s amazing, isn’t it? Having to explain something, especially to people who don’t have the sort of background in it that you do, can teach you so much — it can force you to reconsider all sorts of assumptions you had. I’m convinced it’s made me a better writer. πŸ™‚

  4. luisaperkins says:

    Thank you for this lovely post. I needed it today.

  5. helen says:

    All I can say is, if your lessons are just a quarter as thoughtful, erudite and sensitive as the contents of this post, then your students are very lucky indeed. πŸ™‚ I wish you a lovely spring break.

  6. This is really well said. Thank you.

  7. Mary Kearney says:

    I like the watercolor portrait of you. Thanks for the wonderful post. I’m pulling a plow through my work and needed encouragement.

  8. Danny Adams says:

    I definitely like this much better than the Boudinot piece.

  9. John Kessel says:

    A lot of home truths here. Thanks for expressing them so well, Dora.

  10. You’ve responded wonderfully well, and you recognize that teaching requires a certain amount of generosity and a great deal of open-mindedness. Also–we’re human. Sometimes reading too much not-ready-for-prime-time writing does make us crabby. Temporarily. Sometimes life gets in the way. Temporarily. All part of the package of being a human being who teaches and who writes. Thanks.

    • I think we all have a right to get crabby sometimes. πŸ™‚ Especially when students don’t know how to use verb tenses. But you’re right, generosity is an excellent way to put it. We all need generosity.

  11. Lewis says:

    Yes, yes, yes! How you echo my thoughts and feelings. No, perhaps it’s not echo. Maybe it’s anticipate. No, maybe it’s predict. Not that, but I’ll keep trying. Thank you.

  12. LWA says:

    As a student at the MFA program Boudinot is writing about, I deeply appreciate this response. This is one of the more thought out, less inflammatory responses that I have seen, as you can probably imagine I’ve seen many. Writing and teaching are two very different passions and clearly you have both. Thank you.

    • Thanks! And good luck. I didn’t think an inflammatory response would be very useful–and I’m not very inflammatory anyway. πŸ™‚ I wanted to write about what teaching really was and meant, to me . . .

  13. Theodora–

    A thoughtful response that makes the Boudinot rant appear worthwhile because it led here.

  14. maeryrose says:

    A bit late getting to read this but I love your observations. The last point about teaching is especially interesting to me as I’ve tried to find a mentor, a good writing class, a good teacher, etc. and I’ve become somewhat gun shy. In teaching, I think it also depends on the student. A teacher that is good for one writer may not be good for another. I’m trying to find one that’s good with someone with scatter mind (something like ADD but I don’t like that label). I actually may need someone quite mean who will tell me to stop being so distracted. Or as I’ve come to believe, be my own disciplinarian and keep practicing my scales…

    • Yes, I think you’re right that a student may need a particular kind of teacher–I think it’s actually good to experience different teachers, because they can teach you different things and you can get a sense of what you need most. πŸ™‚

  15. Phyllis Holliday says:

    This is classic. I do hope you gather the essays about writing and get it published.
    Eudora did that as many other wise writers do, share the craft and art. You’re so
    honest. I still burn from a gathering with famous writers who were so snotty, and lifted
    up two they thought were wonderful. I was getting angrier and angrier as we sat around that table, and expected the worst. When it was turn for my praise or downfall,
    the frowning professor said, “This story is…..entertaining.” I was never sure whether
    he was complimenting or thought being entertaining is not what a modern author should be.

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