I remember when I was still an MFA student, I attended a writers’ conference where a celebrity author was surrounded by an admiring crowd after his keynote. Someone asked him why he didn’t teach, and he responded thusly (or as close as I can come after several decades):
“Teach?” Mr. Revered Writer told them, his voice rising toward the end of the word, as if he were pronouncing the name of a poisonous herb. “Why on earth would I want to look at bad writing all day?”
I wondered then, and I know now, what this mildly famous author missed by not working with new and emerging writers. He missed the chance to grow, to change, to be inspired far beyond his own lonely dreams. If you haven’t read Uma’s thoughts on teaching in the current issue of Hunger Mountain, hie thee hence: http://www.hungermtn.org/teaching-writing-and-the-practice-of-illusion/. Among the beautiful and profound thoughts she expresses in her rich piece is this: “More often than not, I am reminded that the flaws I see most clearly in students’ work are the very ones I’m blind to in my own.”
Amen. How many times have I worked with a new writer, only to hear myself preaching glibly what I suddenly realize I’ve failed to do in my own work? How often have I reassured an already published student that this will not be his last book, only to find myself in the grip of a similar publish or die panic? Let me count the ways, in fact, that I learn in the act of teaching.
1997: The very first VCFA MFA in Writing for Children class!
I learn humility, each time I hold in my hands the book of a former student whose work I admire and which inspires in me the yearning toward excellence that all great writing does. I learn grace when well-published authors return to our community for more learning, more growth. When they refuse to say, I know it all. Are not ashamed to say, I’m stuck.
I learn dedication. I will never forget the young woman whom I asked whether she thought a particular secondary character was serving her story. Because the character was engaging and fun, she was naturally hesitant to consider this question, but promised she’d think mull it over. The next time I read her piece, the character I’d asked about had completely vanished from the
“Goodness,” I told her, ” I know how attached you were to [X]. How on earth did you manage to let her go?”
“It was no problem,” my student told me, gamely. “I simply shook her hand and said, ‘Thanks for playing!'”
Guess what I do now, when I know it’s time to cut a much-cherished character, scene, or idea loose?
I learn how to take criticism. Recently, a student who, like you and me and almost every writer alive, sometimes has to hear the same question or concern several times before she’s willing to apply it to her work, sent me an email. She described the way, when she was little, she used to clean her room in a hurry. But her mother would open the closet where clothes had been thrown, check under the bed where other odds and ends were stuffed, and then calmly remark, “You’re almost done.”
This student went on say, “Thank you for opening the closet door and flipping up the bedspread and believing that I can get it done. Not be perfect, but do the real work.” Guess how I now aspire to respond when a First Reader finds weaknesses in my draft? Or an editor spots something that requires a substantial revision?
I learn humor, inspiration, courage, practicality, independence. These are lessons, of course, it never hurts to keep learning. Over and over. All of which makes it hard to imagine writing without teaching. Oh, sure, I guess I could become too famous (in my dreams), too busy to do both. But truthfully? The choice would be excruciating. Because unlike that celebrity author I overheard at the conference, I’d know exactly what I was missing.