Thoughts on Writing, Disguised as Thoughts on Teaching Writing...
...Posed as a Series of Contradictions. Pt.1
I’ve said I was going to do this since I launched this Substack, I think I started composing this on the day I launched.
So what’s taken so long?
Well, part of that question gets answered right down there in #1, in the Knowing Nothing section, amid the introductory notes about the dubious utility of anyone’s writing tips. Except as giggle inducer. Or instinctive contrarian reflex trigger. Or company.
But none of those is nothing. So maybe not-so-dubious utility?
Then there’s the who-am-I-to-say bit. Hello, imposter syndrome, that goes in and out with me. What could be the use of you is more than I can see. Except…again…company?
Who am I, then? A guy who has written and published some books. Won a few prizes. Also taught writing to adults, grad students, undergrads, teens. I helped finish designing and launching an MFA program. Spent twenty years building the multi-tiered, experience-driven high school creative writing program I wish I’d had in high school. Developed another program to teach my students to teach creative writing to younger students, that sent them out into their communities to do just that at schools without the resources to offer such things. Coached award-winning playwrights, Moth storytellers, novelists.
I’ve taught creative writing on Zoom, in classrooms, in a chemistry lab, in a shed. I loved the shed. It was at the bottom of a campus, across the parking path, which the school had garnished with a street sign reading Argyll Avenue. So we were the class on campus from the other side of Argyll Avenue.
Obviously, at heart, this is all about what I have learned about writing. But I have also learned a lot about teaching writing. And there’s less good writing, at least that I have seen, about that. So I’ve decided to approach the subject through that lens. Talking about writing by talking about teaching about writing.
It’s full of contradictions. Like writing.
Does any of that mean I have anything useful to offer you? I can only hope.
Let’s find out.
The pic, by the way, is of some of my students working with the fabulous California writer Stephen Gutierrez at one of our in-house Writers’ Conference days back in 2019.
Thoughts on Writing, Disguised as Thoughts on Teaching Writing, Posed as a Series of Contradictions. Pt.1
1. You Know Nothing
If writing hasn’t taught you humility, you haven’t been paying attention. Also, I’m scared of and for you.
All those rules we’ve all read...any maxims we’ve stuck to our workspaces or screened on our mugs or chanted like prayers...they’re exactly as good as the last thing they helped you get done. Many of them are brilliant. A few of them are true. All of them are wrong.
Meaning—and this will be a recurring theme, probably the recurring theme not just of this post but of any writing I ever do on this subject—the only way to teach this stuff is to forget everything you think you know first, and then deal, as openly and honestly and nakedly as you can, with the writing and the writer in front of you. Look, it’s creative writing, and therefore, by definition, if it’s any good at all, something brand new. Teaching that is the most demanding, excruciating, exhilarating teaching there is: the kind where you’re learning all over again. Every single time.
2. You Know a Lot
One of the barriers many people—not just teachers, but editors, readers, definitely writers—hit when offering advice or just opinion on someone else’s work (or their own) is that suspicion that in the end, it’s all subjective. A matter of taste. And that’s true. Sort of. We have tastes; they matter.
Nor do I think it’s possible or even helpful to try to ignore or overcome our tastes. You can tell me dark chocolate is the truer and superior chocolate. You can give me sound culinary reasons why that is objectively correct. I might even believe you. In fact, I do.
Given the choice, I’m still going milk most of the time.
And white some of the other times.
Okay, okay, shut up.
Admitting to and making clear our biases? Yeah, of course. Do that. Could help. That is, could make your insights more translatable or applicable for the writer. Sometimes.
But really? I don’t think identifying good writing is so subjective.
It may sound flippant to say that we know good writing when we see it. But we mostly do. We hear music in it. Or feel current buzzing around in it. Or fall through whole pages without remembering we’re reading something. Or go in the other room and stop our partners from Wordling and read aloud to them.
It takes a little practice, I guess. Meaning, the investment of substantial hours reading or composing words. But not much more than that.
I don’t have to love what a piece of writing is doing to recognize when it’s working. And just as a side effect of all these years of trying to make my words obey (or else follow where they lead), I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out why they’re working. When they do.
So have you.
3. You’re No One’s Scout
Or slush pile reader. Or uncredited, unasked-for, and almost certainly un(-der)funded gatekeeper. In other words, it is not your job to identify who among your students or clients is really going to be a writer. Here are three reasons for this (there are many more):
A. You don’t know. You can’t. It’s true that some people are born with a passion for the words, a knack for storytelling. Maybe life will give them the material, maybe it won’t. Maybe their relationships or financial situations or health will give them the opportunity. Maybe not. Maybe inspiration—that alchemical, inexplicable comet tail of light, sound, stardust, and by-product of being alive that rockets past just occasionally at a moment when we happen to be looking—will hit them. Maybe it will hit someone else entirely. Writing is a skill set, and a discipline. It’s also a miracle, a thing that happens to you. Stay humble before it.
B. Through your joy, your commitment, your nurturing spirit, and your honesty, you have the power to invite whole swaths of people into the life-affirming, life-giving pleasures of playing with words in the service of reaching and moving others. But you’re not going to make anyone a writer (see relationships/health/comet-tail riff above). On the other hand, you very well might—through your arrogance, your insecurity disguised as demagoguery, and most of all your carelessness—stop someone from writing. To that person’s cost (whether or not they’re ever going to “make it”, by any definition of that idiotic and harmful phrase), and very possibly to the world’s as well.
C. No one is going to get published because they did or didn’t get an A in your class or a thumbs-up in your comments. Not even the ones you know should be published, immediately. So why not focus on making every single writer you encounter better at what they do instead?
Of course, having said all of that...
4. Be On the Lookout. Always
As I said above...you’re going to know it when you see it. But what I have found is that incredibly often, the writer won’t. This is true of writers at every level, and the reason they hoard and protect their best, most honest critics of their stuff wherever they find them. (I mean, I married mine. Just as an example.)
Authors who’ve won major prizes still turn their manuscripts over to their beta-readers. Even the most accomplished writers I know still believe they do this to see what isn’t working.
Having those areas pointed out is important. But mostly, that’s going to feel like confirmation. It’s astonishing--just another of the writing process’s cruel but undeniably funny little jokes—how often your beta-readers go right to the spots you’ve spent days fussing over, and only that morning convinced yourself you must have gotten right, because you’ve exhausted every possibility.
Except you haven’t. And you know it. And now you’ve been told. That’s great. In fact, it’s essential.
Know what’s more essential? Seeing your beta-reader laugh, and not where you put what you were sure was your zinger. Hearing them say, “Oh, wow,” over a sentence you assumed had all the emotional intensity of, “Then I poured some milk.” Or, in the case of the beta-reader I married, having her finish scrawling notes all over what I’ve done, look up and say, “It’s good”, and then go back to sleep.
Because that—the fact that it’s good— I didn’t know. Not really. Not until right then. Nor did I know what made it good, and therefore needed to do more of.
Incidentally, I have found this to be one of the great joys of working with teens. I know that we’re meant to be striving for college jobs, MFA opportunities (as if those were any kind of proof to the world or our imposter syndromes that we are finally “real” writers whose opinions matter).
I’ve had a university and MFA job. I loved that, too. But there is also a bone-deep satisfaction that comes from pulling a brilliant, oblivious kid aside when the time is right and quietly alerting them to what they’ve got. God help them.
Their parents might not thank you for it.
5. Fear the Rigor Police
A few years ago, a creative writing teacher at another independent school asked to meet me for a coffee. She said she’d heard kids talking about what I was doing with the program I’d spent all these years building. She was worried about what she was doing. I asked her to explain.
When she was granted the right to teach a creative writing class, her department chair told her, “It has to be rigorous, though. Not just everyone-gets-A’s playtime.” Together, they laid out a careful, thorough curriculum: assigned prompts; graded drafts; multiple required drafts; the submitting of every finished piece to regional contests and teen writing publications.
This woman is a poet. A seriously gifted one. I already knew she was, I listened to her for a good twenty minutes. The following was my grand contribution to her program:
“Did you write when you were their age?” I asked.
She said, “Oh, yeah.”
“Would you have liked this class?”
That was it.
It’s so hard to explain this to people who do any other kind of work, and especially any other kind of teaching (ALTHOUGH—I actually think most of the principles I have tried to make myself teach by have more application in more disciplines than the Rigor Police want to admit). But it’s the truth:
The playtime is work. It’s probably the majority of the work. Taking walks, reading books, having coffees, listening to music, talking to people. Collecting stimuli and responding to it. Sifting through moments for whatever meaning and pattern we can glean there. Then sharing that.
You can’t rush inspiration, or multiple-draft it into being. It won’t come when you call it, certainly not during C block or whenever its appointed slot may be. The only way you’re going to find it is by throwing open all the windows you’ve got and leaving them that way. Forever.
I learned this from my brilliant dad, who I still miss every hour of every day. I will never forget the third or fourth Thursday afternoon after he’d taken up his new job heading an industrial design studio populated with formidable creative talents.
“We weren’t getting anywhere,” he told me. “Everyone was just sitting around impressing each other.”
“So what’d you do?”
I could say he looked smug. But really, he just looked happy. “Took ‘em to the movies.”
6. But Instill the Discipline
That is, help every writer you interact with, including yourself, find his/her/their routines. Which won’t be your routines. Unless we’re talking about you. In which case your routines will probably change from project to project.
With my Creative Writing Fellows—my most passionate kids, the seniors who either think they want to be writers or just know they need writing in some way in their lives—I introduced a month-long exercise early in each year called the Writ Bit.
Mostly, to me—not only with writing but with almost everything that brings actual joy to living—data tracking is the enemy. Or, no, data is good and fine and useful. You just need to be really clear and careful about what you ask of it and what you think it’s telling you. One of the things the Writ Bit does not chart is word count.
There’s no grade attached to this. Unless the writers bring it up in conversation, I don’t even ask to see it. What it challenges them to do is this:
In any form they like—diary, spreadsheet, daily balloon bubble, simple handmade chart scrawled on collected napkins—I want them to take no more than five minutes at the end of each day and answer as many of the following questions as apply:
Did you write today?
When did you write?
Where did you write?
What did you write? New thing or old thing?
How did it feel? Good day or bad? Any idea why?
What was the light like?
Was there music? If yes, what was it?
How long did you write (although I always remind them—this isn’t a weights program; the goal is not necessarily upping the reps)?
If you did write today...did it feel good?
If you didn’t write today...did it feel good?
And that’s it. At the end of the month, we sometimes conduct Paris Review-style interviews with each other. Usually, it’s the students who demand that. Because it’s fun.
Even if they now know how and when they get themselves to work.