You Only THINK I’m Teaching You

One of the crazier classrooms I’ve taught in

From time to time, when my schedule allows, I teach classes for Grub Street in Boston. I teach a couple of different classes with interesting titles such as: “I’ve Always Wanted to Write, But …”, or “Imagine This”, or “Six Easy Pieces.” I’ve Always . . . and Six Easy Pieces are both a response to my many years of teaching writing and reviewing manuscripts, and they are designed to give beginning writers some awareness of the basic elements of the craft.

Because these are self-selected adult writers, my classes may range in age from the twenties to the mid-sixties, with the occasional high school student allowed in by special permission. Obviously, along with that range of ages come a wide range of life experience, employment experience, and world views. I’ve had students from many different parts of the world, some of whom struggled to write in English.

The class is billed as  class for beginners. I’ve sometimes jokingly called it the “training wheels” class because students tend to take it who don’t feel ready for one of the more advanced classes. Or they take it because it’s only six weeks, and anyone can get through a six week class, while ten weeks might feel daunting. For those six weeks, I focus not only on giving writing prompts and having everyone read their work aloud, but also on how they approach their writing. Are they cookers who carry it around in their heads until it is nearly finished. Do they quickly do a first draft and then keep revising it. Are they a combination of these, depending on the exercise.

And I focus on all of the different ways someone who truly wants to write keeps coming between herself and the page. Are they treating it like homework? Does their dream of doing some creative writing keep getting backburnered by work, by friends who want them to come out and play? By family or laundry or something else. Then I tell them that only they are going to respect their passion for writing, and therefore, they need to carve out writing time and  protect that time. Honor their desire to practice the craft. Then I surprise them: Just give it a dedicated two hour block of time each week, I say. Two hours a week. Maybe 500 words. And yet it will add up.

Stephen Kelner – Motivate Your Writing

I send them to find a copy of Kenneth Atchity’s book, A Writer’s Time. I suggest they read Stephen Kelner’s book about different writers’ types, Motivate Your Writing, and suggest they look at Robert McKee’s Story. Sometimes I read to them; every week, they read to me.

Another class ended recently. As soon as they are gone, I miss them. They get their first assignment before the first class, so they hit the ground, or my classroom, already enmeshed in their first writing exercise. Each week, they’ve tackled something new. Isolating their senses and using each single sense to dig deeply into the world around them, learning how limited our language of description can sometimes be, and how rich even the simplest world is when seen through a close lense. They’ve written dialogue without any business or even the simple “he said, she said” tags. They’ve practiced writing about emotional events through the eyes of characters very different from themselves. They’ve practiced “telling through indirection,” showing how a character feels without actually saying it. And they’ve branched out into a longer piece that in many cases turned into a complete story.

I close every class with Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules for Writing, or Easy on the Hooptedoodle,” because it has both good advice and a delightful voice.

Now they are gone, off to their own worlds and desks again. But while each class believes that I am teaching them, they are always also teaching me. About how each writer, however unschooled and unconfident, has a distinct voice, special individual strengths, particular insights, ways of conveying character or using language uniquely theirs and with the power to attach a reader to their writing. And I am back at my desk, hoping that I’ve given them the confidence to keep writing, and knowing that over the next weeks and months, bits of their voices will keep singing in my head, and I will send strong wishes their way that they will believe in themselves, and keep writing.


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