Friday, 1 August 2014

Writer as Teacher – The Joy of Immersion

A Writing Reality

During my first year of university, one of my lecturers told us eager novice writers that if we wanted to survive in the writing game [we held our collective breath in anticipation], we had to have a second job that pays the bills. You know, something like teaching, or events management, or bus driving.

Okay, he didn't advocate for driving a bus (we were uni students, after all), although I do think this would be a great job for observing humanity in all its nuances, which is easy for me to say when I don’t have to put up with said humanity – except in small groups, under controlled conditions.

What the lecturer was advocating for was an alternative or parallel career path that earns regular cash because, as he explained, breaking into the writing game is tough, and making a living from it can be even tougher (first-time author with miraculously lucrative contracts excluded). There was a moment of contemplative silence as our dreams were re-aligned with reality, and then we went on with learning about our chosen craft.

This sage advice, while contradicting my romantic notions of the writer as suffering artist, was good counsel, especially as I’m the kind of person who likes her creature comforts such as having a roof over my head, a car to get around in, and chocolate on demand. Of course, our lecturer wasn't only drawing from his own experiences as a writer, but was dipping into a long tradition of writers who had/have ‘second jobs’. Not so strangely, many of these writers choose to be teachers.

One of my all-time favourite short stories, We Are Nighttime Travelers, was written by Ethan Canin, a writer-turned-medical doctor-turned-writer and teacher. There is an interesting insight into Canin’s development as a writer and his thoughts on teaching creative writing workshops hereWhat struck me when I first read We Are Nighttime Travelers, beyond the elegant prose that so beautifully captured the characters, was the idea of a doctor, weary from a day of assisting the sick, sitting down to write, and thereby create, a different sort of balm; one for the soul of a reader. 

Ah, there goes the romantic in me again. Yet it is interesting, this compulsion to write: the infatuation with words, the obsession with story. Writers can have other jobs – pressing, time-devouring ‘legitimate’ work – but they are secondary to the creative imperative, even if it doesn't pay the bills… at this point in time.

And, truthfully – as a writer friend told me – if a writer is to be successful, their creative work must come first, and the bill-paying job must always be second, even if that means dedicating just one hour of every day to getting words on a page, and building from there.

When I read, sometime later, that Canin had given away medicine to return to writing and had taken on a teaching role, it wasn't a surprise. There is something to be said for the immersion that comes with teaching creative writing in conjunction with producing your own work. It’s like living inside a snow globe where every tiny, white flake is a story falling around you, landing in your eyes, in your ears, on the tips of your fingers. Some of those stories are beautiful; some are mediocre, some are dreadful, but all of them are valuable as each one has something to impart or something to teach, which can then be passed on to other writers to assist them on their creative journey.

About that Second Job...

Teaching was something I tiptoed into after completing my first degree, with the encouragement of that same lecturer who had added a dash of reality to my writer’s dream, and I remember being terrified the first (20!) time I took a class. Since then, I have stood in front of hundreds of students to deliver lectures and lead tutorials, or worked one to one with student-writers, while over the last few years, I've taken a creative writing program on the road to engage with high schools students in regional areas. During all of this teaching, three things have remained constant:
  • Some writers, like elite athletes, are born to their craft – but they still need guidance.
  • Dedication, hard work, practice/practice/practice, and meticulous editing elevates every writer.
  • Writers need constructive, objective and honest feedback, even if it stings a little (or a lot). 

And there is one other thing that has been consistent for me throughout each encounter with students: they are my teachers as much as I am theirs. Perhaps this is what draws writers into the workshop or classroom. Not only are these spaces for introducing ideas and practicing skills, but they are spaces where we – teacher and student – learn compassion, sensitivity, grace and audacity. For the writer/teacher, our students keep us fresh and remind us that the old is always new, the first time we meet it, as my conversation with a Grade Seven student this week reveals:

            Student:  ‘Can we use mythology in our story? Coz I’m totally in love with Medusa.’
            Teacher: ‘Sure, as long as you put an original spin on the story. Maybe you could
                             make it contemporary.’
            Student:  ‘Contemporary?’
            Teacher:  ‘Set in the present.’
            Student:  ‘Oh right, yeah. I’m gonna write about Medusa— in a nightclub!’

Will this be a great story? Maybe, or not, but it doesn't really matter. What’s important is that this student loves ideas and words and story – they make her shine – and that she has a supportive environment where she can express them. At the same time, I have the chance to encourage her, to reassure her, and to share in her enthusiasm, which I take with me when I approach my own writing. My ‘second job’, then,  keeps me grounded, keeps me motivated and, of course, pays the bills. More importantly,  it allows me to be fully immersed in my craft while encouraging aspiring writers to embrace and explore their own creative practice.

Like to share a story about your second job, or your experiences as a CW teacher? Cool, please leave a comment below.

Happy writing, teaching and/or working!