Sunday, June 22, 2008

Writing Teachers Writing

I tried to write this post yesterday. “I loved teaching the the “Creative Writing for Teachers” at the University of Indianapolis last week,” I began. “It was mostly young teachers, with a few seasoned ones in the mix—the kind you just know high school kids adore.”

Well, how boring is that, I thought?

I dithered a while, typing lame stuff, the only pleasure in it watching the words eat themselves backwards, letter-by-letter, when I held my finger on the “Delete” key. My mind wandered to Gordon Lish, the renegade writing teacher I took a few workshops with years ago, how he’d arrived for class in a safari outfit, complete with pith helmet,virtually pinning us all to our chairs with his intensity. Then I remembered the professor I had for nature studies when I was a freshman in college. I couldn’t think of her name, just that she was tiny, birdlike—and so manic with enthusiasm for nature that we giggled behind her back. The rumor was, she had to be committed to a mental institution every few years. We’d fantasize about the circumstances. Discovered at Lake Lemon scooping up minnows into a coffee can, wearing nothing but the rubber waders she so loved. Or building a nest in her basement with sticks and grasses, threaded through with shredded ribbons of the lab reports she was always saying she’d misplaced.

Ah, I thought. Intensity. Enthusiasm. Maybe there's something in that!

Full disclosure #1. The first line of this post says, “I tried to write this post yesterday.” But, actually, it’s still today. That is, at some point, I wrote that sentence, giving myself permission to quit and try again tomorrow because what I was writing was so wooden. With luck, the sentence would give me a jumping off point when I came back to it. But as soon as I gave mind a pass, it gave me Gordon Lish. Then the nature studies professor (along with a vivid memory of a field trip at Lake Lemon, Friday, fall of 1965, blue sky, sparkling water, leaves just starting to turn—and my utter boredom with it. I didn’t give a hoot minnows or leaves or who got to wear the stupid waders All I could think about was getting back to campus where the weekend was beginning without me.)

Hmmm, I thought.

Memorable (for better or worse) teachers. The feel of being eighteen, the self-absorption, the natural resistance to being taught.

Trick your mind into thinking you’re giving it a pass, and suddenly—who knows why?—it wants to please you. But not so much that it gives you everything. Just a few pieces of the puzzle.

Full disclosure #2. Was that field trip actually on a Friday? I have no idea. I went back and put in Friday because everybody knows what Friday feels like—well, except crazy people, like Lish and the professor who lose all track of time—and I thought the word “Friday” would create that sense of agitation on the page. That, added to one of the fundamental truths of adolescence which is, whether we like it or not, for most students, school matters because it’s where their friends are.

If I want to make an essay out of this, I really should cut the nature professor, whose enthusiasm came without any insight into how to teach what she loved. And the Gordon Lish stuff, too, because his intensity was mean--a you’re it-you’re-not-intensity that did more harm than good—at least for me, at the time, because in his view I wasn’t. Though I have to admit that, after the trauma of that wore off, I realized I’d learned some amazing things about writing from him--which is a whole other thing.

Anyway. I didn't cut the nature professor or Gordon Lish because I (suddenly) realized that I wanted the post to feel like process, to feel like what I had wanted the students in “Creative Writing for Teachers” to understand about how writing works. You write crap, you cast around for ideas; some work, some don’t. You keep going.

Eventually, you figure out what you really want to say, which is (it turns out)We teach ourselves.

Ha! I bet I know what you guys in the class are thinking if you're reading this.

She said, “Clarity is everything!” She told us Tolstoy himself said, “Clarity is beauty.” A sentence should be clear, reduced lowest common denominator so that it can mean only one thing—and “We teach ourselves” doesn’t fill the bill.

But I’m breaking the rule here because, in this case, I don’t want “We teach ourselves” to mean one thing. I want it to resonate, I want all three meanings (and maybe others I’m not seeing yet).

Teaching writing, we teach teach writing. Every year, we see what works and what doesn’t, and we revise what and how we teach the next year, just as we revise our own writing, never getting it quite right, knowing it’s impossible to get it absolutely right, but each time getting a little close to giving our students the gift of what we know.

Teaching writing, we teach write. Trying so hard to narrow that gap between what we know about writing and what we’re able to give students/what they’re able to receive, we become better writers ourselves.

Teaching writing, we teach our (true)selves. If we love writing, our students know. If we write, if we are engaged in the writing process ourselves, they know. Teenagers have the greatest crap detectors in the universe. If we’re faking passion for writing, they see right through it, and if we expect them to struggle through a difficult process that we’re unwilling to struggle through ourselves, we might as well just go ahead and say what they’re already thinking, “Ha. It’s don’t do as I do, do as I say. As usual.”

I did love teaching “Creative Writing for Teachers” at the University of Indianapolis last week. I loved the teachers in the class, who cared about their students so much that they spent a week of their summer vacation learning how to help them write better. I loved watching them struggle with writing and come out on the other end with something that surprised them. I loved the way the exercises cracked the world open for some of them, bringing new insights to teaching and to their personal lives.

Most of all, I loved watching them write—heads bent, hands moving, the only sound the whisper of pen on paper, the click of keys—learning, maybe remembering, the real addiction of writing: when we’re writing, we’re not here. We’re in a world all our own. A world where people and places we love come back to us, where past is present and the present casts itself forward into “What if?” A world where nothing ever ends.

Whoa! I had no idea it was going there.

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