Friday, March 26, 2010

Teaching Moment

I have always loved those moments, teaching, when whatever I’m trying to teach becomes visible in a student’s eyes, or in the way her posture shifts to alertness, or, even better, when, suddenly, there is a certain quality of quiet in the classroom in which the new idea is caught for a long moment, alive and quivering.

Today I had a brand new kind of teaching moment. I was talking to my friend Bryan Furuness’s creative writing class at Butler University about writing novels. I began by reading the new first chapter of my novel-(seemingly forever)-in-progress, Looking for Jack Kerouac—which was a little harrowing, because it really is new and I’m still not sure it’s going to work. Anyway, the novel is set in 1964, and there’s a reference to “The Fugitive” in the part I read.

After I finished reading, I talked about where the idea came from, how it evolved—the wonderful catastrophe of creative process—and, eventually, about revision.

How it helps to love revision. But if you don’t, you have to accept the fact that it’s necessary. You just have to keep doing it and doing it until the novel you’ve made with words comes as close as it can to matching the novel you feel and know and see inside you.

But you can’t figure out what kind of revision the novel needs by yourself. When you read the words on the page you can’t separate them from the stuff in your head, so you can’t know what's really there. You need a reader who will read the words and, by asking you questions and making honest observations, let you see what they what they say—and what they don’t say. Only then, can you see the nature of the gap between what's there and what you hope is there.

I think I got a little obsessive about the honesty thing. I usually do.

The importance of being brutally honest with yourself about your writing, appreciating the honest of your editors or critics, even if they say something you don’t really want to hear.

I’m so dead serious about this stuff I embarrass myself sometimes.

Anyway. The period came to an end. Everyone left, but one girl who wanted to ask a question. We chatted for a few minutes and, suddenly, a bunch of kids from the class burst back into the room. Kind of like an anxious posse.

“We have a question,” the spokesperson said.

Then somebody blurted out, “The Fugitive was a movie in the ‘eighties.”

I smiled. “It was also a TV show first, in the early sixties,” I said.

I think they were a little embarrassed. In any case, I hope I convinced them that their decision to tell me something, honestly, about their reaction to the words I read to them truly and purely delighted me. It was, for me, one of those lovely moments in which something I tried to teach visible.

I have been thinking about it all day—and smiling.