Monday, July 15, 2013


I have a host of teaching weaknesses! But now I'm going to think of what I do well. I'm actually a good analyst, so my best teaching I think is done in writing. That is, I'm a better textbook writer than I am a classroom teacher. What I'm really good at is analyzing how a piece of writing works and how to make that happen in your own writing. So oddly enough, I'm best at a great distance (writing articles about writing, keeping the edittorrent blog about editing), or working very directly one-on-one with a writer. The f2F classroom has never been my metier, especially college classrooms where discussion is to be encouraged. I'm more a lecturer type (because I want to share all that analysis!) than a discussion-facilitator.

Anyway, I've sort of kept teaching until I happened into the two (opposing) situations I'm good at-- giving lectures about writing and plotting to large groups, and tutoring students directly in a writing center. (Also I do coaching of fiction writing on an ad hoc basis, and teach text-based email-list classes on various fiction-writing subjects, during which I always give way, way too much information and analysis, which annoys many students and delights (the best) some others. Also these classes are a way I create gobs of material that I use later to write books and booklets about these writing topics.)

So anyway, tonight I decided my greatest strength was not the analytical ability, or my enthusiasm about the rather arcane topics I teach. Rather it's... acceptance.

I was having dinner with my son, a newly commissioned military officer kicking his heels for a couple months before his next training assignment. He is, like so many of his generation, a serious gamer, but he's always been his mother's son and more fascinated by the stories than by the technology. We talk a lot about how this new medium allows for a different type of story, one with multiple protagonists, for example, where they don't all have to be brought together somehow in the end-- they can have separate experiences as the player will be able to "be" that person for the nonce.  He'd told me a few months ago about a post-apocalyptic story he had in his head, and tonight I mentioned that it seemed more suited to a videogame than to a novel for various reasons that made sense at the time-- his story is a road story, which is hardly unknown in fiction but would be more interesting in a game; he had a strong idea of the ending (endings are essential in fiction, I think... if there's no ending, there might be episodes but no story) but alternate paths to that-- again, a "game" advantage that would of necessity be trimmed in a novel.

Point is, I accepted it-- the story, the particular medium (gaming), and above all the acceptability of creating stories as a viable way to spend your time... and also the entire possibility that he could write this and it could be good. That I think is strangely enough my greatest strength. I exude, "You aren't insane. It's perfectly normal that you are preoccupied with these stories and these people who don't really exist. That's not crazy. It's cool."

I have actually been doing that much of my life. I sold my first novel when I was 22 (trust me, that was the very height of my brilliant career-- nothing like hitting your peak early to chasten you for life :), and so all along I've had credibility-- I'm just a normal person, and yet I write novels and have had some small success at it. There's nothing particularly exceptional or insane about me, so really, if I'm okay with it, if I think you've got as much chance as I do, then you can stop having that secret shame, you know, who the heck am I to think I can write a book?

That's my great gift. By accepting this as acceptable, I tell writers they're not crazy to write. I like to think that's really a good thing. :)

That doesn't of course mean that everyone I deal with is a good writer or will probably succeed. But I actually think almost anyone who wants to write probably can learn to write in some way. There are those who are already good at storytelling but might not be good at mechanics (these are the ones most likely to become pretty good fiction writers-- you can always hire an editor, and what you can't hire-- an imagination-- they already have). And there are those who are meticulous at mechanics but have little imagination (journalists are often this way), and might best apply their talents to something other than fiction, maybe-- but there's a huge world of genres and modes to choose from.

I've learned that if I read someone's story or outline and think, never in a million years, I better keep that to myself, first so as not to shut down their enthusiasm, but also because you can't really predict what combination of idea, hard work, and connections might cause a story to end up getting published or produced.

So what the heck. Deal with the writing as it comes to you. I once worked with a young writer who had apparently never noticed that chapters have many paragraphs-- every chapter was a single unbroken paragraph, and I don't mean in the Faulknerianly magisterial stream of consciousness way-- it was more a regular passage where the writer had forgotten to hit "enter" (I had "return" there and deleted it so you wouldn't realize I learned to type on a typewriter :) and "tab" occasionally. It was sort of breathtaking, and I remember thinking direly that anyone who has so little ability to absorb the conventions of written prose had little chance. But we soldier on. I said, as affirmatively as I could, that I wanted to show him how to paragraph, and we discussed where a little idea ended and a new one began, and then when one person stopped speaking and another started, and other places where a new paragraph might be useful. He thought this was fun, and pretty soon started incorporating paragraphs into his chapter. Once he did that, I could see that the helter-skelter pace that led him to rush through was actually the sign of a powerful engine of narrative propulsion-- a kind of exciting story. And wouldn't you know it, a few years later, his first book was bought by a major publisher (he did have paragraphs by then :), because that propulsiveness was actually the sign of a natural storyteller.

Anyway, since then I haven't written anyone off. Who knows what will combine to create a great story? I know that I have great training-- I know how plots work, and how sentences work, and even so, I never pull off the great story I should be capable of, given the expertise. (A natural teacher, perhaps-- the greatest teacher bar none I've ever had teaches screenplay writing, and has taught dozens of writers who later won awards, and yet hasn't ever had a big writing success of his own. That's me too, only I'm not that good a writing teacher.)

So. When I think of my greatest strength as a writing teacher, that's it. I don't think you're crazy to want to write. I think it's awesome, or at least perfectly normal. Let's go out to lunch and talk through your plot!

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