A Brief History of my Education as a Writer

I was a writing student for a long time. Decades. Of course, my education in the English language began long before, but my first memories of my writing education begin in Mrs. Shapiro’s eighth grade English class. With Mrs. Shapiro, we chanted our way through our verb declensions: The verb is chant/ What’s the infinitive?/ To chant/ What’s the past participle?/ Have chanted/ What’s the present participle?/ Is chanting. And so on. That year, the principal moved the longtime teacher to a new classroom, a room with no windows. She hated the lighting, and as a form of protest, would occasionally move the whole class to the hallway (we moved like depressed chattel), where we would continue chanting, disrupting the neighboring classes with our declensions and inevitably earning a visit from the principal.

            Then there was my high school grammar teacher. I can’t remember her name, but I do remember that she scared us half to death; she was intense, and we quickly learned not to test her. She did know her grammar, though, and she would complain with lisping fervor about the grammatical errors she found on signs around our city. At the time, I thought this was ridiculous. We all did. (Now I do the same thing.) 

            I was talkative and occasionally disruptive in AP English, and my teacher (whose name I remember but will remain nameless) would send me to the hallway and instruct me to stand against the wall with my nose against a brick. I’ll readily admit that this was partially my fault, but the punishment was intended to humiliate me, and I was the only one who was ever expelled from class (and certainly not the only person who was disruptive). Still, it’s easy to forgive, because she was the same teacher who introduced me to the books, Catcher in the Rye and Invisible Man, that truly made me fall in love with books. These were the books that showed me how words have the power to change the way people see the world. 

            Next came Dr. Heather Sellers at Hope College. By the time I was a sophomore at Hope, I knew that I wanted to be a writer, and Heather was the one who gave me the incredible gift of praising one of my stories in front of the whole class, reading it aloud as if it were truly beautiful. I honestly don’t know if I would have continued persisting in this work for all of these years if it weren’t for my college professor’s public praise. Heather also taught me about the necessity of building plot and how to begin to think about the components of a story. I’ll never forget one class, when she had grown exhausted with our stories about characters, who were always sitting around at coffee shops and bars (talking, talking, talking), and practically yelling at us,“Your characters need to DO something! They need a project! A hobby!”I still think back to that expression: “Your characters need a project!”And I often ask myself that question about my stories-in-progress: “What is the project here?” Fortunately, these days I’m a lot better at finding an answer.

            Next came the amazing writer, Erin McGraw, who took an interest in me and my work at a summer writing workshop, called The Glen, and who has done me the incredible kindness of walking with me through graduate school applications, the completion of my MFA, and everything that has come afterward. Again and again, she has reminded me that the craft is demanding and that there are no shortcuts. She also insists that revision is the fun part. “It’s like rearranging the furniture,” she says, a perspective I’ve been trying to claim as my own for years.

            Now, finally, we’ve arrived at my MFA, The Writing Seminars at Bennington College, a place where, during my first two-week residency, I was learning at such a rapid rate, I thought my brain was going to hemorrhage words and ideas, that they would start bursting through my eyes, ears, nose and mouth. We learned so much in workshop with Bret Johnston and Paul Yoon that we would gather afterward like Jesus’s disciples, trying to make sense out of his parables, sensing the truth of what we had heard but still needing to play it all out in our minds, running test cases.

            Rachel Pastan, another of my advisors at Bennington, was the one who taught me “And then one day . . .”, a very useful way of thinking about story, that it is always about the day when something out of the ordinary takes place. But perhaps most importantly what she taught me was that writers need to have the humility to accept that writing stories isn’t something that we can ever fully master or pin down. It is ever elusive. Every definition lacks.

            Then there was Jill McCorkle, who told me very kindly, “You need to finish this novel.” It was a promise that it could be good, and while I’m still not done with the thing, I know that I’ll get there some day. 

            I could go on. I could go on for an entire book if I wanted, but my point is already made—that I’ve had many teachers who have taught me vital lessons about English and writing. Recently, though, something has changed, and now, increasingly, I am not the student but the teacher. After decades of sitting at the desk, I am the one standing at the blackboard. What hasn’t changed, though, is that I’m still a learner. In fact, I feel as if in the act of teaching, my learning has only accelerated.

            It shouldn’t be surprising. I was a pastor for over a decade, and I have no doubt that I was the one who took the most away from my sermons. After all, I was the one who spent fifteen hours in study and preparation each week, who tracked my own thought process as it evolved. Still, it was hard not to imagine that somehow my writing teachers had it all figured out and that they were telling us what they had long ago mastered. Of course, I was wrong.

            This is what I’ve discovered: teaching writing is profound, because it forces the teacher to reflect deeply upon the relationship between writer and reader—this strange collaboration of minds. As a young writer, I rarely thought about the other party in that relationship. It’s strange to admit but true of most young writers that the reader is little more than an afterthought.

            Teaching has attuned me much more fully to the reader. In part, this is because, as a teacher, I am also a reader. I am the recipient of my students’ efforts. In many respects, a teacher’s job is that of expert reader, only with an additional component. Because as teacher, I am also tasked with explaining to my students why they are (or, more often, aren’t) finding their target, which means, again and again, invoking the writer’s relationship with their reader.

            As I have inhabited this perspective, what I have been discovering is how incredibly active the reader is in engaging the text. I’m sure my own writing teachers talked about this, but it didn’t sink it—not fully—that readers are not passive but constantly interpreting the writer’s words, bringing their own experiences, perspectives, and assumptions to the narrative. The reader is constantly guessing where the story is going, casting aspirations and aspersions at its characters—and with little awareness that they’re doing it.

             I do an exercise with my students where we read a very short section of a story together, just three or four paragraphs, and then make a list of everything we’ve learned about the characters in the passage. The same thing happens every time: we fill the whole board with observations; we draw an astounding number of conclusions from this very short section. It happens every time, and every time, it reminds me of how involved my readers are—that they are constantly making inferences and extrapolations. They read into everything. And the wise writer is aware of the reader’s role. The wise writer plans for it, anticipates the reader’s hypersensitivity to the most subtle of suggestions. The wise writer intentionally gives the reader room to draw their own conclusions, stopping short of telling the writer what it means, instead trusting that, if the writer has done their job, the reader will have already figured it out. 

            There’s one other big thing teaching writing has done for me. It has made me even more willing to revise. First of all, credit where credit’s due. All of my teachers have taught the importance of the revision process. Time and again I’ve told myself that the big lesson I’ve been learning is about revision. I keep thinking that I’ve reached the final plateau only to find yet another rise, another climb to the next height.

            As a teacher, though, I’ve learned to own this truth about the importance of revision. There’s just something different about being the one who is delivering the message. “The difference between great writing and mediocre writing,” I tell my students, “is revision.” I tell them that they are too hung up on talent. Sure, we have to have some talent, but the writers I know who are the most successful and have written the best books, are the ones who work the hardest, the ones who write draft after draft after draft. This is invariably true. Great writers aren’t born with it. Great writers are talented and smart people who learn the craft and approach their task with the persistence of a laborer, knowing that the work will only get done if someone digs the ditch.

            I tell my students that they can produce great work if they’re willing to revise and revise again. I tell them that they need to find friends with whom they can trade their work, and that reading for others is something they should build into their writing life, because trading with friends is a part of the revision process. I tell my students that when they think they’re done with a piece, they’re probably half way there—that there’s another rise they’re not seeing yet, and another one after that.

           I guess, if I had to summarize my journey, it would be to say that it is just that: a journey. Like the revision process, the maturation process is a lot longer than anyone would reasonably expect, and it is most certainly not over when a writer finishes their formal training. I completed an MFA. I have a solid publication history. My students look at my credentials and make the same mistake I made in looking up at my own teachers. They imagine that somehow, I’ve reached an end-point. But, of course, I haven’t. In truth, becoming the teacher is another beginning, another opportunity to learn. I’m just looking at things from a different vantage point.