Monday, May 28, 2018

Why We Teach

RHYS BOWEN: As you are reading this I'm sitting outside an old farmhouse in Tuscany, amid the olive groves and vineyards and I am teaching a writing workshop I've called Novel In A Week. No, I don't expect them to write a novel in a week. The aim is to take an idea they have for a novel, an idea they haven't dared to tackle, or to take a stalled novel and give them the tools to structure it, to give them the bones to build upon so that they can go home and say "Now I see where I have to go."

Too often a beginning novelist has a brilliant idea but gets bogged down  in the middle of exposition and gives up in despair. So I'm looking forward to helping a group of writers turn their dreams into reality.

Someone at Malice asked me why I teach. Aren't my books now bestsellers? The answer is yes. I don't need the money, and in fact a lot the teaching I do hardly pays for my transportation. I teach because I enjoy sharing what I've learned. I guess it must be in the blood. I had a great aunt who was a teacher, my mother became a school principal, my aunt was a teacher and two of my children have been teachers. I have also run a pre-school and taught college--the broadest spectrum of teaching.
Of these I found the college writing classes I taught were challenging, stimulating and really beneficial to me. When I had to stop and think why a particular aspect of a story worked or did not work it gave me insights into my own writing.

Now I find that every time I teach a course I learn something. I am energized and can approach my own writing with enthusiasm. And I find it exciting when I see a new writer who has great potential. I've been on the faculty at the Book Passage writers conference for several years and at least two of my protegees have been published. One is my now good friend Susan Shea! I read her first three chapters and told her that her book actually began on page 19! She sold it!

So, dear Reds and Readers, how about you? I know Hallie and Hank teach all the time. How about the rest of you? Do you teach and if so why? Any experiences to share?

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I taught for several semesters at the University of Southern Maine's creative writing MFA program, called the Stonecoast Program (after a spectacular Victorian-era stone house that has sadly been sold off.) And I've taught a number of quick two-hour seminars. I very much enjoy it, for much the same reason as you describe, Rhys - it helps me focus on the underpinnings of my own work when I have to dissect it (and other fiction) for my students.

There's also a great joy in helping someone find his or her voice and seeing them become a better writer. I believe there are some aspects to fiction writing that can't be taught, per se - for instance, you either have a writer's imagination, or you don't. But there is an enormous amount of technique and clarification that can be passed down, and we're all the better for participating in that process.

LUCY BURDETTE: Darn, I wish I was going to Tuscany! I have 2 books that are stalled, and that sounds like heaven. I don't teach as much as some of you others, but I agree, it always helps me see things in a new way. And it's so much fun to watch someone take a leap forward after getting feedback on their work. I have some very clear memories of classes and workshops I took as I was learning to write. Some of them nearly discouraged me completely, while others provided just the fuel and excitement I needed to forge ahead. I try to do the latter, always!

HALLIE EPHRON: As I write this I'm teaching at Pennwriters. There are two writers here whom Lucy and I taught at our own writing retreat (Ramona Defelice Long and Kimberly Kurth Gray. And other writers I've met at Crime Bake and Writers Digest conferences. And it's always a thrill to hear about their success. Teaching is FUN. And I never get teacher's block.

INGRID THOFT: I love teaching and find that it is a wonderful counterpoint to my own writing.  I think it’s essential for writers to, every so often, get up from their desks and interact with other readers and writers.  My goal when teaching is to get people reengaged with their work if the spark is gone and to also give them practical tools to get the story onto the page.  In December, I volunteered with a second/third grade class to help them write bedtime stories—in my pajamas!  It was a hoot and so gratifying to see kids excited about stories and language.  I’m inspired by the passion and enthusiasm of my students, whether they’re in elementary school or retired or somewhere in between.

JENN McKINLAY: I've taught workshops, mostly, at libraries and senior centers, and a few conferences. Usually, I am trying to kick start the people who want to write a book but don't know where to start. I find I'm mostly teaching them how to get out of their own way. Don't get hung up on selling the book before you write the book, don't sweat the font size. I like to say, "'I love your Fifty Shades of Girl with a Twilight Tattoo, but I'm passing on it because you used the wrong font,' said no editor ever." LOL. The hardest thing about deciding to be a writer is that you have to actually get your butt in the chair and write the book. It's always very rewarding to see students who get it. It reaffirms my own work ethic every time.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: It is the joy of my life. And yes, I do it often, and with much delight.  When I think of how much I had to learn, and keep learning every day, and how many things I wish someone had told me..ah. And sometimes you see it, you know? That spark of recognition of the bit of advice or guidance that connects, and maybe changes a life--or a book at least. It is incredibly gratifying. Paula Munier and I just taught an intense, intensive and totally immersive weekend seminar on Cape Cod for WritersDigest. It was exhausting and exhilarating, and none of our lives will ever be the same. My goal is to have a "student" be at their computer, one day after the class--and say to themself: "Oh! That's what Hank meant!" And I always learn something when I teach.  SO rewarding.

DEBORAH CROMBIE:: I don't teach as much as some of you. I do enjoy it, but I enjoy being a student even more. My favorite part of going to writers conferences is the opportunity to listen to other writers and absorb their insights. I always come back full of ideas that I want to apply to my own books. I would absolutely LOVE to be in Rhys's class in Tuscany right now. I'm sure I would work out all my plot problems while eating delicious Italian food--and that it would be cooler than Texas.  Rhys, your students are so lucky!


RHYS: I was always told Those who can do, those who can't teach..Clearly this is not the case. Here we are.. eight well known, well respected writers and teaching is something we enjoy and look forward to. So do share your experiences: for the writers among us, do you enjoy teaching or have you taken workshops that have been an inspiration, changed the way you think about your writing?

Who teaches other subjects? What does it mean to you?

38 comments:

  1. My favorite students were first graders and, for me, the best part of teaching was in the moment a little child “got it” . . . the look of wonder filling sparkling eyes, the joy of understanding spreading across the face. It’s a moment like no other . . . and it’s priceless.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Your comment reminds me of a third-grader I had who was a non-reader and then it clicked. He was so relieved he didn't have to fake it any longer, because up to then he'd been working so hard at hide that fact that he wasn't getting it.

      Delete
    2. Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution for that, but watching a child struggle to learn is heartbreaking . . . .

      Delete
  2. I wish I was in Tuscany, too! I love all these stories. I've taught adults at the college level and elsewhere, but it was about linguistics, organic gardening, technical writing - not creative writing, and I also love that "Aha" moment when a student catches on/absorbs/understands something new. I have learned so much from Hallie's workshops over the years (and was in the same Seascape class as Ramona and Kim, plus three of my fellow Wicked Cozy authors). May we never stop learning!

    ReplyDelete
  3. That's so true, Edith. We never stop learning

    ReplyDelete
  4. I teach communication to college students and I find it endlessly interesting, and also a bit exhausting. But mostly it's just so amazing to me that I get paid to do something that is creative and also rewarding. Teaching is really just another word for learning, I think - there's always something to learn for me - either about teaching itself, or my subject, or my students. The same course taught to new students can be an entirely different experience, and that's why each September is such a fantastic ride of new opportunities for this teacher.

    Enjoy Tuscany, Rhys. Your students are some lucky!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I loved reading this from all of you. I still quote certain teachers from when I was trying to figure out how to get started, and others who offered important mid-career insights. As you have illustrated, we never stop learning ourselves. I haven't taught a class but I have volunteered in the NY chapter MWA mentor program for many years. The first time, I was asked and was surprised, having published maybe two books and not thinking I knew anything! We read 50 pages and a synopsis from an aspiring mystery writer,and write a few pages of critique/suggestions.I usually offer to talk in person/by email too. Sometimes it's fun; sometimes it's a challenge- how to say kindly "You need to learn how to write a sentence first" - always worthwhile. Paying it forward, right?

    ReplyDelete
  6. I too have spent most of my life teaching kids from preschool to high school. I taught home economics, special ed., and reading. Even though I am retired I have not given up on doing what I love best. There are always new things to learn and then I share with others. But interestingly I learn as much from others as they learn from me.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Rhys, I wish I had the time and funds to go to Tuscany! I took an online course with you in historical fiction through the Guppies. My goal was to see if I had a story (I did) and I'm happy to say I'm finally finishing it up!

    Way back when I was in college, my first intention was to be a teacher. Nothing made me sadder than seeing a young person who simply refused to even try, and nothing made me happier than helping with the opposite. One of my students, a football player, showed up early almost every morning for extra tutoring. By the time I left that rotation, he'd raised his average to a B and finally understood "why" English and reading were required classes.

    Hallie, I'm so sad I missed you at Pennwriters this year!

    Mary/Liz

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yay, Mary.I'm so happy you've finished your story!

      Delete
  8. I attended Hank's 2014 MWA-U session in Chicago, and Hallie's 2016 Hamilton, Ohio Mad Anthony workshop, plus the Midwest Writer's Workshops in 2016 and 2017. A total immersion workshop is just what I need right now.

    For years, I was the "writing mom" in my kids' grade school classes. I succeeded, even with the most reluctant writers.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I teach college writing but every now I then I work with a student who wants to write fiction and, as Joan said, it's wonderful to see that moment when the student's eye light up with discovery.

    Like so many others, I have a writer's imagination but have a hard time making myself write on a regular basis. I blame my teaching/grading workload but I'm sure part of it is being afraid that I can't do it because it's hard!

    Hallie, I *love* your Writing and Selling Your Mystery novel. As a writing instructor I read LOTS of books about writing and yours is fantastic and I recommend it to my students who want to write mysteries.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hallie's book is a wonderful resource, and I love to dip into it when I'm stuck. It is definitely a go-to on my bookshelf!

      Delete
  10. How lovely Tuscany sounds. I've been there only once, many years ago, and not nearly long enough.

    Nurses teach. Lots. All the way from showing someone how to give a shot of insulin to week-long seminars to post graduate classes. In some states, if the nurse is presenting for CEUs, she is awarded twice the amount she is offering in her class. This is because the teacher always learns more about her subject in the preparation, far more than she expects her learners to absorb.

    I loved teaching, whether to an individual or to a large group. It is so satisfying to share knowledge, technique, skills, and lore.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My oldest daughter is a nurse, and she has always said the same thing, Ann, that medicine is all about passing on information.

      Now she is a Diabetes Management Educator for a hospital in Detroit, and she is the only nurse in the Midwest with a Masters in that field from Columbia. She teaches for a living. The other day a new patient presented with such strange symptoms that she took some simple tests to find that he was hours from a massive heart attack. All in a day's work, saving lives, right?

      Delete
    2. So terrifying… What a responsibility.

      Delete
  11. Tuscany sounds divine! I think a good class always teaches the teacher, too.

    Hallie, that Seascape class was so influential! I am still in touch with many of the other writers, and we did do pretty well in getting out work published. Always thankful to you, Roberta, and Susan Hubbard for that early guidance.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was a remarkable group. And the best part was you all getting to connect with one another.

      Delete
  12. Margaret, you and I were at MWA-University and the Write Like Mad workshops at the same time. I'd forgotten that is where we met.

    Since I took the photo above, I was also so fortunate to attend Rhys's first workshop in Tuscany. What I wouldn't give to be on that porch with her and her eager new class right now. Sigh.

    I've also done lots of teaching: sewing, crafts, herbals, kitchen/sewing room design, computer skills, and a jillion business classes when I traveled around the US for fifteen years as a sewing business expert. As Rhys said, when you teach, if you pay attention, you learn as much as the students do. It organizes your thoughts, and helps you better understand things you've always done as rote without considering why.

    Every now and then someone comes up to me to thank me for a class I dimly recall teaching decades ago. Knowing that I somehow helped them, even in a small way, still gives me a thrill.

    My best success story was my youngest sewing student. Her mother was intent on getting this kid into activities every day after school, as a first grader! The one thing she really wanted to do was learn to sew. I knew her mother a little, she was the friend of a friend. So I bent my rule of not starting kids until they were a little older. She turned out to have a natural gift, and went on to major in Fashion Design at the Rhode Island School of Design, took a summer patternmaking and couture workshop at FIT with my friend Kenneth D King, and now has her own knitwear company, Peony & Moss.

    Luckily, her mother said "Now she can do all the family ironing!" in my hearing (I taught the kids how to use the iron, too.) And I put the kibosh on the idea. Can you imagine? We laugh about it now when I run into her.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Rhys, I wish I could be at your Tuscany writing workshop. I loved your writing classes at Book Passage. My book is still WIP. I wondered how you find the time to teach writing workshops when you have books to write. Amazing!

    Yes, we have many teachers in my family. I learned that my great grandfather's sister was a school teacher in Scotland. My great aunt was a teacher. My Mom is a teacher. And now I have a cousin who is teaching. She graduated from Mills College. Yes, the same place where the Royal Wedding cake baker graduated from!

    Diana

    ReplyDelete
  14. Next year, I'm going to take Rhys's class to figure out why I get stuck in the middle of a book so often!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Okay, Deb. That's it. Next year, you and I go study with Rhys in Tuscany. Are you in?

    I come from a family of teachers, and grew up listening to them complain about the low pay, petty bureaucracy, and the general annoyance of it. When I chose my own profession, I opted out of teaching. And yet . . . I have worked with beginning writers on getting the basics down. I have spoken to high school students about how to choose their career paths. I have spent much of my life sharing what I have figured out with those who are still trying to sort through it all. That's a form of teaching, I suppose.

    As for teaching writing, that was my late husband's specialty. Over the years he saw fifty of his student make professional sales, including one who is now (thanks to her own talent and persistence) an international best seller. He was very proud of them all.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I really should take some sort of class where I can learn how to successfully take the idea in my head and get it down on paper (okay, up on the computer screen). Of course, that would be when time and money actually allow for the luxury of doing what I want rather than keeping a roof over my head, food in my admittedly large belly and the lights on.

    I don't teach. I wasn't really even a good student. I was passable but there were no academic honors for me really.

    Oddly, I coached youth basketball for 25 years which I suppose is a form of teaching. For the most part I loved doing it. However, I haven't coached in 6 years and have no desire to go back to it.

    ReplyDelete
  17. The past few years I have been teaching Sunday School and it brings me nothing but joy. I love planning the curriculum and seeing where the kids take it. Our last class was on May 20, Pentecost -- I introduced the idea of the "gifts of the Holy Spirit." There are several but I chose three and provided them in language the children could understand: wisdom, holiness, and awe. And what did they draw -- the solar eclipse and the Grand Canyon. Love it!

    ReplyDelete
  18. I love hearing our teaching is rewarding for you. And this is one reason I love the mystery writing community. Here are 8 successful writers looking to pass on what they've learned to others to help them along their journey. That's fabulous!

    ReplyDelete
  19. Looking at the picture of Rhys in teacher mode, I realize I need to reevaluate and move my teaching to Tuscany! Brilliant, Rhys, as always.

    ReplyDelete
  20. This is just one more facet of the fabulous JRW's to admire. I am struck by your spirit of generosity as a whole, in your words when you authentically share on this site, and when you respond to reader's comments in a positive encouraging manner. And now, reading of your dedication to sharing your unique gift of writing so that other would be authors have the opportunity to succeed as you all have.....wow. Think of what this world would feel like if we all lived by that unselfish practice....always being committed to pulling others up behind us as we succeed...believing there is enough for us all. What a concept.

    ReplyDelete
  21. What a thrill it must be to be in Tuscany in your writing class, Rhys. If being taught by you and being in Tuscany doesn't inspire a writer, I don't know what would. I love hearing about your time there, and I was happy to see the back of John in one of your pictures on FB. Delighted he is doing well.

    When I worked with state mandated writing portfolios, I was first involved with fourth graders and then seniors in high school. Both experiences were rewarding. For the fourth graders, I developed some guides and taught some of the basics of organizing one's thoughts to put on paper. One of my favorite pieces to teach was persuasive writing, as I could give the students some clear guidelines on creating a good piece. Fiction was the hardest to work with. Anybody who has worked with teaching writing knows that making something up is way more difficult than it sounds. Personal pieces were sometimes emotionally difficult for the student and me. I did have one funny episode where a student was writing a personal piece, or so I thought, and when we got to a certain point, I asked her what happened next. She said she didn't know because it was a dream. Without missing a beat, I exclaimed, "Great, we have the workings for your fiction piece." Hahaha!

    ReplyDelete