Today, I bring you a guest post from author Laura. E. Goodin. Laura writes novels, stories, plays, and poetry, and teaches wherever, and whenever she gets the opportunity. She has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Western Australia, and attended the 2007 Clarion South workshop. She spends what spare time she has trying to be as much like Xena, Warrior Princess as possible. Also, she rings bells.
Laura shares her thoughts and experiences around teaching creative writing. She shares with us, her teaching process, and how she encourages other writers to find their own creative spark.
A CLERK ther was of Oxenford also [...]
And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.
– Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
Humans have a strong evolutionary urge to figure things out on their own. Ask any two-year-old if they’d like some help making that toy work or putting on their shoes, and the kid is likely to plead (or snap), “I do it!” Most people’s childhood is generally spent figuring out how to rein that instinct in, so that they can learn from others. It’s the process by which knowledge accretes to form cultures. It’s remarkable, really. Think how many millions of lifetimes of individual experimentation are packaged into just the few years most countries require in school attendance. So efficient! So collaborative! In effect, teaching is the process of helping someone else avoid as many of humanity’s mistakes as possible.
Teaching something artistic is particularly fraught with contradictions and paradoxes. Art is inherently highly individual; you might as well try to tell someone how to have red hair or brown skin, or how their fingerprints ought to be shaped, as to tell them how they should do their art. Why should any artist agree to be dictated to about how they express the inner reaches of their own hearts? How could anyone possibly have the right to say anything about which colors they paint with, which notes they sing, which verbs they choose?
But the teacher of art knows that, as Richard Wilbur writes, “the strength of the genie comes of his being confined in a bottle”. Art gains power when it has form, discipline, constraints against which it fights. Without these things, its energy dissipates into solipsism. With them, it has a pathway into the perceptions of others. The rules of art serve as the agreements between the artist and those who are drawn to their art that let understanding pass between them.
The question is, however, whether this or that rule truly serves that end, or is only personal taste on the part of the teacher. For example, I have a great fondness for the excellent use of correct grammar. I love it when I read it, and I strive for it in my own writing. But if Russell Hoban had assumed that the use of correct grammar is a rule, rather than just a tool to enhance clarity, he never would have written his astounding novel Riddley Walker in the way that he did, and it would have been a much poorer work.
A conscientious and principled teacher will be constantly interrogating themselves and their teaching practice to move past mere personal taste and come closer to the core of what can genuinely help their students be better writers. First, what does the teacher mean by “better”? The poor teacher will consider “better” to mean “more like how I write”, or, perhaps less harshly, “more like how my favorite authors write”. But the careful teacher will think, “What makes writing more authentic, more intentional, more carefully and masterfully crafted?”
When I teach – and I do try to be one of the careful ones – I answer that question in terms of mindfulness. I want my students to be exquisitely aware of the decisions they make as they write, and to be able to defend, or at least explain, absolutely every single word they put on the page. Why does that character have brown eyes? Why is that one wearing a leather jacket? How come the story takes place in Wollongong, and not Los Angeles? Why did you use “stamped” instead of “stomped”, “azure” instead of “blue”, “piedmont” instead of “foothills”? I tell them that I’m fine with whatever they choose, as long as they can explain it.
When we’re discussing their writing, I am merciless in demanding not just an explanation, but a robust, well-supported explanation, because even fiction is, at heart, persuasive writing. It’s got a theme, a reality, a truth that it asserts, and the thoughts and actions of the characters are the evidence for that truth. And truth is too important to be treated carelessly by a writer who doesn’t bother to pay attention to what they themselves are doing or saying. And yes, there are some choices that work better than others for achieving specific goals, such as reaching a particular audience or creating various types of characters, and the teacher may point them out, but ultimately writing boils down to the writer’s choices and why they make them.
Conscientious teachers have, generally speaking, chosen to teach for numerous (more or less altruistic) reasons. Remuneration is attractive, if offered; so is the chance to help newer (or at least less-experienced) writers find joy in their art and the skill to express what they want to say. Moreover, like Chaucer’s clerk of Oxenford, who would gladly learn, and gladly teach, conscientious teachers find that their own level of artistic skill, which might otherwise stagnate, continues to grow as they think carefully and critically, yet kindly and with compassion, about their students’ writing. They – we – turn this care, this mental discipline of critical thinking, on ourselves, ideally with the same kindness and compassion, seeing and enjoying the good in what we write and continually challenging ourselves to make better choices and produce more deftly crafted writing. The better we get, the more effectively we can help our students, which helps us get better yet – and around and around. Gladly do we learn, and gladly teach.
Thanks to Laura for this insight into teaching and nurturing writers, to unlock their full potential.
If you would like to find out more about Laura or her work, click on the links below.