Monday, February 02, 2015

Drop Me a Line Sometime

I started teaching a new essay workshop a few weeks ago. My pace is down to about one class a year now, whereas I used to do three or four (each is eight weeks long, two and a half hours at a pop, which wears me out, on top of my day job, more than it once did). Last month marked my 22nd anniversary teaching at this creative-writing center for adults. 

I started taking workshops there myself in 1984, a year out of college, in my first professional job, feeling creatively antsy and looking to revive—or get guidance for—an interest in creative writing that had gone dormant after a bad experience during my first semester of college, when I was made to feel discouraged about my nascent talent by a grumpy old professor. I majored in German and wrote virtually nothing for five years. 

When I began taking workshops at the place where I now teach, I was amazed at the power of encouragement—I went from a column-writing class to a workshop called Autobiography as Fiction and Nonfiction to my first real attempt at fiction (I considered fleeing the room but mentally bolted myself to the chair) to more fiction and more fiction and more fiction (I couldn't believe I could actually do this!) to applying to MFA programs to quitting my job and devoting two and a half years to getting my master's in fiction writing and, all that time, swimming in the amazing soul-building pool of encouragement: encouragement of the pursuit of writing, the idea that it was worth devoting time to. Not the kind of encouragement that meant people said only nice things to me about my very imperfect drafts. 

The belief that to teach writing is to encourage writing has guided me since I taught my first fiction workshop to undergrads at my grad-school alma mater in 1990 and then—after gravitating back to nonfiction in my own work (almost immediately upon getting my MFA in fiction!)—when I started teaching the personal essay in 1993.

If you had told me 27 years ago, in the first year of my master's program, that all this time later I'd still be struggling with the up-and-down effort to integrate writing into my life, I'd have been, well . . . a little discouraged. In those days, surrounded every day by equally eager, literary-journal-submitting friends, I envisioned myself someday as an author, regularly publishing short stories, perhaps with a collection or two under my belt. 

If "regularly" can be understood to mean "occasionally, with wide gaps in between," then I am indeed a published writer, and proud of what I've managed to shepherd into print. But I long ago realized that I'm unlikely ever to write a book. (I'm not putting myself down, and yeah, I know, never say never. I get it.) Publishing a book requires a certain kind of motivation and doggedness, just in the writing, let alone in the right-hand-on-red, left-foot-on-yellow, right-butt-cheek-on-blue Twister game of finding an agent and publisher and then promoting the thing. It takes a particular sort of person with a particular sort of life and vision, and I'm not that guy. (Shhh, don't ever tell the 26-year-old me.)

What I have succeeded in doing, and thriving in, for 22 years is being a teacher. It's stunning to remind myself that I have taught literally hundreds of people better ways to tell their stories. Many of them return to my classroom multiple times—the number is still in the hundreds even if you count those folks only once. I've forged connections among the various professional and personal areas of my life and enjoyed minimal degrees of separation from other interesting lives both modest and distinguished.

My current class of 11 includes four repeat students. One of those was a young intern at my day job 15 years ago; he's now a married father of two. A young woman, herself the mother of a three-year-old, was one of my students when I taught a class in literary journalism a decade ago at the university where I'd gotten my MFA. A student closer to my age has a teenage daughter who received a heart transplant at age three, a subject her mom wrote about in a previous workshop; several years ago, the daughter wrote an essay about meeting her donor family that I edited and published in the magazine I work for. Another student is the wife of a man who started in the graduate writing program with me in 1987; I remember meeting his baby daughter at an MFA event—she's 28 now.

One 74-year-old man in my class is the son of a famous classical musician. I get a kick out of my indirect connection to the kind of prominence I neither aspire toward nor will ever achieve. In my early years, I taught the wife of a well-known journalist. Teddy Roosevelt's great-granddaughter has been under my tutelage. A few years ago, John McPhee's sister-in-law took my class. Many students have gone on to publish books. My name appears on some very impressive acknowledgments pages! Am I now in the habit of turning first to the acknowledgments page of pretty much any book I pick up? Yes!

It's satisfying to help others tell their stories, to cheer them on in the undertaking with which I myself have had a love/hate relationship nearly my entire adult life. Writing, to me, is like a member of the family. (Not, in this case, a famous member.) Loved and loving, irritating and insistent, a source of both puzzlement and expectations, someone to whom I'll always be bound, whom I can never see enough of and from whom I sometimes can never get sufficient distance. 

I may not keep up the correspondence to his satisfaction, but he keeps writing to me.

Labels: ,