A brief post after a power outage on a snowy day. I’ve been thinking about the fact that teachers of creative writing often teach us something when they don’t seem to be offering much instruction at all.
When I think of all the workshops that I’ve taken, it occurs to me that what I remember most aren’t specific techniques that I learned, but how I learned to think about writing the way my teachers did.
A teacher of creative writing is someone who’s been thinking about craft much longer than his or her students have—not only thinking about it, but coming to a deeper understanding of how a piece of prose or poetry works.
Often, when I read students’ drafts, I’m thinking about how a particular type of prose—fiction or nonfiction—gets the most resonance from its form. I might be thinking about how it makes use of irony; how it moves dramatically, emotionally, intellectually; how it works with characterization and indirection; how it covertly moves to a moment where something present in the beginning, but hidden, rises to the top and resonates in a way that makes the piece unforgettable; how it utilizes detail and language and voice and tone to underscore the movement it wants to make. My job is to make my students aware of what’s present in a draft and how to think about giving it a shape that will touch a reader.
I remember sitting in a fiction workshop taught by Bill Harrison at the University of Arkansas and trying to think along with him when he talked about how stories work. It was sort of like trying to think along with a football or basketball coach, or a baseball manager, only in workshop I had access to Bill’s thoughts. I knew why he suggested the changes that he did. I learned to think about stories the way he did, and in that way I made myself a better writer.
Good writing teachers have more to offer than merely technical instruction. They invite you into their aesthetic sensibilities to show you what’s possible with a piece. They show you how a writer and an editor think. Even if later you decide their aesthetics aren’t exactly yours—even if your own thinking takes another path—learn the ones those teachers have to offer you, so you’ll know how to vary the thinking if that’s your inclination.
Often in a workshop, it’s not “how to do” that matters the most; it’s “how-to-think.”