Welcome to the Lion’s Den
An English Teacher offers a perspective on teaching creative writing
The teacher of an advanced writing course feels an odd kinship with Daniel. He, too, marched into a den of hungry creatures. The difference is, of course, that Daniel didn’t have to extract the Great American short story or poem from his attentive group. His reputation as a prophet rode heavily on his subjects’ keeping their mouths shut; the contrast by analogy is all too apparent. Also, because writing cannot technically be taught, teachers of writing can only validate their existence by doing what cannot be done. That’s where the fun begins.
The first thing I learned about teaching “creative” (oh, how I hate the word) writing is that one cannot teach students to be creative. One can only allow them to be if they have the tendency. They already have stored in their right brains more to write about than they will ever need, so sometimes all a student needs is a severe blow to the head to get it to pop out. Often, the temptation for a teacher is to try to “help” the writing to be better by functioning as an editor. This usually ends in frustration on both sides. The resulting product belongs to no one and is usually abandoned on someone’s doorstep in the middle of the night. I have found that laissez-faire is usually a more productive approach.
The exciting part of teaching is when growth occurs, as it surely does if the climate is right. I have occasionally sat and wept over student writing (for several reasons, of course), but the best crying is done when I realize that students have taught themselves to be speakers of truth, in spite of all attempts to make them “average.” Truth is hard to tell, but when it is finally told, it makes up for any number of ants in one’s briefcase [an ancient reference to teaching in the former barracks].
But back to the lions for a moment. As a teacher, I have never felt threatened by students who are more talented writers than I am. In those proud moments, I have brandished my pom-pom and done a high kick. I have loved working over the years with students who have taken their lives seriously and who have challenged me to be a better person than I might have been without them.
Fear is always a great motivator, and fear of failure is high on the list of fledgling writers, but the failure to approach life honestly, whip and chair in hand, is the one situation we should fear most. The lions may yet devour us, but at least we will have had the opportunity to offer an outstretched glove.
As I approach each new writing class, I am more and more confident that we all have the capacity to do more, to speak more certainly, and to embrace life more forcefully than we have done in the past. The word is not the thing, it’s true, but the power of the word can cause us to recognize each other even in the dark. As I read the writing of my students, I am often amazed at their grasp of life, their compassion, and their desire to articulate what is vitally important to them. I cannot teach them. I can only learn from them. And what they have to teach me on a daily basis is that they deserve the utmost respect and consideration. They can do great things when pointed in the right direction. It humbles me to realize that all I can offer them is what I have—what God has given me. Fortunately, the loaves and fishes principle is still operational. We are all like Daniel approaching the den. Whatever life holds, we can meet it together, pens in hand, sword like, taking on all comers.
I actually feel sorry for people who have not taught an advanced writing course. Aside from falling down in the bathtub, it is one of the most exhilarating trips on the planet.
Originally printed in Excalibur