On Scaring My Creative Writing Students
November 19, 2018 § 14 Comments
By Lynette Benton
At a newly renovated library a couple of towns away from where I live, I showed up for the first class of a writing course. Students arrived on my heels, and chose chairs at the long tables arranged in a rectangular U. All were adults, most in their thirties, well dressed in casual clothes. A few women in their sixties from another writing course I teach grinned and waved to me on their way into the room.
I introduced myself and my qualifications. Then I asked the students to tell me what they wanted to write. One by one, they stated their goals—memoir or family histories, mostly. Their perspectives on their stories sounded commonplace, as lifeless as a report. They spoke in vague, questioning terms. “I want to write about my family?” It seemed as if an idea had nibbled at them, but that if given their druthers, they’d prefer to talk about it over drinks with friends in a bar.
Though it wasn’t their responsibility to sell me on their tepid ideas, I was immediately deflated. If they didn’t care about their stories, how could I?
One student wanted to write a novel. Perplexed, I explained that this was a memoir writing class. Then I reconsidered since, for reasons known mostly to publishing professionals, memoirs are now required to mimic novels. So I told him he’d probably get something out of the class, and he seemed happy with that.
None of the students read memoir nor evinced any interest in the genre. When I asked how they planned to write what they were unfamiliar with they giggled. Had any of them brought writing to share with the class for feedback? None had. All confessed they had never written anything outside of formal schoolwork.
Only the students from my other class knew the distinctions between memoir and autobiography. The others hinted at publishing dreams, until one asked outright about getting an agent.
Hearing her question, my self-control inexplicably collapsed. I revealed—forcefully—how difficult it can be to get an agent, how hard it is for an agent to sell work that’s not exactly like work that’s already been successful. (“I see your memoir as the next Eat, Pray, Love!”) I even mused aloud about the folly of trying to write a whole book when they’d never even written anything shorter. The students cocked their heads like puppies trying to understand a “Sit” command.
I told too much to these never-having-written novices (my students from the other classes the exceptions), who, I sensed, imagined they would pound out a manuscript in a month, send it off, and voila, learn a few days later that a kindly literary agent would get them an impressive advance and see their book published if they’d only Sign Here.
After class ended, two of the students (a young, chic married couple) lingered a moment to say that they’d be out of town the following week, but would return to class after that. They might have been trying to spare my feelings; I never saw them again. The following week, of the original 12 in the first class, only eight reappeared.
None had written anything in the week between class meetings. They raised more questions about publishing.
I had been where they were, eager to see my work in print. The difference between us was that I had spent decades learning all I could about writing, practicing unceasingly, willingly starting at the bottom to get my work noticed by increasingly reputable publications. I’d read hundreds of accounts by writers of their daily routines, their best advice for writing, their failures and successes. Who did these students think they were? Why should they expect a fast track to success, when the rest of us had had to slog unrelentingly to get noticed? (I sound to myself like parents to kids: “When I was a child I had to walk to school uphill—both ways.”) Unlike some novice writers I know who work like the dickens to produce writing that’s worthy of a publisher’s consideration, these students were cheapening an endeavor I cherished. My resentfulness toward these students who wanted to publish without learning, without writing, was staggering. I wanted them to fail. I would rejoice in it; it would prove me right.
Of course these thoughts opened a gulf between us; in my sudden, baffling lunacy, I began considering thee students my enemies.
I put a question to the remaining students:
What’s the one thing all published authors have in common?
They smiled, waiting.
The answer: A manuscript.
Now I know I should have given them exercises to work on in class. I should have helped them excavate something meaningful from their uncertain ideas.
We could have started small: Write a single scene that could go into your memoir. Write one poignant memory of your past. Write a short profile of someone in your family.
Instead I assigned them homework so they would have writing to share the following week. Over the course of the next three classes, none except my former students brought a single sentence to present for feedback.
The second week, only six attended the class. The last week, only four.
What prevented the other students from sticking it out for four one-hour classes? Did they assume writing would be glamorous? Maybe it wasn’t an illusion of glamour that attracted these naive pre-writers, but the desire to be heard. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most writers are middle children, as I am. Our voices typically were trampled in the hubbub of our families.
Perhaps the missing students weren’t serious about writing in the first place. One student who stuck it out for the whole course told me she was just happy to have something to do one afternoon a week.
Were they all, with the exception of my students from other the courses I taught, just wafflers? Should I have left them to their dreams, their illusions? But what if two years later they ran into me in Stop and Shop and accused me of misleading them, as every agent they had approached had ignored their manuscript, assuming it ever got written?
But the fault was mine. I had pushed too hard to get them to start that book they’d been talking about for years. They’d made it a point to tell me, “All my friends say my experiences belong in a book.”
I refrained from saying that maybe their friends should write that book.
I failed to offer them the guidance I would have wanted from a teacher. I should have met them where they were. Why didn’t I?
I didn’t know how. At the other places I taught, students—most blazing with motivation, direction, and commitment, all eager to get down to the business of writing—often followed me from one course to another, from one town to another. Attendance swelled, rather than diminished. I was a different teacher in those venues—lively, interested, generous with patience.
But in that classroom in the town near mine, I overwhelmed the students with discussions about dialog, structure, scenes, and settings. The use of similes and images. I flung my bottomless cache of resources at them—the books and articles (I had waved my arm to indicate the library bookshelves visible through the glass walls of our classroom), including my own, filled with free knowledge. None of them pursued them. Among these adults I felt as many high school teachers say they do: as if I were talking to an indifferent audience that needs to learn but doesn’t care to.
Neither these students nor I got satisfaction. They wanted me to say they would get published. But I had no confidence in them, and none in my ability to aid them. I should have overcome my lack of faith and eased them nearer to fulfilling their dreams. But my frustration was fierce, and I took it out on them. Maybe at the time I was grappling with my own writing, longing to shout at them: “Writing is all struggle and doubt!”
Lacking understanding, I silently accused them of arrogance, but I was the arrogant one. I should have encouraged them to believe they might someday, somehow, be published. It never occurred to me that they focused on the end—publishing—because they feared the beginning—writing.
I vowed that the next time I taught in that town, I would begin differently. I’d hand out simple, straightforward exercises for them to do in the classroom.
Books are being published every day, I’d tell them. There’s no reason why yours shouldn’t be one of them. Now, let’s get started!
Lynette Benton is a published writer and writing instructor. She guides others in writing about their lives or families. Her essay, “No More Secrets and Silence,” about how she wrote her memoir, My Mother’s Money, won first prize in the contest sponsored by National Association of Memoir Writers and She Writes Press. It was also anthologized in the collection, The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey. Her work has appeared in numerous online and paper publications, such as the Brevity blog; Women Writers, Women’s Books; and local newspapers. An excerpt from her memoir was a finalist in a 2014 memoir-writing contest. Visit her web site, Tools and Tactics for Writers or connect with her on Twitter @LynetteBenton.