One of the greatest influences on my own writing is my teaching. I teach creative writing at, Agnes Scott College, a gem of a school located just outside Atlanta. My students keep me honest and force me always to develop new approaches to classic literary concerns. Recently, at a writers? conference, I found myself corralled by another writer into listening to his latest observations on the art of teaching. The man in question considers himself to be both a successful novelist and a dedicated writing professor. He has been known to send mass emails with links to his students? ecstatic online postings regarding his Lord Byron hair, his gift for ending each class with either a quote from Fight Club, (the movie not the book), or Vanity Fair (the magazine not the book). His students are under his spell, charmed by their teacher?s ribald tales of carousing headlong into the Manhattan night drinking and dueling with a coven of infamous novelists. In rich baritone, this writer boasts of how his students are publishing ?to great acclaim? in the ?finest literary journals,? and being awarded ?the most impressive fellowships? from ?the most impressive MFA programs.? This man believes that he knows something. That he contains within himself some great certainty about writing. ?Amber,? he leaned toward me, one of his Byronic curls falling over his forehead. ?I?ve discovered the secret to teaching.? I blinked. Like any anxious scholar of the human condition, I am wary of insights and epiphanies. I believe only in uncertainty. The man?s eyes widened, I could smell his cigarettes, his ego. ?You need to love your students? writing,? he paused. ?As much as you love your own.? Cocking his head to the side, allowing his pronouncement to settle in the space between us, he smiled, waiting for me to agree. ?That?s funny,? I said. ?I thought you had to love your students? writing more than you loved your own.?
In the above scene I have cast myself as the good guy. The unlucky victim of a pompous bore. Though my character remains quiet throughout much of the scene, when given the opportunity to strike, I welcome the chance to speak truth to his power. The antagonist I?ve described?a blowhard, a narcissist?is a perfect foil for my brand of justice. He deserves his comeuppance. As the hero, I am quick to point out this man?s misstep, eager to suggest that I might know better or at the very least that I might recognize some larger truth or complexity. How nice for me. I am telling myself a story.
In Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction, the scholar William Flesch argues that the impulse to write fictional narratives is based in part on an urgent biological desire to see the wrong, the felonious, the wicked and weak-willed punished for their cruelty or inaction. Flesch asserts that all narratives, but especially stories of revenge, have the potential to reinforce and reaffirm a shared moral code. We tell ourselves stories in order to know who we are as a people. We need to tell stories so we may reassure ourselves that we?re on the right side. One cannot escape the cultural significance of storytelling. As I wrote my novel, The Starboard Sea, I often thought about Flesch?s theory and wondered what sort of worldview my novel might dare to assert. Did I really have something worth teaching?
My above pompous protagonist has told himself a story about how best to teach a class and how best to judge his students? success. He believes that the greatest love he has is for his own words and that by extending this love to his students? writing he is?Rest in Peace Whitney Houston?giving them the greatest love of all. For him, it is enough to equate his students? work with his own. There is a false nobility to this equation. The man is assuming a greatness for his novels and it is this same greatness that he hopes to find in his classroom. He wants to love his students? stories just as he loves his writing but not more than he loves his own writing. I wonder if his love is enough.
I believe that the first requirement for teaching writing is that the teacher must have enough imagination and confidence to believe that her students are going to surpass her expectations. The teacher must believe that her students will be capable of writing something more beautiful, more brilliant, more luminous and intelligent than anything she herself could have composed. She must always be willing to facilitate this discovery and composition by giving her students words, images, line edits that lead them toward revising their own narratives, poems, plays, essays in such a way that the work transcends the limits and boundaries of the initial writing assignment. As a teacher, I have to be willing to give away my best ideas to my students in order that they may make them even better. If there is something in my own imagination that would better suit my students? writing I must be willing to give it away. I also must be willing to have my students reject all of my ideas and insights in search of their own voice. Though I should facilitate the discussion of writing and the revision of student work, I should not position myself in the center of workshop. The students? writing must be at the center of the class.
If Flesch is correct in his assertion that telling stories is an impulse that exists within all humans at a near chromosomal level is it fair to suggest that my students will tell stories with or without my assistance? Always, I return to the question: Can writing be taught? A sense of suspicion lingers over my passion, my livelihood. Among those who do not write there is a commonly held belief that writing is something you either have a gift/knack/talent for or don?t. These people believe that a facility with language is the equivalent of having hazel eyes. There are also those who question the academic rigor of a creative course. These are serious individuals who once walked by an open door to a creative writing classroom and were confused when they heard laughter. How could any learning be accomplished amidst all that joy? Perhaps those unfamiliar with the tradition of the writing workshop and literary crafts are put off by the nomenclature. Terms like ?workshop? and ?craft? may lead an individual to assume that a writing teacher merely arranges her students in a circle, hands out buttons and yarn, and instructs them on how to knot a macram? owl.
Since I inherently mistrust certainty, I must give some sort of credence to this suspicion about the act of teaching writing. The skeptic in me loves the skeptic who challenges me to justify my skill, my belief that I can teach someone how to write. How to put words together in such a way that a student might come to write a sentence like, ?I live in Felix Village where nothing is red.? Or, ?My dad collected people.? Or, ?Mad?s, Rosal?s mother, had a garden.? These are examples from my students? work and though I will not take credit for their composition, I will acknowledge that I created the conditions under which these sentences were written. Notice in the first sentence how the author introduces conflict?a lack of redness?and how she creates imagery and a sense of place through negation. Consider how in the second sentence, the narrator simultaneously characterizes her father, introduces a narrative voice, suggests a type of judgment and introduces the possibility that the reader might meet not only the narrator and her father but also the people he collects. In the final sentence, the author introduces characters and setting and goes on as the paragraph continues, to create a specific, sensory world that is ready for the reader?s entry.
There is the minor wisdom that a teacher cannot take credit for her students? accomplishments without also accepting blame for their failures. Even if a student wrote one solid shining sentence, her teacher?s value would diminish with each subsequent awkward phrase. Making it that much harder to measure a teacher?s ability to teach.
?Of course,? I tell the skeptic. ?Writing can be taught. After all, I taught myself how to write.? And that may be the key??I? was the one who taught myself how to do it. How I managed this involved years of studying, reading, drafting, risk-taking, avoidance, procrastination, daydreaming, listening to teachers, ignoring professors. I taught myself to write by learning how to read and dismantle stories in order to understand how fictive dreams are created. I searched out mentors and colleagues for advice. I spent a lot of time alone. Though I studied with an ?impressive? cast of writers it was ultimately up to me to make something out of their lessons. I don?t write like any of my former teachers?nor have I ever aspired to?and, here?s the thing: I?m not interested in teaching my students how to write like me. I?m interested in teaching them to want to write, to wish to write more concretely and with greater imagination and to develop the intuition that leads them into the world of their own story. That?s what every writer has to learn to do for herself. As Mary McCarthy would instruct, ?we are the hero of our own story.?
Amber Dermont is the author of The New York Times best-selling novel, The Starboard Sea. A graduate of the Iowa Writers? Workshop, Amber received her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. Her honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers? Conference and the Sewanee Writers? Conference. The Starboard Sea was selected as an Editors? Choice by The New York Times Book Review and as a Best Summer Reading Selection from O The Oprah Magazine. Her short stories have recently appeared in American Short Fiction, The Georgia Review, Open City, Tin House, TriQuarterly, Zoetrope: All-Story and in the anthologies, Best New American Voices and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She currently serves as the Charles Loridans Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. Her short story collection, Damage Control, is forthcoming from St. Martin?s Press.
posted by Nancy FreundNancy Freund is our September 2012 Writer In Residence. She earned a B.A. in English/Creative Writing and an M.Ed. from UCLA. She has taught English, reading, and journalism and worked in fulfillment and publishing distribution. Her professional networks include: American Women of Surrey writers, London?s Women in Publishing, the Geneva Writers Group, and the Iowa Summer Writers Festival. She co-founded the Lavaux Literary Salon, an international group of writers, readers and artists representing 11 countries. She has written four novels, and her shorter work has been published in BloodLotus Journal, FeatureMag, and the Istanbul Review. She says preparing Necessary Fiction?s Writer-in-residence month is the most fun she?s ever had with writing. She lives in Switzerland.