In Praise of Teaching Adults

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Tonight I taught my second of three adult memoir-writing workshops as Fishtrap Writer-in-Residence. I’ve taught adults before for brief afternoon lectures or one-on-one tutorials and critiques, but I’ve never had a long table of 11 adults staring back at me—the young kid in charge at the front of the classroom.
Of course, it’s Fishtrap, so it’s not the “sage on stage” teaching method (thank goodness) and the participants are all paying out of their own pocket and there by choice. They’re hungry for homework, don’t mind if class goes a few minutes overtime, and ask critical and pertinent questions. And fittingly for memoir, they have rich life experiences to draw from and the ability to reflect and draw conclusions based on those experiences.
Our first class started very strong last week, with a mini-lecture on the continuum of nonfiction, a question & answer session, a discussion of Craig Lesley’s “The Carnival” chapter (from his memoir Burning Fence), and a 45-minute-long guided memory acquisition prompt. Their homework was to start a memoir piece based on the prompt (or something else entirely, should the muse strike them) and bring in 1 page to read aloud along with 1 craft question relevant to creative nonfiction.
This week, I took a leap. No prep. No teacher’s notes. Just the confidence that I’ve put my time in as a writer and a student of creative nonfiction and that, if the participants did their part, I could most certainly do mine…
And what a rich evening it was! Over the course of 2 hours we heard from 10 out of 11 participants. A former air force pilot wrote about the day he learned flying always comes with the risk of falling. A recently retired Wallowa County resident began writing about her mother by telling the story of her own birth, which happened on the gurney in the hospital hallway because there were so many soldiers who needed attention that her mother was left to deliver on her own. A California-born woman wrote about the day two men held her at gunpoint in southeastern Idaho and how that moment implanted the rough canyon country of this region into her psyche forever.
They wanted to know: Do I have to write my memoir chronologically? Can it be thematic? Can it be told in snapshots instead of full-length story-like essays? Can I write about things I didn’t see? How do I get myself to stop narrating and start a scene? What is a scene, anyway? Is this clear—why or why not?
By the end of the evening, the group was thoroughly gelled. They’d heard each other first attempts, offered praise and asked clarifying questions. Everyone received about 10 minutes of critique but also got the benefit if hearing other voices and approaches. With 5 minutes remaining in class, I handed out a hefty reading packet for next week along with two writing prompts.
When the last set of taillights faded down the block, I looked at the registration sheet that had been passed around the table at the start of class. It recorded everyone’s name, email address, and a simple “Yes, No, or Maybe” regarding whether or not they would be willing to register for a second series of memoir classes after next week’s class.
Their replies? Every single person wrote yes.
Showing 2 comments
  • kathleen

    I want to take your workshop too!

  • Mendy (Hillpoet)

    You are a braver teacher than I to go in without a lesson plan or notes. I won't even do a one- day workshop without an outline. Sounds like it worked well for you though. You're doing great work. Mendy

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