It seems so simple: people from all walks of life step into the classroom, talk a little bit about their experiences, and give this “writing thing” a go. But time and again I am amazed at the stories people have to tell–from the simple image of a spider gliding up and down a single strand of web along the outside of a mother’s coffin to the Christmas “the brothers” weren’t home because of the war. I’m likewise amazed at what people have done–from living in the Amazonian jungle to monthly meetings with Hamid Karzai to raising a child as a teen mom to visiting all 50 states in a station wagon with five brothers and sisters. Big or small, cross-continental or home state, as a teacher of memoir I believe all these stories can be crafted in such a way that readers (and writers) can make deeper meaning of them.
I feel pretty confident about my prompts and the craft concepts that I teach. I’ve put a lot of thought into them, researched them both by studying other writers as well as working the craft myself and putting in the hours at the desk generating new material. I do believe that there are many teachers who teach writing that don’t write that much themselves. Many of them probably do a good job, too. But I think at a certain point, if you’re teaching writing but you’re not writing and writing deeply–frequently, with intention–then your ability to guide others deeper into their own writing talents is limited. How much can you guide or coach someone through a process if it’s not one that you know intimately and deeply yourself? Not much, in my opinion. Each time I teach adults, I feel proud that I have something to offer them as growing writers. They have more years and more life experiences than I do, they often also have broader perspectives culturally or historically. But at least I can offer solid, precise, deeply thought-out guidance that’s catered to fit. It makes for a good balance between student and teacher and it’s something that keeps me coming back to lead these sorts of retreats every year.
If fellow readers and writers out there have been to educational writing retreats or conferences that made a positive impression on them, I’d be interested in learning what those are. As summer winds down and my three-year tour is very near the end, one thing I’m looking to do is expand my teaching opportunities. Occasional conferences or workshops will feed my travel bug but not cause me to uproot as long-term as my more recent obligations have. Likewise, staying connected and networked with the literary scene is important to me–and I’ve got to work to maintain that despite my choice to move back to the mountains and live in an Airstream bordering mile after mile of wild Pisgah National Forest. I’ll have no shortage of solitude and material to write about, but I’ll need to be working hard behind the scenes to maintain and grow the connections necessary for my livelihood.
It is ever possible for students–young or old–to know how much inspiration and joy their teachers truly take in them? How fulfilling it can be to be in the presence of someone who entrusts you with their work, who is willing to be vulnerable and pose questions and try new techniques publicly for the sake of improvement? I certainly hope so. When I gave my public reading Wednesday night I told my students the newest essay I read (about Texas) was dedicated to them, because I wanted to honor how brave they were being with their own work. I meant every word of that dedication. By Friday, our time together ends. Three cheers for bravery, for firsts, for never failing to learn, and for the gift of story!