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What I Learned While Teaching

Photobucket [1]Therese here. Today’s guest is Janet Skeslien Charles [2], an American author who has lived in Paris for over a decade. But there’s much more to Janet than that: She recently became the first American to win Britain’s Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance [3] for her debut novel, Moonlight in Odessa. Here in the states, Publishers Weekly chose Moonlight in Odessa as a top ten debut novel last fall, and National Geographic chose Moonlight as the Book of the Month last September. Foreign rights for the novel have sold in 11 countries.

Moonlight in Odessa released in paperback here on September 6th. We’re thrilled Janet can be with us today to talk about how teaching about writing brought her unexpected gifts. Enjoy!

What I Learned While Teaching

When I approached Sylvia Whitman, the manager of Shakespeare & Company here in Paris, about hosting a writing workshop, she accepted immediately. Looking at the walls lined with books in the upstairs library, her father George Whitman opened his arm wide and asked, “How long can you stay?”

At the time I approached Sylvia, I’d been in Paris for five years. In a city famous for its literary friendships, I had trouble making connections. I worked all day and in the evening tried everything from Meetups to writing classes. My experiences ranged from one group who only wanted to write “Literature, not the trash that’s published today” to another whose male members’ only advice was to add sex to every scene. Fed up, I decided to start my own group. After all, I’d had a few stories and poems published and had experience editing while I’d been on the board of a literary journal. When I started my workshop, I expected to share my knowledge but instead received many unexpected gifts.

The writers were so passionate about reading and writing that after each session, we left the class feeling energized and ready for another week of writing. Sharing our stories, our challenges, our small victories, gave us the courage and the energy to continue writing.

During the day, we dealt with tough professors, passive-aggressive coworkers, and the pushing and shoving that is just a part of city life, even in the City of Light. In the workshop, witnessing the writers’ generosity of spirit was a balm. The writers ranged from total beginners to prize-winning authors. Each week, the beginners gave feedback to the more sophisticated writers, while they gave gentle encouragement to the novices. They also gave excellent advice.

One writer, Bob Levy, said something that forever changed my sentence structure.

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“End with the most powerful image or word.”

I went home and re-examined my own work. Most of my sentences started strong and petered out. Bob’s advice made me re-evaluate every sentence, paragraph, and chapter in my novel.

Many writers took several sessions of my classes, which forced me to read more to find interesting excerpts to share each week. I became a stronger reader because I had to analyze an author’s writing in order to present it. This made me articulate and evaluate my thoughts on technique, voice, and structure.

Discussing the published short stories, poetry, and essays I brought in gave us all a deeper understanding of the work as we shared our different points of view. In a Peter Christopher short story, which I have reread several times a year since 1994, the main character begs his girlfriend to return his discharge papers. I always assumed he meant military papers, until a writer who worked as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital said that mental patients also receive discharge papers. In an instant, my understanding of the story shifted. What a gift to discuss a story and hear many possible interpretations. With writers from France, the U.S., Russia, Australia, England, and Germany, who were IT specialists, journalists, nannies, students, retirees, and academics just to name a few professions and countries, we had lively debates.

I led two workshops per week at Shakespeare & Company for five years. When I finished my novel Moonlight in Odessa (Bloomsbury), the writers I’d encouraged over the years volunteered to read it and give feedback. When the manuscript sold, we celebrated with a glass of champagne in the Shakespeare and Company library. What began as a writing workshop became a community of friends, evenings of energy, and lessons for both the students and the instructor.

Have you ever found writing support in an unanticipated place? Do you spend time with a writing “tribe”? Where?

Thanks so much, Janet, for a great post.

Readers, you can learn more about Janet on her website HERE [2]. Write on!