Early in the fall of 1994, I had a terrible realization: I did not know how to write.
This was problematic as I, fresh out of college, had been hired to teach high school English. In other words, I was supposed to teach something I couldn’t do myself.
But how had I never realized I couldn’t write? Worse, how was it possible that not one of my high school English teachers, not one of my college professors, had taught me how to write?
I promptly began working my way through the Ten Stages of Writing-related Grief: Shock, Betrayal, Anger, Humiliation, Chocolate, Half-hearted Acceptance, Chocolate, Despair, A Decent Amount of Acceptance. And finally, Peace.
I hunkered down in Shock and Betrayal for quite some time, wondering how this could have happened. As I hunkered, I soothed myself with chocolate chips and episodes of Seinfeld.
True, my high school English teachers were crummy and weary. They assigned writing, but assigning writing, I finally understood, was not the same as teaching writing.
My 12th grade English teacher was one of those old school, sweet-but-tough-but-good teachers who cracked her feedback whip with lovely, looping, curving, cursive penmanship.
A few decades earlier, she might have whipped me into shape, but by the time I became her student, she was getting along in her years. And losing her filter. As well as her ability to focus. On several occasions, she’d pause herself mid-lecture, tilt one ear to the ceiling, and–I am not kidding–shush us so she could listen to God. This was public school, but God, they say, is everywhere, including in AP English Lit class. So He’d interrupt our class, our teacher would listen thoughtfully, after which she’d take time to relay His messages to us. By then, class would basically be over, and we’d have gone another day without learning how to write. Because God is everywhere.
In college things were no better. Pursuing a degree as an English major, I found myself surrounded by tough and salty professors, none of whom (I see only with hindsight) spent time teaching us to write. Instead, the gnome-ish Medieval English Literature professor nearly daily recited The Canterbury Tales in a wobbly, sing-songy voice that indeed sounded Chaucerian.
In Theories of Deconstruction, the goatee’d professor spouted confusing things about Jacques Derrida’s theories (pronouncing Derrida like “Dairy-daaaahhh”). There was no writing instruction in that class either. Nor any in my Shakespeare class, nor my African American Lit class, nor my American Lit class. Nor, nor, nor. Zero, zero, zero.
It wasn’t until I stepped into my own classroom, charged with teaching 155 students how to write essays, that I realized the magnitude of this issue. What would I teach if I didn’t know how to teach writing?
Dairy-daaaahhh, the goatee’d professor whispered from the depths of my memory.
The Medieval Lit gnome then chimed in, warbling, And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.
I tilted my head to the ceiling. God was silent.
I had no wisdom to share, no role model or mentor to use as my guide. But I needed to pay rent, and I needed to fund my chocolate habit, and this meant I needed to keep my job, and keeping my job meant I needed to teach students how to write. So I wiped the Kit Kat wafer crumbs from my face and started teaching myself how to write.
I was happy to learn it was rather easy to learn to write essays. I was sad to learn it was rather difficult for teenagers to learn to write essays. But armed with my newfound knowledge and plied with Halloween-size Nestle Crunch bars, I was reenergized.
“You don’t learn this overnight,” I sing-songed to my students nearly daily. “So be patient. It takes years of practice and many, many revisions of every essay. You cannot master this right away, certainly not in a week or even a year.”
They’d grumble, and I’d cajole them into revisions.
They’d grumble, and I’d remind them to stick with it.
They’d grumble, and I’d write alongside them, practicing my own essay writing, also doing every creative writing assignment I gave them.
Then one night, after five or six years of writing my own creative writing assignments, I woke, and as if in a trance, I crept downstairs and started to write a story. Right there, pajama-clad and sitting in the dark with the very heavy, very bulky laptop that required floppy disks, not only did I know I wanted to be a story-writer, I knew I needed to be a story-writer.
With this weird and inexplicable need propelling me, I started writing really amazingly amazing stories. I am not kidding: these stories were amazing. I was an amazing-story writing machine. All the many thousands of novels I had read in my life had taught me how to write. It was like magic! You just had to write what you knew, and I knew stuff!
Just a month or so into my story-writing amazingness, I started submitting these very stories to a few small publications: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, a few others of that ilk. When I got cordial “no thank you” responses, I figured the fiction editors were probably as joyless as the college professor who had tried to teach me about Jacques Dairydaaaahhh. Or as batty as my God-loving English teacher. In other words, the problem was they, not I.
As the months passed however, and more and more “no thank you’s” arrived in the mail, I started to wonder if, in fact, it was I, rather than they.
Going back to reread and reexamine my amazing stories, I felt myself flush with shame. The clarity that comes with time and distance revealed that these stories were not amazing. They were not even stories! They were descriptions of characters and scenes. There was no conflict. The characters wanted nothing. And the plots were so weird! I wrote a story where a guy blankets himself like a burrito on his therapist’s sofa and vanishes into thin air. And I sent it to The New Yorker!
I added Regret and Overwhelm to the Grief Stages and thus began my journey through the Twelve
Ten Stages of Writing-Related Grief. I wallowed and wandered, at every stage popping M&Ms into my pie hole, until Chaucer’s words finally saved me: And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.
Yes! I thought. I wolde gladly teche myeself story-writing just as I had gladly taughte myeself essay-writing!
But as I wrote and wrote and wrote, I had yet another epiphany: I still didn’t understand what a story was. I could pick a story out of a line-up, but I didn’t know how to teach myself to write one.
And gladly wolde she lerne, and gladly wolde she fynd sumone else to teche her.
Yes. I needed to find a teacher who could teach me how to write.
Stephen King, as luck would have it, was available. As was Anne Lamott, James Scott Bell, Donald Maass, and David Corbett. Priscilla Long, Robert McKee, Lisa Cron and John Truby. All by way of craft books.
I practiced. I studied. I practiced. I gave up. I ate chocolate. I returned to the craft books and my computer and my chocolate. I studied. I bought a lighter computer. I threatened to give up again and again. Again and again I realized I couldn’t give up. I read more craft books. I practiced. And on and on.
Now I have a very light computer, and I still study the craft of fiction. I still look for wise writer-teachers who can school me in the art of p-a-c-ing. CONFLICT. Narrative voice. Pantsing and Plotting. Narrative stance. Narrative perspective. Story StRuCtUrE. Scene b-b-b-beats. The ♥desires♥ of a character. The importance of butt-in-chair. The importance of a good critique partner. The importance of hope, humility, and hanging in there.
Coulde I teche ye ta writ a storey? No indeede, naught now.
But maebe sumdae?
Aye, maebe sumdae.
Your turn! How and where have you learned the craft of writing? Which instructors have you “hired” via craft books and how have they been useful? If you’ve been in a traditional MFA program, will you share how those professors and classes helped you improve?
Thank you for reading and sharing, dear WU’ers.
Photo complements of Flickr’s Elusive Muse.