People ask me all the time: “How can you teach writing?” And this is what I tell them. I cannot teach someone to how to have a rich imagination or a good ear for language, but I can help a person find the stories they want to tell. I think it is the one thing I am very good at. A writer might not know right away what their subject matter is. They might think they want to write about one thing when in the end their subject matter is something else altogether. Once I had a student who was writing about his grandmother’s farm and ended up writing about Vietnam. Another time I had a young woman who was writing about Ethiopian goddesses and she ended up writing about the streets of East New York.
It is difficult to know what our material is and often a student has trouble “owning” it. Trusting that the stories they want to tell are worth telling. I have various techniques to help them find that material and start to open it up. And once a student finds their stories, I can help them shape them. I do a lot of work with scene development and pacing.
Some of my basic tenets of teaching:
- Telling a story is like flying a kite. You need the kite, the string, and the person on the ground. If you don’t ground the reader in a story, it will just go flying around until it crashes into the nearest tree.
- Gardening taught me a lot about writing. You can take anything out. You can cut anything back. You can move anything around. A story isn’t set in stone. Not until it’s set in print. This was the lesson I taught Jodi Picoult one day when she was an undergraduate at Princeton. She has spoken about this many times when she claims that I taught her everything she knows (which is a serious exaggeration). It’s on her website. www.jodipicoult.com.
- Titles are important. They are the first words of your story. And for the writer they give you focus, a place to hang your hat.
- This from John Berger: Writers draw their material from three sources: experience, witness and imagination. I try to help students create a mix of all three.
- If you don’t know your ending, go back to your beginning.
I have taught over the years at such places as Princeton, The University of California at Irvine, and I have had tenure at Sarah Lawrence College since 1997 where I have been fortunate to work with such wonderful students who went on to become successful writers as Jodi Picoult, Jonathan Ames, Elissa Schappelle, Nicole Dennis-Benn, and Kaui Hart Hemmings. I have also given, and continue to give, short intensive workshops about the art of storytelling in such places as San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, the Key West Literary Seminar, The Prague Summer Seminar, and Squaw Valley Community of Writers. I enjoy the teaching and public speaking. I like to be funny. I think we learn better when we are having a good time.