Teaching Well, Writing Well

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I’ve titled the new course I’m running this fall boldly: The Art and Craft of Teaching Creative Writing.

I’ve been preparing the course over the past year. I’ve read pedagogical theory. I’ve spoken with a wonderful professor in the Education Department about how to best structure such a class.  I’ve talked with my colleagues who teach the course in our department and I’ve pored over their syllabi.  I’ve gone back to the classes I took in the education department myself, and I’ve wondered, a lot, what do I know about teaching creative writing and how did I learn what I know?

Some of the material is familiar ground for me. I’ve written a textbook on the topic, The Practice of Creative Writing, and an instructor’s manual that goes with the book, and certainly I’m using that material in my course, to some extent. But teaching teachers is to stand in a different place from writing instruction for students. And standing in this new place, thinking about how to teach a class just for teachers of writing, all of whom are in our MFA program, I keep noticing a singular feature of the landscape; I keep coming back to one idea.

Teaching well is the same as writing well.

A good writing class session is so very like a good story or well formed poem. There’s a purpose. Things are clear. Mysterious, perhaps, frustrating, perhaps, but the work to figure it all out is possible, and rewarding. It’s pleasurable to experience more than one time. Humor is good, but not required.  What’s required is depth and truth and a kind of vulnerability and strong yearning to say yes, this matters.  This is important.  There are some surprises in the session/story and there’s heart, dialogue, drama, and a satisfying close that makes you want to come back in again.

Designing a semester-long course is, for me, like designing a novel. There’s a main story line and my work is to get all the characters and plot points (or, in the case of class, lessons and readings) formed into satisfying, interesting chapters (Tuesdays and Thursdays).

There’s almost nothing I’d rather do than design these experiences.

So, unsurprisingly, the two things that have most improved my teaching have been the very same two things that have most improved my writing. 

  1. Devotion to clarity.  When I first started writing, I wanted to try to express something of my inner life in language. The things that worried me came out in a tumble. There was a lot of energy on my early pages, but not a lot of clarity. Where are we? Why are we here? Similarly, my early syllabi meant well.  But I was prone to getting off track, off topic, revising mid semester, even mid class period because I could see something so much better once I was in the midst of teaching it.  Students, like readers, want things to be clear and to be fair.                                     
  2. Attempting to be honest, authentic, vulnerable and sincere in my speech and action in real life has translated to the page for me as a writer. When I stopped trying to be artful and clever, when I let go of thought-experiments and intensive language play, I was able to work more on the very hard good work of creating a meaningful experience for the reader.  The work became less about me and my life and more an attempt to be in conversation with my fellow humans.  In the classroom, instead of trying to be Miss PhD Professor Really Does Know or, as I got older, Your Fun Young Professory Friend, instead of trying to be anything in the classroom other than myself—a person who studies the art and craft of writing—I tried to be more myself.

The two endeavors—a devotion to clarity and a moment-by-moment attempt to be honest and thoughtful—are extremely challenging pursuits, at least for me.  Some practices off the page have supported me: cultivating friendships and mentorships with master craftsman, a meditation practice, and reading.

This semester, I want to support my students in becoming the kinds of teachers they most want to be. I want to help them write about teaching in ways that are clear and meaningful. I want everything we do this semester to help us in the classroom, but also on the page.

I think the art and craft of teaching and the art and craft of creating literature are twins. I would love to hear what you think. I’m at sellersh@usf.edu.

About the Author
Heather Sellers (PhD, Florida State University) is professor of English at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate creative writing in children's literature, poetry, and non-fiction. She won the student-chosen professor of the year award at Hope College, where she gave the commencement address. Her textbook for the multi-genre course is The Practice of Creative Writing, which will appear next year in its third edition. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Fiction, she's published two books on creating an inspiring and happy writing life, Page after Page and Chapter after Chapter, as well as a children's book, two books of poetry and three chapbooks, along with Georgia Under Water, a collection of short stories. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The London Daily Telegraph, Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, O,the Oprah Magazine, and The Sun, as well as Prairie Schooner and Alaska Quarterly Review. She's currently at work on a new manuscript of poems and a novel for younger readers, set in Florida, her home state. She’s an avid cyclist and kayaker.