If you visit US airports, you’ve probably heard the announcement, “caution… the moving walkway is ending… caution… the moving walkway is ending.” In a figurative sense, even though I’ve taught over 30 years, this announcement doesn’t apply to me—my walkway will be moving for some years more—but I sometimes hear the voice from here.
Teaching can be as repetitious as that message. These days, I’m sure of my finitude, of the closed set of skills I have to teach. I sometimes console myself by saying my approximately 43 hard-won writing lessons are better than none, and teaching them well will be a great gift to my students. Yet, as every writing teacher knows, some advice will never be understood, some will be forgotten, some will need to be repeated nine more times, some will be resisted, and some will be understood as a teacher’s fetish, edicts to honor for one or two semesters. That’s not even considering the lessons that may be dubious to begin with. I worry. Adding my misfires up, less than one handful may remain.
But the best thing that can be said of any teacher is that he or she is earnest, and I’m certainly that. I tell myself that, if students accept even a little of my experience, if they absorb, adapt, and assimilate even a little of my wisdom, I can justify a lifetime devoted to teaching.
In other words, I’m fooling myself. Teaching writing isn’t about advice at all.
This semester, I’m covering a creative writing class while a colleague is away on sabbatical. As a successful short story writer and novelist, he is more expert than I am. His work has received deservedly glowing reviews and prestigious awards. He’s charming and confident, self-effacing but sure in his assessment of writing. He has a sharp eye and infallible judgment. I wouldn’t blame my students for wishing he were their teacher, and, in the terms I’ve described, he has 86 writing lessons to my 43, lessons coming with authority I envy. I wish I had more to offer.
But my creative writing students are wonderful, mostly seniors beginning to relax into the end of high school, ready to examine why they’re in school and what they might like to learn. They compete with classmates but also want to fashion effective and beautiful poems, stories, and essays like the literature they’ve studied these last four years. They choose to take this class. They’re ambitious, sometimes foolhardy, and compose assuming each project matters. They want to do their best.
And, because I’m the second string and doubt my qualifications to grade their work, I assign their marks according to their effort—the more assignments they do, the higher they will score—and I avoid ever having to say “This poem/story/essay wasn’t very good.” Instead, I can say, “You might try this or that in revision but you demonstrated a sincere effort to make the most of what you’ve created, full points.”
I like that stance better. Escaping grades changes their perspective and mine. I’m no longer their boss. Yesterday, during our first workshop, I commented on the first few lines of a writer’s poem. It wouldn’t be fair to quote my student’s work, but the gist of my criticism was that those lines were throat-clearing. The real poem, in my opinion, started in the third stanza. Before class, I’d written some “universal” lessons up on the board and meant to use this student’s work to prove that “It pays to know where your poem starts.”
The trouble was, almost no one agreed with me about the opening, and everyone wanted to say why. While some students acknowledged my point of view, many disputed my observations, suggesting all the ways those lines were essential to the poem that followed. I confess I was uncomfortable, unconvinced by their arguments and momentarily flummoxed by that odd chagrin teachers experience when someone asks for answers you’re unsure of or when someone questions your mastery. Blushing resentment rose like the sun popping out at the horizon.
Overcompensating for feelings of inadequacy, I’d tried to be an authority, and they weren’t having it. Fortunately, the moment passed as it should, replaced by a welcome reminder.
What I think I know about writing isn’t so important. I may be correct or incorrect, but listening to students express their discoveries is more powerful than offering my own. I ought to be helping them derive writing rules. I shouldn’t be listing advice on the board. As a writer, you transcend the novice stage—when the issues in your work are invisible—by questioning what you’ve done and recognizing that, whatever you do, it must be deliberate, on purpose. You need a reason even if that reason only appears in retrospect. Justifications for my students’ choices might come from me, but my job is really to foster their self-awareness, to help them trip into their own lessons, to teach them ways to assess their effectiveness and develop their own authority. Lessons—anyone’s lessons—matter little in comparison to students’ owning learning and finding out for themselves.
Somewhere in my subconscious, I know that. I have to put my own authority aside—even someone like me, a grizzled veteran of classrooms, has something to learn. I should be glad to discover I’m not as wise as I think. It’s liberating to elude the repetition of tired advice. To keep the walkway moving, you have to shut out any voice saying you’re finished.