Sunday, September 7, 2014

Will Teaching Enrich Your Writing Process?

Many times I've heard writers who teach complain about the difficulty of sustaining a writing practice when reading, grading, and discussing so much student work.   It's a legitimate problem, especially for writing instructors who care about their students.  We spend many hours thinking about their development as writers, how to give feedback that will strengthen what they do well and address what they have yet to learn.  We read every word of every draft they produce; we recommend books and essays to read; we spend hours in our offices talking over writing issues with students (and often, other issues as well).  Soon, it can seem as if our students' voices have infiltrated every corner of our lives, talking to us even in our sleep.

I've been thinking about this problem as our fall semester has gotten underway and I've become immersed, once again, in student work.  But I haven't found that teaching is taking away from my own writing or leaving me too drained for creative thought. In fact, the opposite is true: my students are inspiring me.

How is that?  There are a lot of reasons but here's the most important one: I'm working with people passionately dedicated to writing.  Who are sacrificing sleep, free time, Netflix, vacations, dinners out, lazy Sunday mornings and god knows what else (I hope not food) in order to make the most of their talent.  To learn to be stronger writers and better readers.  To contribute something meaningful to the world of literature, in the best way they possibly can.  Watching my students take risks (can I really be this honest?), try things they never tried before (can I really use a strange image like this?) is an honest thrill. In three weeks, I've already seen students get stronger, their voices more confident. And there are gems everywhere.  One student, after reading Ted Kooser's essay, "Hands," wrote about the touch of her father's hand on her knee after she had fallen asleep on the rooftop of their house, where they had gone to look at the night sky during the first moon landing.  Another student wrote about ears that "don't hear"; a third described her burying her nose in the grandmother's nicotine-scented blouse  - this grandmother who lived a life of hard labor and told stories about snakes and birds, and also gave her granddaughter a blank book with the whispered instruction to write her own stories down.

When I see my students taking creative leaps, how can I do anything less?  It's exciting to witness, and hold a space for, the act of artistic expression.  And holding a space for my students reminds me to do the same for myself.  They are committed to their work.  We teachers must be committed, too.

Recently I got an idea for a new essay, about women, midlife, and folk-tale archetypes.  It's time to get started.

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