Write Better Because of Them

October 8, 2014 | 1 Comment

microphoneTonight, my students put on a cabaret show. Actually, many Harlaxton students participated, but I’m partial to my students. In all three of my classes, this week we’re navigating the intense work of discussing student writing. It’s as if each student is tethered by a thread, going about their days and nights this week connected to me and to each other. They’re sharing something deep and true in class through their writing, but still, I don’t really know them. I found out tonight one of my students is a rapper, which I would never have known by how quiet he is in class. Another does stand-up comedy, completely at odds with his sober and serious demeanor during workshop. Another emceed the entire event, funny and gorgeous in front of the entire college when in class she is serious and self-deprecating.

Teaching is a gamble. I’ve agonized over classes, blamed myself, blamed the texts, the good weather and the bad, blamed the plastic desks–sometimes, classes just never come together. But sometimes, they do. And oh, when it happens, I sit back and watch in wonder. One example of many this week: A student in the introductory multi-genre creative writing class I’m teaching – for the first time – wrote a brilliant poem. She asked me to read it out loud for her. I did and was hardly able to get through–I didn’t want to fail her by losing my voice. I told those students the first week of class I don’t know much about poetry–I usually write narratives, either fictional or nonfictional. pcwThe text I’ve chosen for the intro class, Heather Sellars’ Practice of Creative Writing, is phenomenal. By the fourth week, I was joking with the students that they were all going to turn out to be poets, and now I’m wondering if it might be true. I want to write more, write better because of them. I’m their teacher because of what I’ve written in the past, but I want to prove myself capable of remaining their teacher because of what I’m writing now.

Writing, of course, is a solitary act. Writing classes and Tuesday night salons and literary readings, however, give us the sense that we’re actually not alone. Since coming to England, I’ve heard two prominent writers say they “hear” their characters before they “see” them. This has always been true for me. Now, because of the freshness of the UK accents, I also “hear” the chapters of my book-in-progress in the voices of my new colleagues. I feel as if they’re in the room with me, helping me work out whether I need a dialogue tag here, another line of description there. Whether my protagonist would say this or that, or if she would say anything at all. refectoryIt’s like I’m not really alone–the teaching, the communal meals, the literary events and late night meetings with new writing partners, it all swirls around me when I sit in my chair and settle into the task of writing.

There’s the traveling, too. Last weekend I went to London. I walked hours along the South Bank on the Queen’s Jubilee Walkway, saw thousands of new faces, heard two new plays, three new musicians, and viewed dozens of works of art and treasured manuscripts. At night, I slept in an 8-bed all-female dorm room, hearing women from lands near and far talk about their hopes, their struggles. One had lost her job and her apartment, but was full of hope for the interviews she’d lined up for the weekend. Another lost her room key and was searching for it at 4am with all the lights on. jubileeI let her borrow mine, a risk, but she showered and returned it and thanked me many times that evening after her all-day conference. My bunk mate, seeing me circle around in the evening talking of this adventure and that but unable to remember what I was trying to do next, reminded me – gently – that I was getting ready for bed. Put on my nightgown and rest.

When I was making my way “home” to the college campus manor house, the taxi I called had been snagged by someone else. The driver who finally found his way back to retrieve me at the train station ignored my grumpiness, told me stories, and had me cheered by the time he delivered me to the manor courtyard. I was embarrassed at my grumpiness and apologized. I’d forgotten for a moment how many lovely, lovely things have come my way in recent weeks. “Cheers,” he said. “No need.”

Here’s one of the musicians I saw this weekend in London at the Foundling Museum, Ewan McLennan–a serious, lovely man singing songs of struggle and regret and loss. It was exactly the right music for a venue honoring the thousands of children orphaned in London in years past.

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