Finding The Right Teacher
By mutual agreement, a student and I recently parted. I was frustrated because, over the course of six months, there was no growth in her work; she was frustrated because, over the course of six months, she had not gotten famous.
I write because I love it and I need it. I have an insatiable need to hear (read) stories and to tell stories. While everyone has an individual process, I believe that the best work is done when you concentrate on the work – you limit your distractions and you completely enter the world of the piece. That doesn’t mean you let the children fall down the stairs or that you can only write in a mountain cabin with moose peering in the window. But I believe it means it is rare to create good work when you have the television on, your iPod plugged into your ear, your cell phone in the other ear, and you are IM’ing while you type a word here and there on your WIP.
Writing takes commitment, patience, talent, imagination and complete attention. It also means sitting down and putting words on paper on the days when you don’t feel like it. A day off is a good thing for everyone. A week off and you’ve lost the thread of the work. You have to remember to play, to experiment with new techniques. But you also have to approach it as work – a vocation as much as an inspiration.
That means focus and attention. It means putting the words on paper. It means finishing what you start. It means putting the completed draft away so that you can revisit it a few weeks later and read it as though it was written by someone else. You can only bring it to the best it can be if you gain a certain amount of objectivity. While I don’t believe you must murder all your darlings, to paraphrase a famous writing quote, I do believe you have to remove what doesn’t work even when it’s something to which you’re attached.
You’re a writer. Nothing you do is ever wasted. Everything is material.
Once it is the best you can make it, then you send it to your Trusted Readers. And then you go back and work on it some more.
THEN, you have something you can sell.
It is not the only way. There are many writers – some of them quite successful – who market more than they write. They’ve found an audience. They fit their niche and they succeed. More power to them. It’s a brutal business, and I certainly applaud anyone who finds a way to play the system.
However, their writing doesn’t move me. It doesn’t transport me the way a poem by Jane Augustine or a novel by Elizabeth Berg does. I can’t fall into it, experience the world and live the novel because it’s all brand-names and surface clichés. It’s like skimming the front page of a newspaper – you see if your eyes rest on any of the words, and then read a paragraph or two before skipping to the next bit.
Is that how you want your work read? And NOT remembered?
Process is individual. Goals are individual. What you need to do is sit down and figure out how you want your writing future to unfold. What sort of career do you want? Do you want to regularly hit the bestseller list? There’s nothing wrong with commercial, popular writing. But it takes a different kind of process than it does to write a quiet, internal novel or a book of poetry or a travel tome.
The right teacher can help point you down the path. The teacher can’t do the work for you, but can offer suggestions to make the journey easier. The wrong teacher can do irreparable harm.
Several years ago, I spent four days a week in writing classes. One was taught by a writer whose work I knew and liked; I ended up writing a draft of a mystery novel which later evolved into the serial Tapestry and is re-defining itself as a novel again. The other was taught by a short story writer whose work I never read. She insisted that if we did not write in the cadence of John Gardner or Raymond Carver, we didn’t know anything about short stories and shouldn’t write. She berated several of us for trying to experiment with character and story and theme and told us we didn’t know anything about writing and should quit.
I quit the class instead.
Several months later, I saw her newest book. I flipped through it, figuring perhaps I would understand her point of view if I read her work.
I couldn’t get past the first page. It was hollow, insincere, and a cheap imitation of her favorite writers. It wasn’t her voice – it was a retelling of someone else’s, but without the original sparkle.
I put the book back.
There were people in the first class who left feeling frustrated because they found they didn’t enjoy the process of writing a mystery novel. There were people in the second class who thrived, because the teacher’s beliefs on writing resonated with them. Unfortunately, I was not one of them.
My Recalcitrant Student admitted she wanted the fame and fortune part, but did not want to do the actual writing. I suggested that she find a teacher who worked more from the marketing angle – i.e., those who swear that, even without a track record, you can land a six figure deal on a query letter without a manuscript or a track record. If she can do it, good for her.
But we are not a good match.
On the flip side, I participate in the Abysnthe Muse mentoring program. The young woman with whom I’m working is never afraid to roll up her sleeves and get to work. And she takes suggestions and not only uses them, but makes a leap of the imagination, taking it farther and better than I could ever hope.
We are a good match.
The right teacher is as important as the right agent, the right editor, and the right reader. Finding those people takes time and patience. And a willingness to honestly end the relationship in as positive a way as possible when it does not work.