It’s been a while since my last post, but I haven’t been idle. I’ve been busy in unexpected ways.
I was making some good progress on restructuring my novel when I got an offer to teach intro composition at the local community college. I had some concerns about maintaining my writing schedule, but I naively thought I could do it all.
I was in for a rude awakening. Teaching is the hardest work I’ve ever done. Nothing could have prepared me for standing in front of 26 students twice a week with a range of skill levels (and ages) and trying to inspire them to love writing. Fortunately, some of them already did and the others, for the most part, saw the value of it to their careers. And then there were a few who used to like writing. Those were the ones I really wanted to reach.
Beyond the time involved in preparing a syllabus for an entire semester and preparing for each individual class, there were assignments to grade and emails to respond to and various administrative tasks. But the biggest challenge was the time we spent together.
As someone recently described it to me, you have to be present when you’re teaching. You can’t show up unprepared and daydream your way through class (especially if you don’t want your students to do the same). We aren’t used to maintaining that sort of mindfulness in our daily lives. We’re always multitasking, easily distracted, thinking about the next task we have to tackle before we’ve even finished the current one.
Being present and open at that level also requires giving up some control and acknowledging that things just might not go the way you had planned. Some lessons move more quickly than you anticipated, and something you threw together at the last minute ends up catching their attention and inspiring a half-hour discussion. Getting the students to open up and start talking was a surprisingly difficult process, and once I got them going, I had the equally hard work of keeping them on topic.
It’s not unlike the writing process. You sit down to write a scene or a chapter with the thing all pictured in your head, and then a minor character pipes up demanding attention and something else needs exploring — or, conversely, something you thought would be complicated to express turns out to be easy. And always there’s the need to keep everyone heading in the same general direction.
So unfortunately, my novel fell by the wayside and my blog along with it. But I learned a lot about writing by teaching others how to do it. I also learned that the more we try to impose our will and plow ahead without stopping to listen, the harder we make our jobs — as writers and as teachers.
Historical footnote: I’ve always been fond of the photo of Blanche and her students, but in tracking down a version I could use online, I was saddened to learn that she was murdered in San Francisco two years after the photo was taken. Her sometime boyfriend Theo Durrant was convicted of killing her and another woman in a sensational trial.