Wednesday, June 24, 2009

teaching writing

I am always fascinated by the way we talk about the writing process, like it's some kind of mysterious thing that happens when we are lifted up by the muse and carried away...We argue that you can't rush genius. We talk in flowery language about inspiration as though it were magic. I'm in love with my novel, and I love being on a writer's high, but still, I find this idea fascinating.

My first time teaching creative writing at the University of Minnesota, in grad school, we had two visiting authors come to speak back-to-back who demonstrated this. Charles Baxter read his story "Shelter" and told us how it worked. There was a character, he said, that he called a "spark plug character," who showed up and sparked everyone into action where they wouldn't have otherwise. I learned a lot in that lecture; I thought it was brilliant. Coming from a family of engineers (that's my excuse) I LOVE to know how things work. The more I see the individual parts, the more beautiful it is to me. My students weren't so sure.

The next week, novelist Susan Power came to visit. She spoke warmly and lovingly of her characters coming to life, of listening to them and interviewing them to find out what they want, of letting them tell her what they want to do. She wrote in a great essay on writing called "The Wise Fool" that when she tried to manipulate her characters into her preconceived plot line, they didn't act naturally on the page. It didn't feel write. My students, then and now, can't say enough good things about her. She celebrates the mystery and cooperative nature of writing that so many of us love and so few of us talk about, especially in class.

You can't teach inspiration; that's the problem. Technique, you can teach, and it's important. But even though my students' poems grew stronger after we talked about meter, they looked at me, annoyed, because it's work to learn it and--here's the problem--we have this idea that work is a polar opposite of inspiration. I'm not calling them lazy. Quite the opposite: I'm realizing that I need to honor inspiration even while I'm trying to give them the tools they need to write well.

I've got good justification for resisting talking about inspiration. If students wait for it to come to them, rather than training themselves so that they can step back into their writing at regular intervals, I worry that they'll become the people who love to write but never get around to it. (Goodness knows how often I talk about wanting to write, then turn on West Wing or go for a walk or clean the bathroom.) By not addressing or even dismissing it, I and others like me argue, I'm encouraging them to stick with writing even when it's hard. But in doing that, you're not tapping into the magic that draws people to the art of writing. Susan Power has that figured out. In life, in our spiritual lives, in the classroom, mystery draws us. I need to let it remain.

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