Friday, June 05, 2009

Thoughts On Teaching Writing

The Work I Do

I teach writing workshops, work as a writing coach and tutor, and also do some career counseling. All of these things come from the same place within me, the desire to look within, build self-trust, self-awareness, all in the vain of reducing anxiety, which is what gets in the way when we try to write or figure out what to do with ourselves, our career.

The process I use is to facilitate and coach people to go deep within, to connect to their core, their emotional truth, and then use that honesty, that pure energy to: create fiction or nonfiction that reverberates their emotional truth (a truth that changes), write their college application essay or research paper, or figure out what they want to do with their career.

I DO NOT psychoanalyze. I am the opposite of psychotherapy. I like to think that I help in the process of “observing” versus “analyzing”. Observing is far less invasive, far more gentle, if you let yourself really just observe.

My Approach

I think the approach I use creates an ease with writing (and with career exploration), because we observe without judgment, without guilt or fear. This process reduces stress and anxiety, which, again, is usually the thing that’s in the way for people who come to see me. My intention with this approach is to create a release, like going to the chiropractor and getting an adjustment or taking power heated yoga, twisting and rinsing out all the crap.

I use this approach, also, because I believe, like with great acting, great writing comes from emotional truth. The thing is that you want people to believe you when you write, whether it’s a college application essay or novel. You need to be rooted in awareness of your intention when you write and awareness involves emotional honesty, otherwise you are writing surface bullshit, and, to me, people can tell in your “voice” and in your words if you are trying to convey something verses really conveying something.

Of course, my role is to help you do that, and, yes, it might sound like therapy but the difference is I am not interested in fixing, solving, or changing you or your “problem”. If that’s what you want or what happens, great, but I am not here to do that. I’m interested in you peering deep within, finding Your Truth, and then writing the hell out of it, because then you will soar and you will really be an artist.

How Do I Do It?

This is hard to explain, but I will try. Overall, I focus on encouraging my students to trust themselves and to trust their process, to try not to worry or anticipate how they will accomplish what they have set out to do (write an essay or book or whatever). I have a bunch of teacher- techniques I use and even assignments, but I think the most effective is how I begin each session/class. I begin with a “warm up”. The point of both is for the student to let go of the world, the stress outside the room, and focus on themselves and their work for the duration of the class/session. With adults, I do a seated meditation and then free write for 20 minuets and then we share, without commenting. With my younger students, they sit in this really comfy chair in my office and just talk out (or free write) what’s going on– sometimes with the assignment we are working on, or other times whatever is on their minds. Most of all, in both cases I listen, I really listen, and I try to get out of the way.

On the other hand, the other way I get my students to write with ease is to share my own struggles with writing, with school, and with being a student. I relate to their pain, in any way I can. I let them know that while I am the “teacher”, I am human. But this is something I need to really do in the right moments, after trust between the student, and I has been established. I think one of my strengths is my ability to be vulnerable, but my ability to switch from vulnerable to authoritative when needed.

But not all of my approach is to "get out of the way". I do, (all of you who know me well are laughing) have opinions. And, yes, I do tell my students what I think of their writing; after all, that's why they want me to work with them. They do want to know what I think. However, my critique of my students' writing is based in a solid belief in what they are doing and a solid trust between us. I don't bash, throw their work on the board, and point out with a red laser pointer all the grammatical mistakes or holes in their plot. My critique is part inquiry– Is this what you mean? Do you think you could go deeper there? But, also, part direct advice–I think this needs more development or maybe you could try this idea.

I think I am pretty good at what I do. But I don’t think my approach is right for everyone.

The Problem With Teaching Writing…a.k.a no job is perfect, even your dream job.

Nerves can get probed in my writing classes, in writing coaching sessions with me, and 99% of the time, the student or client knows exactly what they are getting into, welcomes the inner reflection and process, and understands it’s all part of the process. They understand that this “stuff” is not meant to be analyzed to death but rather observed. That the point of allowing the stuff to rise up is so that you can either use it in your writing or let it go so you can write. However, sometimes a student or client blames me, that I caused them to bring up their pain or their issues. That their pain is my fault.

I have a thick skin and don’t take it personally when a student gets upset because what they are upset with is the new layer of skin that has appeared raw and sensitive after they have written through some heavy shit, sloughing off the old skin, shedding the way things were and now seeing the way things are. This can be very upsetting and if you are not in a solid place with yourself, it can be unnerving.

I feel the work I do is ultimately good, even necessary to the writing process, even when someone gets upset or disturbed by the things they have uncovered. I also feel like I have no choice but to teach this way. It makes me uncomfortable to ignore when someone has been affected by his or her own writing or by something from class. It’s hard to advise someone to forget it, just stop writing about that and write safely. Yet, on the other hand, I have done this, because that’s the other part of teaching as I do; you have to honor someone’s process. I don’t always know what the Truth is for my students, but I can tell when they are avoiding it. This avoiding does make me feel at a loss, kind of helpless. Yet, I know my job is not to fix their pain or force them to look at their Truth. My job is to show the compassion I feel for them and their pain. If they are not able or ready to look at the pain, it’s not up to me to force them to do so. I offer simple encouragement: “yes you can” or “feel the fear and do it anyway” or just “I’m here for you”. But sometimes, the student can’t or won’t “go there”. I hold on to hope that maybe just by coming to class they will get to where it is they need to be.

My Fears

The thing is I’m afraid of offending my students. Sometimes, when I show/guide them towards looking deeper, and I see/feel/smell resistance, there’s this moment that juts out into the space, and I find myself taking this step back. Their resistance jolts me slightly, and I hesitate or back pedal, and I say things like “Oh, well, actually, you can back off that. You don’t need to go there.“ Inside my brain fires out these self-protective thoughts: What are you, a therapist? What if he/she flips out on you? What if they say ‘it’s all your fault?’ They may run screaming! So, I back off. Sometimes this all happens for a second, and then I will step back in, and gently, carefully, I find the right words to help them gently go deeper. What’s really gratifying is when I step back in, and I help them move into their own resistance, and they relax into it and trust that it’s all going to be okay (like getting into a difficult yoga posture). I can see the relief flood their face and their trust, the I-can-do-this look. Other times, I totally back off, stay off. But when this happens, inside, I chastise myself and say, “Hey this is why they are here, so do your job and step up and teach, dammit!” Ultimately though, if I sense a situation is going into the blame-the-teacher-place, backing off is probably the best thing for everyone all around.

I'm Bad At Bullshit

I take my job seriously. My job is to help you be honest with yourself in your writing. In fact, this is always my job in everything I do. Tutor kids, coach adults, career counsel, edit and critique manuscripts. Even in the classroom, when I was a public school teacher, there was just no place for bullshit. No place for candy-coated bullshit. No matter if I taught Caesar or expository writing. There just wasn’t bullshit. I never got in trouble for being honest. Like when I taught the controversial book The Perks of Being A Wallflower, and we had to discuss the scene about the main character having been molested by his aunt. I answered all the questions honestly and encouraged them to use the literature to question their own lives.

I am an enthusiastic and passionate teacher. I am animated, and I can be a whole show of facial expressions and animations. But I can be quiet and thoughtful too. I worry sometimes how I am being received. Yes, there it is, my age-old problem of SELF CONSCIOUSNESS. I have gotten better about all this. One time an adult student got angry with me after I gave her my honest opinion about her writing. We were in a one-on-one, and she was in the session not just for a free and fun writing time but to figure out what was wrong in her piece. So, I told her, and she called me pushy and aggressive, or something like that. Twisted my words all up and then used them against me. At first, I was very apologetic. Then, I thought, what the hell does that mean? I am the teacher, and my job is to challenge you or make suggestions to improve your writing. If this is perceived a pushy and aggressive, well, I don’t know why you signed up. Furthermore, I make suggestions, never do I scream and yell and insist you do as I say. Come on, free will. We are adults.

Maybe I should keep my mouth shut?

When I taught middle and high school though, it was far worse. Other teachers would often pull me into their classroom to warn me to shut up and stop giving my opinion about things so freely. I think my greatest asset used to be my greatest fault–used to is the operative phrase. Mentors, or so-called, in the past, would again pull me into their office or classroom and point their fingers at me, and sometimes with a kind of I’m-looking-out-for-you tone and other times a direct warning. It was always something like this:

"You gotta learn how to keep your mouth shut."

I have opinions and have learned how to say them at the better rather than worse time. A bad time was when I spoke my mind at a meeting with our union president and some colleagues. I was unhappy and concerned about something that turned out to be some kind of “secret” we were keeping at our school from the union. Whoops. I am a bad game player, and, so, I didn’t play the game that day. The next year-and-a-half of my life at that school was hell. No one liked me. I lost all of my so-called friends. All over some political bullshit that I wasn’t aware was happening, all because I told the truth of how I felt. What made it a bad time was that I wasn’t grounded first in what I felt. It was like as I spoke, I was figuring out what I felt, and so when people tried to knock me down I wasn’t firm in my feelings.

That’s usually what got me in trouble with my colleagues at the middle and high school. I had a department head who pulled me into a closet (I was in my fourth year of teaching) and pointed her finger at me, telling me she heard I was throwing myself into all kinds of committees. So? God forbid I work with administration to help our school. Well, apparently, this was “bad”. Again, some kind of union politic. Or maybe just her politic. Who knows? It was all so stupid. But again, I wasn’t grounded enough in what I felt and could easily be made to cry and feel wrong.

Oh, HELL no!

When, I had my first child, I said to myself NO MORE. When I decided to work for myself I said OH, HELL, NO MORE. I vowed if anyone tried to make me feel bad for expressing my opinion then I wouldn’t work with them or for them. Period.

I have stuck by that promise. In fact, made a career out of being honest and expressing myself. DO I ever have to bullshit or play games or politic? NO WAY.

Speaking my mind for me is not about putting a student or client down. Speaking my mind about your writing and your writing “practice” in my class is not about putting you down. It’s about my impression, my feedback, my thoughts, my critique. Isn’t that why you are here? If you disagree with me or are having some kind of intense reaction to what I say, then it’s up to you. You, who are adult, to talk to me. Tell what’s going on inside. Don’t interpret me. Don’t guess or assume.

Of course, I, too, am a student, and know how hard it is to speak up sometimes to your teacher...but that's for the next blog entry!

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