Teaching an introductory creative writing class is a fascinating (and often humbling) experience for a writer. The often abused adage, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” truly gets things the wrong-way round. After all, teaching the can-do is often more difficult than the doing itself. What do we say when a student asks, “how do I make this amazing?”
Amazing. Well. How do we make amazing? It puts me in mind of the tragically unhelpful Supreme Court justice who could not define pornography but “knew it when he saw it.” As an instructor of creative writing, I find myself in similarly troubled waters–not because I cannot define good writing, but because the only way to really be a good writer is, well, to be one. That is not to say there is no process involved, of course. We spend long hours doing exercises, building characters collectively and individually, practicing dialog and revising…revising…revising… But the truth of the matter, and one occasionally admitted even by the authors of popular fiction textbooks (Ostrom, Bishop and Haake of Metro to name a few) is that we author-teachers are really like coaches encouraging more line-drills. It is our job to inspire, to drive, even to cajole when necessary… but we are, for most writers new and old, simply the means of creating a deadline with some urgency to it. I create hurdles for them to leap over. When that gets easy, I make the hurdle higher. We create boundedness; we give them a rabbi, a cowboy and a lawyer and ask that they write, not a bad bar joke, but a story. We get them to compose sketches about worn out sofas, about broken pencils, about the mundane and about the trite–and about the cosmos, too. Why? Because those who can know how hard it is–know how wonderful it is–know how necessary and vital it is–
And we know, too, that the path to amazing writing is through the rather unapologetic and unspectacular task of more writing. No magic wands required.