Sunday, February 27, 2011

The influence of my writing workshop

Farewell Artful Dodger

Whenever I teach a creative writing class, I have great anxiety waiting for the moment that students ask me to share my writing. After all, throughout the semester I am telling them that to be a writer simply means they are practicing writing. What if my secret leaks out that I am not practicing writing and therefore, not a writer?

As a result, I have developed the artful dodge. I tell them that yes, of course, I’ll share something when the right moment arises, hoping that they forget and never ask again. I tell them to ask me privately and I’d be happy to share, hoping that they forget and we don’t end up in a private conversation. I tell them that I don’t like to share during the semester because I don’t want to privilege my style, wanting them to develop their own voices, trying to diminish the power that I hold as their teacher. Simply put, it is all bullshit. The truth is, I don’t want them to know that they have more courage than I have, that they are practicing and I am dormant.

Yet now that I am writing again, participating in a writing workshop, I don’t worry about feeling like a sham, a writing imposter, since I am putting words to the page. Even before students ask, I share pieces of my writing, illustrating my struggles, my lack of clarity, my resistance against assignments that don’t immediately energize or inspire. The day before I’m going to workshop a piece of my writing, I discuss my fears of how it might be received, of how my ego is on the line, of how I create a reward system for myself if I survive the experience. When we meet again after my piece is workshopped, I tell them about how sometimes the voices of feedback end up like a Charlie Brown episode, the adults mimicking the cacophony of a subway, me only hearing bits and pieces because it’s too difficult to digest all the sounds at once. I share with them my confusion about reading over the variety of comments, unable to figure out how to sort through the opposing readings.

I soften a bit in the class workshop, forgetting about being a teacher, allowing them to ask more questions that help them get at their meaning, knowing that I too want to ask questions and receive answers when my meaning is not immediately sensed; I realize that I don’t always have to invoke total silence about letting the page speak without the writer. When a student brings in a prose poem rather than a series of flowing couplets, I challenge myself, and the other students, to see the poem rather than see its failure to meet the assignment.

Together we journey. Together we write. Vulnerability gives way to a reminder that my best teaching happens when I am a writer responding to student writing, rather than a teacher responding to student writing.

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