Last week, I taught the first-ever SF & Fantasy writing course at Denman College. It was great fun. The students were really keen and hard-working, determined to make the best of the time they had. The full days at Denman are fairly long – from 9.30 in the morning till 9.15 at night. So, you have to try to get the balance right, between pushing on for a result and taking the time to sit back and reflect, share some laughs and, of course, do some writing.
For me, the secret of teaching as such, is that I must be as keen as the students. Yes, I need to have plenty of stuff prepared but the vital ingredient is that I have to enjoy myself, too. I don’t believe creative teaching works if the teacher has the attitude that they are imparting wisdom, essentially, to the students who just absorb it.
Recently, there was an article in a widely read journal by an author who teaches creative writing. She talked about making sure you don’t run out of material; listed some tricks for overcoming nerves. But what she didn’t talk about was enjoying herself. She made it sound like a necessary chore that a writer has to take on at some stage in their career, and how to get through it relatively unscathed. I’ve met others like her.
Part of the problem, I think, is that writers sometimes get hired to teach on the basis that they’ve had books published, not because they want to teach. They worry about how they will get on, so they concentrate on putting together careful but somewhat rigid sets of exercises and mini-lectures. And yes, new writers need to know about structure and plot and point of view and show not tell. But more than that, they need to see that the teacher is still being creative himself.
And this is the bit that’s hard to talk about but which is essential above how much knowledge of the craft you possess or even how many books you’ve sold. It’s about giving yourself over honestly to the process that you’re sharing with the students. Not sharing in the same way that they’re involved – after all, you are responsible for the course – but certainly the same in terms of putting in your heart and soul and the very best of your attention.
If you can do this, then the students will sense the best kind of encouragement to succeed. You can’t make them be better writers, but you can show by example that improving at anything is always a matter of first setting up a safe, creative environment, then second, jumping in to it without reservation.
This doesn’t mean that every moment of your course will be bursting with creative energy – that’s impossible – but it does ensure that whenever a student has a breakthrough moment of understanding or insight, what they will meet is genuine and fully-felt encouragement, rather than a kind of muted and possibly not fully cognitive acknowledgement.
At one point on our course, I was trying to explain about how magic, in terms of creating moments, characters, scenes that are more than the sum of their parts, that truly excite the reader, is a bit like palm-reading. I confessed that I used to be a professional palm-reader but that I didn’t tell fortunes; I concentrated on reading character. The first ingredient of that is plain curiosity, to always be fascinated by what makes people tick. Then you need lots of practice at reading palms – not necessarily after studying books written by palm-readers (in fact, I’d advise against this, unless you want your creative curiosity to get side-tracked by spurious future-prediction or even cold reading); you could do it like I did, by setting yourself up as a palm-reader in a public place then just jumping in.
When you’ve read hundreds of palms a strange thing happens: your instinct begins to take over, so that it kind of soars above all that practice and connects to revealing aspects of, in this case, other people that you couldn’t really work out logically. At one point, I told them, I stopped looking at people’s palms – but that had unsettled my clients, so I’d gone back to using the hand as a prop.
Writing, I said – and I admit the analogy was a little rough, but at least I was working it out live, so to speak – is similar. You need to be constantly writing but also curious about what you write, what your writing reveals about the truth of yourself and others. And all the time, you’re training your instinct so that eventually, a time will come when it’s able to make an informed leap across the mundane/magic divide and return with a phrase or a piece of dialogue or a twist in the plot that is truly, unpredictably, creative.
I think I said it looks a bit like this:
CURIOSITY – PRACTICE – INSTINCT – MAGIC/CREATIVITY
This, I believe, is how you don’t cheat your students; you don’t usher them through a course that you are just trying to survive. Instead, you’re sharing in the creative process.
And at the end of our Denman course I think we all felt the same kind of creative pleasure at having got somewhere different to where we started from. Okay, I was lucky that the people who came were so open to the process – it isn’t always like that – but the point is that if you’re teaching, you need to make sure you are playing your part right from the start, in working hard to be open and ready. In some ways, there’s no worse sin for a teacher than that they aren’t able to help when a student is making a creative breakthrough or that they don’t even notice it.