Why I teach writing

One of my students from this past fall emailed me over the break and asked me a question:

What is your favorite thing about teaching writing classes?

I love this question, especially as I’m in the midst of (re)designing my winter syllabi, because it makes me stop and think about what I’m really after, why I’m in this profession. It takes me back to Natalie Goldberg’s “Beginner’s Mind.”

But to answer my student’s question, I’m not going to quote Natalie Goldberg. I’m going to turn to Richard Bach.

Yes, I know, a lot of people consider his work schmaltzy pseudophilosophical touchy-feeling religion-lite fiction (or so a college professor once told me), but I go in for that sort of thing, silly as it is, and some of my favorite quotes are from the fictional “Messiah’s Handbook” tucked inside Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. And the line I repeat most often to myself is this one:

You teach best what you most need to learn.

This is why I went into teaching writing. I knew long ago that I wanted to be a teacher, and I figured out just before college that I wanted to teach English, but it wasn’t until I was in college and finally harboring serious (as opposed to fanciful) ambitions to be a writer that I realized that, for me, the best way to keep having exciting conversations about craft and technique and process and practice was to be in a classroom talking about those things with students.

So when I thank students each semester for showing up to class, when I tell them that I’m there to learn from them as much as they are there to learn from me, this is what I mean. They remind me of how important practice is to writing; they remind me of the value of writing exercises and revision techniques. They keep my attention on the process of writing and they make me want to write each day just to keep up with them. And when I push them for new, more complex expressions of new, more complex ideas, I remember that I need to push myself to do the same. I remember that, as writers, we never stop learning, and while I have a couple of decades or so of writing experience under my belt, each blank page is a new terror and each new piece of writing puts me right back in their chairs, learning how to do it all over again.

So these are my favorite things about teaching writing classes, student of mine:

The thrill and the fear of it all still being so new, every time. The comfort of getting to share that with rooms full of fellow writers. And the privilege to be part of seeing even one mind catch fire, or one heart become still, or one new discovery unfold in a research essay or one new revelation emerge in a response piece — of witnessing one new writer go wide-eyed at the possibilities she’s created for herself on the page.

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One thought on “Why I teach writing

  1. I tell myself this constantly, ‘You teach best what you most need to learn.’
    Because we are passionate in our own learning, we share that with those passionate students we see will want to learn.

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