Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Learning and Teaching that Elusive Core

Terry here. This week we are talking about whether getting formal training as a writer is useful, and whether we can teach writing.

I got my master’s degree in English with Creative Writing focus at San Francisco State University. I loved every minute of the program. When I was an undergraduate, on the advice of one of my professors, I veered off from majoring in English, and I majored in political science. He said he thought if I wanted to be a writer, I ought to broaden my knowledge of the world.  I liked my political science education and it left me with a strong background in government and politics which as continued to interest me.

At some point  I felt like my writing education had been stunted. There were books I hadn’t studied, courses I hadn’t taken,  so I went back to school. The curriculum It mostly consisted of literature courses that I had missed.
The classes on writing I hardly remember at all. I recently ran across stories that I wrote for the classes and found that I had made As in all of them. My take on that was, “So what?” I learned as much from just writing and participating in critique groups.

That doesn’t mean I don’t think it was valuable, I just don’t remember the fine points. I have no idea whether I would be the same writer today if I hadn’t taken the classes—or if I would have been a better writer, or a worse writer. No matter how many classes I took, I still struggle with the basics that every writer struggles with: voice, plot, description, dialogue, and character development.

What I don’t struggle with is how to write a sentence and a paragraph, how to state a theme, develop it, and end strong. You may not think that matters in fiction, but it does. In the opening of the book or short story you have to give the reader a sense of what she should expect: the theme. You use your sentences and paragraphs to build your story line, to populate it with characters, and to set scenes. Sentences work for paragraphs, paragraphs work for scenes, scenes work for chapters. And if you build the story properly, eventually you come upon the ending that satisfies the theme. Easy no?

Not exactly. As always, the devil is in the details. And that’s where writing workshops and  courses come in. Some writers who are not only natural storytellers, but know how to build a book properly as well, without formal help, without critique groups, without beta readers. But I think those are rare. Most writers—both fledgling and fully-formed—benefit from classes, whether they are attending or teaching. Preparing to teach a writing class can be just as valuable as being a student in one.

I never get tired of attending workshops, classes, panels at conferences, and critique groups. I don’t always hear new ideas, but I often hear old ideas presented in ways that I really “get” for the first time. That happened several years ago with a weekend workshop I attended. One of the instructors told us that to write a good book we had to reach deep inside and find the books that only we could write. Old advice, yes. But somehow the way she presented it made me hear it in a different way. I understood suddenly that this was not just the admonition to “write what you know.” It meant something deeper. It meant to dig for something you cherished, something you knew on a visceral level. Shortly afterwards, I started writing my Samuel Craddock series. I had written several books before that, but with that series I finally found my passion, my voice, my setting, and my characters.

I’ve never taught writing in school, but I have taught in workshops. I like to teach aspects of writing. I love to see the look on a student’s face when something clicks.
But I also like the preparation. Every time I put together a class, I dredge up important things that I may have forgotten. Sometimes I even think of something new--not a new concept, but a new way of looking at it that I hope will be useful for my students. I don’t think it’s necessary to have formal training, but taking classes may smooth the way for grasping that elusive core of writing that we all strive for.

Terry Shames
A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary

1 comment:

Dietrich Kalteis said...

I agree, Terry. It's about the voice, plot, description, dialogue and character development, but, it's also good to have some writing skills and a basic understanding of grammar.