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The Writing Mentor’s Benchmark

Today, I taught my memoir writing class. The class has grown in popularity, and is, without doubt , one of my favorite classes to teach. I see remarkable improvement in the writing of students who come regularly and I marvel at the power of release that comes when people begin probing the meaning and message of their past. Several students have asked me to work as their personal writing mentor or to give them more involved feedback on projects they have underway, so obviously, students feel I have something to offer. I’m always humbled by this kind of request, because writing is something that you can’t exactly teach. Of course, you can definitely share insight to help people find a more authentic voice and structure their stories in a way that makes them unfold more poignantly. So, I suppose what I do with my writers could be viewed as formal teaching…. and yet, with writing I always feel my making a difference is hit or miss. You have to have something good to work with to start if you hope to have an effective impact on a student’s compositions, and the student has to listen – really listen, to the feedback and not be defensive or arrogant regarding how their story has landed on the page. When the work you are critiquing is comprised of scenes sharing the intimate and strongest experiences of their lives, a student can easily feel you are judging them rather than judging the literary retelling of their experiences. Memoir writing is so very intimate, raw and shadowed, that talking about it academically seems slightly disrespectful to the meaning behind the message.

One of my students, who has worked with me for a year now and who has also taken my 200 & 500 yoga teacher training, as well as Reiki course, told me yesterday that I am a remarkably good teacher in just about every subject, and yet my truest calling is my guidance to authors. I was flattered, of course, but also sort of surprised and doubtful. My first thought was, “Well, you should see me teach dance. I have a lifetime of experience to share in that field…. And I’ve changed lives through my teaching of yoga so let’s not dismiss that . . and most of these stories would be great whether they had me to help in the process or not and . . . .” Somehow, I just can’t say “thank you.” I don’t trust that my observations and discussions on writing can possibly be more informative and inspirational than my other teaching, because writing can’t be measured in that way. The yogi in me can’t help but note how my first reaction was a bit defensive, as if putting my gift for writing instruction above the other work somehow lessons the worth of my many years of devotion to teaching other subjects.

I’ve been thinking about that – about whether or not I deserve the praise, and I’ve contemplated what my MFA education gave me to prepare me to teach writing in the way I do. Of course, my master’s degree taught me a great deal – that is the point of investing the time and money to attain a higher education, but I think earning an advanced degree in creative writing impacted my writing more than it impacted by ability to teach. Silly to think the piece of paper validates me as a teacher in any way.

Maybe what is going on here is that I’m considered a good writing teacher by default – perhaps I’m not so good, but others who hold memoir or creative nonfiction classes locally are actually bad (those who can’t, teach?) I know I’ve had a hard time in my life finding writing coaches or teachers who really helped me improve despite my taking tons of classes, workshops, courses, and earning a degree in the subject. Heck, half of the writing teachers I’ve met along my journey got me confused and off track of my story’s purpose as they focused on sentences rather than content or because they tried to influence my tale to be more in line with something they believe others wanted to read. At the same time, I can count off instantly the remarkably good dance and yoga teachers I’ve been blessed to work with who have helped me progress in those fields. All things are relative. Perhaps I’m a satisfactory writing teacher because of the law of scarcity and I’m really just “adequate enough”.

The hard fact is, writing is really a difficult subject to teach if you go beyond the surface and don’t turn the process into a lesson on the mechanics of writing (in other words, teaching English, sentence structure, plotting, how to use metaphor or kill your clichés is all surface stuff, and really good writing begins with figuring out the complexity of unfolding a tale in an engaging way.)

So after quite a bit of introspection, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am indeed a good writing teacher (ha, and humble too!)– but not because I’m a good writing teacher in the traditional sense. I think the combined experiences of teaching yoga, writing, and other artistic endeavors is what has prepared me to wade into the murky waters of memoir writing with some insight . Memoir is simply creative nonfiction, but the writing involves mining the insight and lessons of our never-ending quest to feel whole. And yoga teaches us the importance of doing this same thing honestly and without judgment. I believe the hours upon hours I have spent discussing yoga and how our relationship with our experiences and the intimate connections and mental constructs we embrace and which, in the end, collectively forms our personality, has been key to seeing my student’s stories as deeply valuable and needing to be told. And that makes getting those stories onto the page very important. When you believe in what you are teaching, your conviction makes the lesson more authentic, and I believe you strive harder to get the job done. Add to this the basic understanding of good writing taught to me in college, and I suppose I’m a good help to people who want to write memoir.

I certainly don’t teach memoir for monetary gain or ego stroking. I allow students to pay by donation, and tell them to leave money in the basket only if they feel inspired, and I put quite a bit of time into the classes, even during seasons when the attendance is low. I teach writing because I love listening to the stories of people’s lives. I love seeing their face when they make a sudden new connection between their past and present. I love the way they come to class and tell me that an assignment I gave opened up a can of worms emotionally and that suddenly they feel totally different about events that used to confuse and frustrate them. I love the beautiful, lyrical quality of so many of the passages read in class, and I love listening to the authentic voice of each student as they share their work. I love when the work is great, and I love when it isn’t, because even in the choppy, chaotic tales I know so much potential is there, waiting to be unearthed. Everyone DOES have a story to tell, and every one of them is fascinating because it is a cameo presentation of the human condition.

Perhaps loving what you do is all it takes to be good. That is what motivates us to go the extra mile and put forth that special effort that makes a difference. The power of intention is everything.

About Ginny East Shaddock

Director of Heartwood Retreat Center, Ginny is also a writer. This is her personal blog with essay form writing about life and reflection. My entries are often lengthy and random, because I'm not here to promote or sell anything. I'm not expecting followers - just find this format a good place to think with the pen.

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