Saturday, January 26, 2019

When Writers Teach

Those who can, do; those who can't, teach.

I like to think that I can write and at the same time, I like to think that I can impart some of what I've learned about writing to others. Before I got published, I kept my thoughts about writing to myself, thinking that I needed publishing credentials, otherwise I'd be spouting yet another unlearned opinion. Once I did get published I strained hard against first-book-itis, meaning that hubris and know-everything attitude first-time authors get. Sadly, I did slip once or twice.

After I got published I sought opportunities to monetize what I'd learned, mainly through teaching. I asked about teaching at my alma mater, the University of Denver, and I was told that because I didn't have an English degree or a Creative Writing MFA, it was a no-go. Over the years I did speak about writing at conferences, mostly gratis, and earned a recurring instructor gig at Lighthouse Writers. Like many of you already know, teaching is its own discipline. Good writers do not necessarily make for good instructors.

Here's what I learned:

There are only so many classes that can be taught on any writing subject. The creative part is inventing a new, catchy name for a workshop that's already been taught a bzillion times. The Importance of World-building becomes Crucial Steps to Setting. In your syllabus it helps to swap out terms that mean the same thing. Goal, Conflict, and Plot Twist becomes Direction, Drama, and Narrative Pivot.

Don't talk too much. If you're on a panel, share the mic. If you're teaching a workshop, throw in writer prompts. Personally I hate them because I'm one of those writers who struggles to bang out a coherent sentence and I'm awed by those who can in a matter of minutes, craft a paragraph of jeweled prose. But other writers love the opportunity to share so indulge them.

Get off your high horse. Most of your students are really sharp and well-read. I've had several occasions where I mentioned something in class and one or two of my students would immediately look up a reference on the Internet, or as us old-timers call it: THE computer.

Very few writers live on royalties. Even if you score a YUGE publishing deal, the money is dribbled out as if every dollar was squeezed from the publisher's liver. The first year might leave you fat and happy, but the checks start to shrink and soon, if you've already ditched the day job, you start hunting for side work that leaves time for writing. Possibly the most steady and lucrative way of keeping you fed and off the street corner is by teaching. Thankfully, a couple of years ago Regis University asked me to join the faculty of their Mile High MFA Creative Writing program. In their stable of poets and literary types, all very accomplished, I'm their commercial-fiction writing guy. I work part-time, meaning I still need other means of income, which are mostly freelance gigs and the occasional check for a short story. I also sell a painting now and then. Yes, I know many out there are astounded that I'm not filthy rich. In my youth, I did make a deal with the devil, but the check bounced. Bastard.

So go forth and write, fellow ink-stained wretches.*

* to quote Kurt Vonnegut

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