Writing Advice I Got While Teaching Writing

Sometimes This Is A Funny Job

I taught a residency last week for the MFA program in creative writing which I direct. For those of you not in academia, that’s a week-long class wherein the group works from about 9–5 every day.

It was awesome, and I think (hope) the students learned a lot, but as the professor I also took away quite a bit, and sometimes actually ended up teaching myself a few things.

Here’s some of the wisdom I gleaned from last week’s crazy-intense but equally as crazy-useful class:

  1. Isaac Babel was doing what my favorite contemporary writers are doing, but 100 years before they did it. I’d read Babel in college, but Dan Torday, who was the visiting fiction writer to this past residency, taught one of his stories. From my current perspective, that blew me away (the story and the teaching, Dan rocked it). The spare, precise prose I always associated with Carver, Hempel, Lish — there it was in early 20th century Russia. I’m hitting the library this week to pick up some Babel collections.
  2. Grammar is like algebra. Chalk this up to something I’d never expressed in quite such a way, but which I’ll now say all the time. I’m pretty anal about being grammatically correct (see this blog post), but I only thought of this comparison while explaining my position to the new students. Basically, if you were starting a master’s course in astrophysics, you wouldn’t expect the professors to teach you algebra. So, when you’re starting a master’s course in creative writing, you also shouldn’t expect the professors to teach you basic grammar. Like algebra, you need to know it at that point in order to move on to the more complex issues.
  3. The small press world really is niche. Publishing comes up in every residency. I always prefer students put these things out of their mind until they’re closer to graduation, but I can’t fault anyone for being curious and wanting to have a book published eventually. This year, though, I was reminded that people outside the creative writing world don’t know a lot about small presses. It’s all agent-then-publisher or self-publishing. Of course, there’s way more to it, and I’m thinking that this needs to be a bigger part of my classes.
  4. Research is done when it gets redundant. Another one of those things I’d never phrased quite so well before. I’ve researched. I’ve figured out how to research pretty well, for my own work at least. And I always kind of knew when I was done. But when students asked me about it last week, I said, “you know it’s time to stop researching when you keep finding the same stuff. Then you can be confident that you’ve been thorough.” Why I’d never quite put it that way I have no idea, but it’s what I’ve always done, and I stand by that philosophy.

So, it was another one of those weeks where the teacher, in various ways, picked up a few things himself. Teaching is a funny job sometimes. I guess if we’re not keeping our minds open to stuff like this, our classes would never get better.

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