Those who teach…


Once in a while I’m talked into doing something that really pushes me out of my comfort zone. My comfort zone is actually very tiny, so it doesn’t take much to push me out of it. Usually I find that once outside, I’m okay, that the experience is worth the anxiety that precedes it. I always get nervous before a book talk. Will what I have to say sound interesting, or will my audience, if I’m lucky enough to have one, fall asleep or figure out some way to get out the back door? I prepare, I try to keep to my notes, but I’m always happiest when I get to the reading out loud part and the Q&A. I like dialog, not soliloquy. Usually book talks end up fun and I get to meet readers face-to-face and mostly they don’t throw stones.

So when I was flattered into teaching a two-hour seminar at the Cape Cod Writers Conference this August, I allowed the anxiety to build up to life-threatening proportions. I began my lesson-planning months in advance and still couldn’t relax. I had offered to teach a wholly made up course called “He’s Such a Character.” The idea was to help neophyte authors to write good characters — round not flat. For the first time I was faced with trying to explain what it is I do. I also realized pretty quickly that I needed to use other authors to make my points. Which meant homework. I copied pages out of books, but to understand character development, you have to copy the whole book.

How do I demonstrate the principles that I rarely think about while I’m working, in clever and meaningful ways? I pictured myself lecturing to a room full of bored people wishing that they’d skipped this class. I needed to provide a coherent, useful, interesting, multi-level talk with exercises. I live with a teacher. I went to him. He didn’t seem to think this was a big deal. I was freaked out.

Nonetheless, I pulled together what I thought was a pretty good lesson plan. I had stuff to say and exercises to give. I psyched myself up and headed to Craigville on a beautiful August day. Craigville, for those of you who haven’t been, is lovely place, and the conference center is set in a community much like our Campground, except that houses are far more substantial, i.e. winterized houses, not cottages, and the Tabernacle resembles more a barn than an iron tent. The view is spectacular, looking out over a pond on the one side and the ocean on the other.

I could almost relax and enjoy the place except that I had this pesky class to give. Years ago I “taught” a class at Featherstone and I remember that my first class was fraught with nerves, and I blabbed on and on, and I doubt that my suffering students actually learned anything, but they were kind. Now, here I am, six books later, well-established in my writing career and, you guessed it, I blabbed on and on and used up my pages of lesson plan in about ten minutes.

The circle of unfamiliar faces stared back at me, clearly wanting wisdom and the key to success. The breeze from the ocean kept blowing my notes off the table. I didn’t know whether to stand up or sit down. I begged them for examples of character types. I implored them for character traits. I used the flipchart, pretending like I knew what I was doing. I went around the room and asked what they were writing. For reasons I can’t fathom, four of them were writing memoir. Do you need character development in memoir? Isn’t that supposed to be the truth? I gave them the first writing assignment and wondered if I could get away with having them write for half the class. That didn’t seem quite fair, so they got 15 minutes. The conversation got better as they each read their pieces that were designed to show characteristics. Some weren’t bad. Some…well, less said the better.

At the end, I don’t think that I actually got my point across, and that what I was able to share was nothing they hadn’t already known from other classes or from experience. But what I learned is that teaching is without doubt one of the hardest jobs in the world. Mind you, I didn’t have to reprimand anyone for spit balls, but getting a student’s attention, keeping it, and imparting useful information without lecturing for two hours is darn tough stuff.

I hope that I didn’t do any long-term damage to my 11 writing class students. Take what you need from what I said and leave the rest.

As schools reopen and teachers gear up for another school year, mazeltov: You are my heroes.