I was trying to zip up a bag over-filled with books when a student stopped me. “Professor Bolden? I just wanted to say I read your chapbook. I really liked the poems about sailors.” My hand jerked and the zipper broke open. I felt red fill my cheeks. “Oh gosh,” I said, then “thanks,” not knowing what else to say.
I had never shared my writing with my students, besides reading aloud my responses to in-class exercises. In my creative writing classes, I wanted more than anything for my students to develop their own voices and find the styles which best suited their subjects. Since students would ultimately receive a grade in my class, I feared that having them read my work would lead them to think that parroting my writing would garner a good grade in the class.
In reality, I expected the exact opposite; I wanted each student to arrive at the arrangement of words which best suited what they needed to say. I didn’t want to create a class of students who sounded like versions of me: I wanted a class of students who sounded like the best possible versions of themselves. In actuality, I was as frightened as my students were to bring their writing to the class. I sympathized with my students because I shared their worries: what if no one liked what I wrote?
I reached a conundrum, however, when I taught creative nonfiction. The class was to end with a unit on a researched essay; I brought in selections from research-based works of nonfiction, such as Sarah Messer’s Red House, to show students how research for creative essays differs from research for academic essays. Though the students understood how the product differed – how Messer’s book was more like a story than an essay for their Composition classes – they were confused as to how the process differed. I realized the best way to help students understand the process was to show them how I had gone through it. I had to do what I most feared: teach my own work.
I assigned an essay I’d written about the Salpêtrière, the French hospital for hysterics, and asked them to come to class with questions about my research and writing process. I showed my students how the essay evolved: the first sparks of inspiration appeared in my undergraduate drawing class, when I’d sketched the shape of the body in the throes of hysteria. I showed them the books I’d underlined and dog-eared. I showed them my notes and drafts, what I’d circled to keep and crossed out to cut. I showed them how important it was to let yourself experiment, to take risks in research and revision, much as I’d taken a risk by teaching my own work. When I received their drafts, I was happy to see that each of them had taken risks in writing and research – and that none of their essays sounded like them, not me.