When I studied at a fine arts high school, our creative writing teacher, Mrs. Trimm, burst into the classroom one Monday, triumphant: she had knocked down the barrier which kept her from finishing her novel. That Saturday, she woke to the usual stream of what ifs and false starts, of doubts and disagreements, of urges to burn all three hundred pages of her current draft. She realized she was worrying the piece to death. She forbade herself from working on her novel. She got up, cooked breakfast, steeped tea, soaped dishes. While she pruned her roses, it happened: the break-through she’d been trying to force herself to have. Suddenly, the solution rushed to her, and she rushed inside to write it.
Now that I’m a teacher myself, I often ask myself what makes a good writing teacher. Every time, I remember Mrs. Trimm’s classroom. I think of the three hours we spent writing each day. We watched her at her desk, pen poised over notebooks, fingers poised over the keyboard. We then turned to our own notebooks, our own keyboards. We had a running joke – leave Mrs. Trimm alone! She’s working on her novel – and that joke taught us how to live our lives as writers, taught us so many things: dedication, discipline, passion, pushing through even when we felt like failures, trying and trying and then trying again.
In order to be a good writing teacher, you have to be a good writer. By “good,” I don’t mean talent, or some ineffable quality like “genius.” As Mrs. Trimm told us, talent will only get you so far. Talent won’t sustain you through night-long boxing matches with doubt, or with a mailbox brimful with rejection slips. Discipline and dedication, however, will.
If I want to teach my writing students anything, it’s how to keep writing: how to keep the pen sliding across the page and the fingers punching the keyboard, even if you feel like your talent has failed you.
When I walk into the classroom, I think of Mrs. Trimm. She taught us by showing us, every day, how she did what she did. The best thing she could do was to treat us like equals, like writers. I try to do the same. It isn’t always easy: opening up to a roomful of strangers about your deepest worries and struggles, your dark hours of wavering confidence, writing along with them and reading to them what you wrote, even if you know it’s awful. It’s enough to make the strongest writer pause at the door of the classroom. Then I realize that’s exactly the position my students are in. I think of Mrs. Trimm, and how I learned the most when she shared the most, how at those moments she was probably feeling vulnerable, too.
I take a deep breath. I walk in, ready to sit and write with a room full of people who will, for the next hour, not be students, but writers, just like me.