A few things I’ve learned about writing by teaching it

I’ve only taught a handful of classes about writing. I’m not a teacher by profession or proclivity. I’ll soon begin my twenty-eighth year as a project manager for a local government agency, full time except for a few months after my second daughter was born. So whenever I’ve accepted an invitation or responded to an opportunity to teach a class or give a lecture, it has meant a detour from the hour or two each evening I try to spend working on writing fiction in order to do my homework on a craft topic. My own education as a writer has been a series of extension classes, workshops, and conferences, as well as the writing group I’ve had the privilege to belong to for the last ten years. For more about my writing group, read Jennifer D. Munro’s recent blog post.

I remember in my early years of trying to write fiction, I attended workshops and conferences intent on finding the big secret to writing a story, convinced there was one and that everyone knew it but me. That it was there encrypted in the prepared lecture as well as the stray or impromptu remark. All I had to do was listen hard enough. And take lots of notes.

A few years ago, I gave a craft lecture on plot. It consisted of the accumulated notes I had scribbled whenever the word plot was uttered in any workshop I had ever taken. I stitched together a narrative of sorts about my search for how to write plot. It’s a popular topic and what I learned is I’m not the only one who has spent time searching for the secret, which turns out to be not one thing, but many. While there are plenty of things to keep in mind when writing a story, here are a couple from a class I took from Tom Jenks that I like to keep in mind:

  • Take the reader across a story in steps that are highly concentrated, focused and short, and in discrete movements of conflict-action-resolution.
  • Consider each character as the main character in his or her own story. Each character has its own arc.

A few months ago, I taught a class on increasing tension in your story. I assigned “The Great Beyond” by Alma Garcia. (Yes, she’s in my writing group and I get to benefit from her brilliance.) It’s not a suspenseful story. The tension is subtle, but definitely implicit in the vivid language, the characters bumping up against each other, the expertly woven symbolism, and the pulsating sense of place. The students were absolutely enamored of the story. What I learned is this:

  • If you assign a delicious piece of writing, your students will thank you effusively and you will feel so smart for having done so.

Earlier this month, I did a ten-minute lesson on titles at the Seattle 7 Writers annual community writing event Write Here Write Now. In my ten minutes I listed some examples of titles to illustrate what each captures in terms of delivering a particular aspect of the story, such as character, place, or theme. But the main message was another gem I took from one of Tim Jenks’s classes:

  • Determine the salient element of the story, that is, the most noticeable or striking element, and use it to name the story. A title works best if it comes out of the dramatic and lyric movement of the story.

I’ll be guest faculty this summer at the Whidbey Island MFA residency, offering craft lectures on story openings and the role of humor in dissolving or deepening tension in a story. I’ve written the class descriptions. Now I’m looking forward to seeing what I learn from preparing for and delivering these classes.