How I’m Learning to Teach Things I Didn’t Know I Knew

There’s an expectation that when you’ve had a book published you know enough to teach someone else how to do the same—not just the part about actually getting the thing into print, but the craft part too. Since my novel came out in 2011, I’ve been invited on occasion to teach a class or give a lecture—just a 60 to 90 minute stint, nothing terribly taxing or overwhelming. Except that I’d never before done such a thing. Though years ago I received a master’s degree in education, taught ESL classes for a short period of time, and have for over two decades managed an environmental education program, my time in front of a classroom has been limited and none of that time was spent discussing the elements of fiction. I don’t have an MFA so my education in writing has been an assortment of classes, workshops, and conferences. The idea of teaching others something about writing was more than a little scary. What exactly did I know and how could I articulate and convey it to others? Luckily, I have had some talented and skillful teachers and workshop leaders, not to mention a talented and skillful writing group. Both have shown me ways to consider whether a story is working. Mostly, it boils down to these few questions: What is the story doing, what is it trying to do, and what’s missing?

Reading is another teacher. Most of the time I rush along in my reading, eager for the story and then upon finishing, immediately launch into the next one. The more I read, the more enlightened I think I’ll become about story and character and plot. No matter that I don’t stop to fully digest the work, because surely I’ll absorb it at some subconscious level and the secrets will somehow find their way out of the deep autonomic fibers of my brain onto the screen in front of me, my fingers tapping the words on the keyboard practically of their own accord as I write my own stories.

Even if it were to happen that way, which it doesn’t for me, that’s still just the first draft. Then there’s revision. That’s where the things we are taught in workshop or in the pages of a craft book or in the feedback from our writing group come into play. This is also the time to review the stories we’ve read that resonate with us, to take a closer look at the finished, polished work and analyze it, name its parts, and articulate their functions. Reviewing stories I admire is where I start when I prepare a craft lecture or presentation.

I recently taught a class on story openings and used examples from favorite stories for the class to examine and identify the elements of fiction in the first paragraph. One of the examples I used was from “This is So Not Me” by Natalie Serber from her collection Shout Her Lovely Name. The opening line is rich with character and story. The voice is captivating. We are immediately in the story with this acerbic, anxious, vulnerable woman.

I was climbing the stairs to Walter’s brownstone, Ezekiel swaddled up tight like they showed me three times before I left the maternity ward. You know, how they’re supposed to feel better if their arms and legs are wadded in close like the Baby Jesus lying in the manger. Seems it would make me want to scream, but whatever. So I’m holding him next to my chest when all of the sudden I got this urge, what if I just dropped him right over the side of the bannister. Kerplunk, like a chestnut. I could almost see my arms reaching over the edge and letting go and that baby blue blanket careening to the ground and me just turning on my heel. I don’t have to tell you that it scared the crap out of me and I pressed my ass against the brick wall the rest of the way up.

For a class I taught on “7 Ways to Increase Tension in Your Story,” I assigned a story called “The Great Beyond” by Alma Garcia, first published in Narrative in 2005 and now part of her novel-in-progress, which I predict to be a hit. I wanted to assign a story that wasn’t so obviously fraught with tension, but where tension was certainly at work in the story, inherent in the rising action. We also looked at how Garcia created tension through dialogue not only by open confrontation but by what’s left unsaid. We saw how she used flashback and exposition to vary pacing to heighten tension and how her deft sentences, vivid and precise words, and her juxtaposition of opposing ideas (past/present, borders/the great beyond) further deepened that tension.

Another recent lecture I gave was on humor, which is for me such an essential part of any story. It dissolves or amplifies tension. It deepens character. It pulls us further into the story. In the class I taught, we studied a scene from Antonya Nelson’s story “Three Wishes” in her most recent collection Funny Once. I apologized to the class because after our reading and discussion of the scene they would never have the experience of happening upon it for the first time within the story, which for me was such a delectable moment. Humor and pathos are so beautifully woven, flaws and needs so nuanced, images so richly drawn in this scene. Nelson’s characters feel real and multi-dimensional. They may be nothing like us. Yet they are us. We are them. That’s the power of humor.

One of the pleasures of presenting a lecture or craft class is the opportunity to share stories that have moved or touched me in some way. How gratifying it is to say, here, read this. Laugh, cry. See you. See me.