Monday, October 20, 2014

The Honest Benefits of Teaching Writing to Others

Bob Clary, from the online learning company Webucator, invited me to speak about teaching writing --  meaning, how to pass on the knowledge of the writing craft to others -- as part of their "Teach Your Talent" project. Specifically, he asked: "When you're staring at a page (or screen!), how do you turn the words into wine? You could write a tutorial for your readers, or even give a lesson to someone and then share how the experience went."

I am beyond honored that he asked me to speak about this, and I hope I do the topic justice!

(I have not been paid or anything to do this.)


I'm not going to talk about craft. If you want to know about craft, go to writers better than me and those who have talked about it in more depth than I will: Stephen King's "On Writing", Kurt Vonnegut's essays, etc.

I taught a writing workshop for adults with developmental disabilities. 'Taught' is too strong of a word; 'led' or 'guided' would be more appropriate. And even though it'd be great to think that the workshop completely changed their lives around, it'd be a lie. They changed me more than I changed them.

There are things that I never knew or would know about these adults had we been in any other situation. Their favorite foods, relationship to roommates and other adults in the building, boyfriends, girlfriends, enmities: all those I found out in two one-hour sessions.

There are times when the triviality of writing dawns on me and scares me. I like to think I write for myself (I can't not write or I'll explode) but I write to expose horrors that frustrate me. Part of that requires that I go out to the places I'm writing about -- such as the homeless community -- and get first-hand experience to convey what I'm talking about. And after these experiences, I need time to collect myself - because I want to rip apart all my writing.

How stupid must I be to think that I can sit in a room and write while people, actual people, go through horrors and nightmares every day? To be 'moved' by what I'm writing feels like a ghost compared to what I saw. I am in no position to write about such things. The whole 'pretending' aspect of writing becomes disgusting and despicable. I'm pretending and, if things go well, I will reach a larger audience than those shunned by society. My stories will be heard by more people than the stories of those who know more about their situations than I do. How can I write? No matter how hard I try, it'll be a lie.

And I don't have an answer to that. No matter how much I know the fallacy of my writing, I must write. Books have the power to change lives, I know that, you know that, you told me that.  And I must write. I simply must, I'd explode if I don't. I try as hard as possible to be honest in my writing, especially with my current novel.

Teaching the adults with developmental disabilities exposed me to an entire new view about how to write honestly.

Give a person a pencil and they'll expose their lives to you. It might take digging, it might be hiding under the surface of their stories, but the writer and the story can never be independent. I'm sorry, but it's true. Probably. (I don't like saying statements are 100% true, but that statement just might be.)

So this is an odd benefit of teaching writing, one that I only realized once I went out and 'taught' a group of people who usually do not get 'taught' writing. For one thing, teaching went out the window. it was all about exploring, encouraging, having fun. Their writing was pure at its greatest form, only for themselves without care for standards -- and they never felt ashamed about sharing their writing. They spoke up and told other adults to speak up if they hadn't for a long while. This is what writing can do to a person. Writing without need of publication has a power in itself, a power of expression for only expression's sake. It's an undeserved privilege to witness it.

Because witnessing their writing meant witnessing their minds and lives. If I wrote a book about adults with developmental disabilities before the workshops and after the workshops, they'd be two different novels. That may seem obvious, but think about what that means in terms of the power of 'teaching' writing.

This benefit may seem niche but in fiction, writers are not writing autobiographies (they're writing veiled autobiographies ;) ). They're writing about other people. For example, a woman might be writing a book about a man coming to terms with his impotency. And although there might be men who published articles and books about their lives, this published writing is inherently different than writing for writings sake. The latter tends to be incredibly more honest in a way that staggers the mind.

If you want to write honestly about someone, 'teach' that someone writing. And by 'teach', I mean give them open prompts ("Make a poem where every line starts with 'I am'"; "What is your favorite season? Holiday?" simple stuff, harder stuff if you feel like it, "What is your worst memory?") and, if they trust you, they'll bloom in front of you. 

Don't ever do someone the disservice of 'pretending' in fiction without any attempt to honestly learn about their situations. Without a doubt, when you go to learn about them, people will surprise you.

I can't find it on YouTube, but I watched a video about adults with developmental disabilities who were asked the question, "If you would change one thing about yourself, what would you change?"   

Not one of them mentioned their disability. The most common answers were, "Be happier," or "I wouldn't change a thing."

Go out. Learn about your subjects.

"Write what you know." And if you don't know what you want to write about, don't be one of those people who discredits, in my opinion, the greatest adage in writing and thinks, "I can make it up, write what you know is so dumb! What about fantasy?" 

GET to know it, your world, your emotions. Or else you'll be one of those fools who conveys their subject falsely, writes yet another source of misunderstanding in the public. Ever wonder where the idea of rough and tough, gun-wielding lesbians come from? Straight people. 

You'll fail to connect with those you've written about, and for me, that'd mean my novel failed.

Hopefully, this benefit of teaching writing to others is unique. I don't want to repeat what others have said because others can say things better than I can.

But really, teaching, learning, and writing itself has a whole spectrum of benefits that many people can talk about and present unique takes. That's why I'm so so glad Bob asked a number of writers to discuss this topic on their blog. Please take a look at Webucator's Twitter feed and read some of the links they Tweeted.

Webucator is offering a free Microsoft training class each month. It's a necessary skill that most employers require, and their classes run the entire spectrum of Microsoft applications (some I haven't even heard of!). Check out Webucator's reviews and take a look at their classes. They seem great. If you think you can learn anything from the classes, check them out.

Thank you so much again for inviting me to speak on this, Bob!

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