If I read the student drafts, I know where I’m going for the next few hours. The path is familiar but interesting. I notice the usual tree roots and mud puddles and point them out to the young writers. Don’t start your story with a dream sequence. Get your narrator out of the bathtub and make her do something. Is this dialogue about what’s for dinner really moving the plot along? I meet an endearingly sassy protagonist, find a twisty detour that works. And then it’s time for lunch.
If I pull out my own draft (or whatever it is at this point), I’m walking on a narrow bridge in the dark. No wait—it’s not a bridge, it’s a slack line. And I’m blindfolded. Doesn’t matter if the ground is less than two feet below me, I can’t see a thing and I’m wobbling like a jellyfish minus the natural grace. Much easier to take the path on solid ground and tell someone else what to do. That’s what teaching is, right? Well, no.
Helping college students with their writing is one of the best jobs in the world. I don’t say “teaching writing to college students” because I’m not sure writing can be taught in the sense that, say, historical events or Shakespeare’s plays can be taught. Writing is, among other things, a skill that takes practice and more practice. Talent can take you a long way, but not all the way. Instruction can be useful, but ultimately I have to help my students up onto the slack line and spot them so they don’t fall too hard.
This semester I’m working with a handful of talented, enthusiastic twenty-two year olds, and I’m having a blast. Their writing is so much fun to read and they are so much fun to advise that I could almost forget my own shadowy story skulking in the corners of my office. Almost. Aside from the obvious—I am a writer therefore I write—teaching well (like coaching well) involves staying in shape. I have to practice what I preach, or rather teach.
At the risk of creating metaphor fatigue, let me throw out another one. Writing is like water skiing, I tell my classes. You can read about it and talk about all you want, but until you get in the lake and feel the boat pulling you forward, until you get water up your nose, you don’t really have a clue how to do it. My role is to jump in the lake with you, I tell my students, shout encouragement as you get up and when you wipe out. I also have to get behind the boat as often as possible and teach by example.
That old expression “Those who can’t do, teach” has always irritated the heck out of me. I teach and I do, both at the same time. There I am balancing on the slack line or the ski, sometimes wiping out in front of everybody, sometimes making it work.
Either way, it’s a great job.