My Secret Ambition

On particularly bad teaching days, I am certain I’d rather teach adults. Kids can get on my nerves: they’re immature, impetuous, petty, shallow.

In other words: they are kids.

I should know better; I’ve been to enough teacher inservices to know that adults can be just as bad as the kids we complain about — or worse. We talk while the presenter is talking, forget to do our homework, argue with other teachers about things that don’t matter. Teachers are impossible to teach; we all think we know everything. Someone trying to teach us what we have painfully learned on our own — that doesn’t sit well. We are a cynical and stubborn group.

No, teaching adults is not the answer to my discontent. I will stick with the kids.

Recently, though, I was asked if I would be willing to share my classroom management skills with other teachers, and for a brief moment I was able to envision my dream career: I could go around the country  telling groups of people the same thing and getting paid lots of money to do it. Then I would write books about the same thing and sell them at the inservices.

I’ve had the same thoughts about writing.

As much as I love to write, there are days when I would rather “have written.” Once my novel is on shelves, I can write about writing and people will listen to me. With the street creds of a bestseller, I could set up workshops, give lectures and get paid to write articles about what I’m only thinking about doing: writing.

I believe that this is the secret ambition of many novelists: to write book about writing. Novels are hard to write. Talking (and writing) about writing is much easier.

I guess everybody has days like that, when we wish we were doing Something Else. Something Else always looks easier, less stressful, and more financially rewarding.

So here I am, on the podium, addressing an audience of writers. What do I say?

Is writing so different from teaching?

Both are communicative activities. The difference is that a teacher’s audience is right there, giving you a look that says, “Get my attention quickly, or forget it.” And you can’t submit a new draft if they don’t like the first one.

But writing, though a solitary activity, can’t be divorced from the audience.

A writer can get away with not facing an audience for a long time. That’s good, because a novel takes more time to get in shape than a lesson plan. But it’s also bad, because without a deadline, an audience waiting for you to open your mouth, it’s hard to get it done.

Anyway, here it is, a brief summary of all the advice I am qualified to give, about teaching and/or writing:

1.  Know your role. You’re here for the audience, not yourself. (Writers, take note: don’t tell me that you like using archaic words because they’re more interesting. Use them in your diary, not your novel.)

2.  Develop a persona. Find a voice, one that is you, but more interesting. (Writers: creating interesting characters is a useful skill to have; your main character doesn’t have to be you. And voice isn’t an abstract idea that English teachers talk about. It’s how the reader first encounters you, a small window of opportunity to get a reader hooked.)

3.  Present well. Don’t ask people to listen to you when you haven’t put time into your message. (Writers: it is a cop-out to say, “I’m not good at punctuation and grammar.” You’re a writer; learn the rules.)

4.  Don’t talk down to your students / audience. If they don’t get it, it’s your fault, not theirs. (Writers: you get one chance with a reader. Don’t tell us to wait until chapter 3, when it all starts to make sense.)

5.  Find the sweet spot. If you’re too boring, the audience will leave. If you challenge them too much, they’ll leave. (Writers: First: do your research. Your brilliant idea has probably already been written. Second: just because your idea is unique, doesn’t mean it’s good.)

6.  Be reasonable, not strict. There are rules for everything. Know which ones need to be followed, and which can be safely ignored. (Writers: punctuation, spelling and grammar are not optional rules. And until you are published, pay attention to What Publishers Are Looking For.)

7.  Mistakes are not fatal. (Writers: without rough drafts, how would we ever learn? Letting yourself be bad is part of the process.)

8.  And last, but not least: If all else fails, play a game — or show a movie. (Writers: try to have some fun with your story. If it gets too much like work, you’ll lose your motivation. And showing is always better than telling.)

Actually, teaching is pretty good training for writing. There is no copping out when you have to step up to the podium every day and captivate an audience of sleepy, hyper, bored, shallow, immature, impetuous, shallow and petty teenagers.

Now, I’d better go put on my writer persona and work on my novel.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. ian g
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 16:27:03

    whew. there’s so much wrong in this.

    “Is writing so different from teaching?”
    YES.

    “Kids can get on my nerves: they’re immature, impetuous, petty, shallow.”
    Have you ever tried being immature to them? 😉 everyone has this image of the teacher as the role model, as the person you must respect. well, why not lower yourself to their level. not becoming their friends, but becoming a peer….

    “Teachers are impossible to teach; we all think we know everything.”
    something i’ve heard a lot, but I guess I’m the antagonist for this quote, because I can most certainly be taught. I enjoy being taught, actually. i know everything i need to know about what i’m doing. that’s good enough 😛

    okay escher. here’s what i have to say: you need to dig into the well and find intellectuality. you need to share mind-blowing poems, short stories, or passages to read. you need to show them amazing things. you need to put awe on their faces, and then they will WANT to know what you’re saying. unfortunately, you have a curriculum… you’re screwed.

    if you don’t like working with children, then don’t. some people are not cut out, and if you’re going to your blog to dish out all of this animosity (not toward any student, but to all kids), then you’re not happy with this. you can respond with whatever you want, but the evidence is at the beginning of this post:

    “Kids can get on my nerves: they’re immature, impetuous, petty, shallow.”

    Reply

    • escher dax
      Mar 27, 2010 @ 16:54:17

      I’m being somewhat facetious here; all teachers have days when they come home ready to quit. I actually enjoy talking to kids more than adults. People generally have a negative opinion of teenagers, and think anyone would have to be crazy to be with them all day, but I do this by choice.

      Teaching younger kids would be easier; teaching suburban kids would be easier; but I actually enjoy working in a screwed-up, stressful, poor, urban high school. I know that what I do can actually make a difference.

      I guess if I’m dishing out animosity here, it should rightly be directed at the people who have created this test-driven environment where we dare not lay the holy curriculum aside and do something really interesting. That’s why I jumped at the chance to teach creative writing – no curriculum!

      Anyway, all the really interesting stuff happens when we take tangents from the prescribed lesson. I specialize in tangents. 🙂

      I guess my point here is that teaching and writing are both hard, and there are moments when almost anything else sounds easier. But I know myself well enough to realize that easy gets boring quickly.

      Reply

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