Learning

Some writers believe writing can’t be taught. Others claim anyone can learn to be a writer, that it’s all about discipline and perseverance. Personally, I subscribe to Galileo’s theory, which seems to combine the two ways of thinking: “You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within himself.” This theory rings true for me, based both on my experience as a student and what I’ve observed about other writers. Sure, you can teach the discipline and craft, but the real stuff of writing comes from the heart and soul. It’s just a matter of helping the writer put those deep-seated instincts to use.

Richard Bausch recently posted on Facebook: “I wish the colleges would look seriously at the ‘Learning outcomes’ craze. Or fashion, or fetish, or whatever it IS, and go back to thinking about LEARNING. There seems to be a well-meaning but wrong-headed concentration on providing training and skills for jobs, for a perceived class of workers; and very little anymore that seeks to open up the fullness of human possibility, person by person in terms of what that person is seeking in the life of the mind. When I teach a workshop, I am trying to teach the life, trying to light the fire that will burn throughout a life. I am not interested in the transference of information, nor even the improvement of expertise — but in the freedom that comes from self-discovery in an atmosphere that encourages it and helps it along.”

I kept these words in mind as I prepared for class this week, feeling truly humbled and honored by the prospect of encouraging self-discovery among my group of students. The previous week’s class had gone well, and I was excited to share Raymond Carver’s story “The Hair” as part of a discussion on character development. But we didn’t get to read that story. And I’m pretty sure there wasn’t much self-discovery going on. That’s largely because a new student showed up, someone who hadn’t been able to come the first night, and kept interjecting unrelated details about the sic-fi novel he’s writing. I always managed to quickly guide the discussion back to the topic at hand, but the student who’d seemed most engaged the previous week was completely disinterested in the lesson. And his wife, the woman who’d shared her poem about a full refrigerator, seemed confused and primarily concerned with meeting my expectations for the in-class writing exercise.

It wasn’t a complete disaster. We did discuss Mrs. Mallard’s character in Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour.” We reviewed several tips on character development, and created one together that we each wrote about. But still, I left the class feeling disheartened. I certainly wasn’t fanning any fires here or opening up the fullness of human possibility.

Or was I?

My students aren’t going to win any Pulitzers. They might never pick up a pen again after this class. But the guy writing the sci-fi novel is really excited about his work, and that’s nothing less than great. He probably doesn’t get to share his excitement with many other people in his life. As for the woman who wrote about the refrigerator — in spite of her confusion and self-doubt, she did a great job with the writing exercise. Maybe she understood more than she (and I) realized. Her understanding might not amount to a full-fledged fire, but it’s a spark — just like the sci-fi guy’s excitement. And sparks shouldn’t be underestimated.

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