The Balancing Act

balancingAmen, Marion. And [teachers] can also stop making “judgments” like “you will never be a writer” or “your ideas are trite” or “writing is just not your thing, dear.” Yesterday I sat with a group of fellow creatives and it was astounding how many of us have carried those messages from Teacher Gods most of our lives. To the extent that we believed them, they were right.  

A former student of mine, Sheri Sinykin, sent me that response to my blog two weeks ago, a blog in which I suggested to teachers that the most important contribution they can make to young writers is to encourage their creativity, fan the flame. And I agree with Sheri entirely.

It’s a matter of amusement and satisfaction and not a small bit of self-justification for the published writers I know to sometimes compare notes about the teachers who once tried to discourage them. I heard a Public Radio interview with a novelist who spoke of a professor in an MFA program who had told her “You will never be a writer!” She also said she encountered another well-regarded, well-published writer who had received the same message from exactly the same professor.

None of us who works with writers, youthful writers or adults, is immune to making occasional false and destructive judgments. When it comes to art, it’s impossible to separate out entirely the impact of personal preference. That’s why publishers, if they are wise, hire so many different editors. The wisdom in publishing houses is “If one editor loves it, there will be an audience for it out there.”

I know as a teacher I’ve sometimes made false and destructive judgments, probably more often than I realize. Many years ago I told a student that a picture-book manuscript she presented in class was unpublishable, not because it wasn’t well-written but because it didn’t follow the unbending “rules” publishing houses required of such manuscripts. And yes, you guessed it, that “unpublishable” manuscript went on to become a picture book.

As a reader, I have no patience for work that isn’t layered, that plays off the surface of action or humor or any other surface you might name. But there are publishers who publish such work and readers who relish it, so who am I to complain . . . or to judge? But I wasn’t a particularly good mentor for students writing in such genres. I simply couldn’t appreciate their work fully enough.

Unfortunately, the human brain at any age seems to latch onto negative remarks with Super Glue while praise slides off of Teflon. That’s something for us teachers to keep in mind, whatever the age of the student we are teaching.

But young students are special territory. They are so much more easily imprinted by adults, especially by those having authority over them. It’s one of the joys of a career as a teacher that they are. And it is the terror of such a career, too. I can’t tell you how many times, when I used to teach writing in community adult-education venues, students showed up in my classes because some long-ago teacher once said, “You can write!” Of course, there is no way to know how many didn’t dare try such a class because of long-ago criticism that clung.

The balance to be achieved, especially with young students, is between encouraging joy and teaching the mechanics of writing—spelling, grammar, punctuation. It’s a tenuous balance indeed. I have sometimes been asked to judge young writers’ contests. In that situation, when manuscripts came in misspelled, poorly punctuated, grammatically incorrect, I dismissed them out of hand. Whatever joy a manuscript begins in, by the time it’s ready to be shared, it should have passed through a strenuous editing process.

I have occasionally heard a writer aspiring to publication say that such matters aren’t important. After all, isn’t that what editors are for? But what editors are for in that case is to pass on the work of anyone who isn’t a consummate professional!

So for you teachers out there shaping young writers, encourage and teach side by side. Encourage first, then because spelling and punctuation and grammar make it possible for others to enjoy our good writing, teach and teach and teach.

And bless you for the deftness of your balancing act!