Tag Archives: teaching

You Probably Won’t Remember Me


You probably don’t remember me, but I attended your session at the Young Author’s Conference at Bethel about fifteen years ago when I was in fifth grade. I was just going through some old photos and letters and I came across several e-mails you wrote to me following that conference—it appears that my overly-persistent fifth-grade self asked you to read and comment on one of my stories, and, despite your own projects/busy schedule, you did!! I remember being so over the moon that a real author took me seriously and thought my writing had potential. 

I thought it’d be fun to let you know that I’m about to be a published author—my first novel, a middle grade called Sticks and Stones, will be out from FSG/Macmillan this July! A second book will follow next summer, and hopefully many more after that. And I’m going to teach a session at the Young Author’s Conference this spring!! Hopefully I can be as inspiring to some young writers as you were to me. 

Thanks so much for your support all those years ago—it made a huge difference!

Abby Cooper

I laughed out loud when I read Abby’s “you-probably-don’t-remember-me” line followed by the context in which we had met, that she was one of the thousands of students attending one of the dozens of young author conferences where I’ve spoken over the years. And, of course, she was right. I don’t remember her . . . or even our exchange of e-mails after the conference.

But I do remember the light in her eyes. I do remember her thoughtful questions. I do remember her enthusiastic writing, no-doubt fifth-grade clumsy, but alive with ideas and hope. And I do remember how grateful I was that she was in the crowd that day . . . or another student like her.

Because when I was at that conference I had only so many things to say about my own books, about the writing process itself, and I had said all of them many times . . . so many times that I had grown rather tired of hearing my own voice. But then there was Abby—or another young writer like her, a pair of dancing eyes, an asker of penetrating questions, a young writer eager to share a work in progress, and she filled me with energy and made me glad to be there.

Yes, my life would have been busy when Abby sent me her manuscript. Aren’t grown-up lives always busy? Too busy for any good use much of the time. But it wasn’t difficult for me to imagine what it would have meant for me to share some piece of my long-ago self with someone the world had dubbed a real writer. (I never actually met a writer when I was a child. I think I assumed they were all dead.) And the truth is that it didn’t take much of my time to read her manuscript and to say something encouraging. She had earned the encouraging words by her enthusiasm and her tenacity and by the strength of the creative fire that had brought her to me. And because enthusiasm and tenacity and creative fire are always gifts, our e-mail exchange blessed me.

Teachers ask me sometimes how they can best teach young writers, and I say they can help mostly by getting out of the way, by making space for all that enthusiasm, by fanning the flame. Yes, of course, there are rules that must be learned, grammar and punctuation and spelling and plotting and characterization and on and on. And by the time a writer is ready to submit a manuscript to be considered for award or publication, those rules must be firmly in hand. But first comes the joy of creation, the abundant joy, and the best any of us can do for a young writer is to nurture the joy.

Congratulations, Abby Cooper! Now it’s your turn to pass it on. I know you will.

Only One Rule

one ruleA reader of last week’s blog delivered an impassioned lecture on never saying “every writer” or “always,” something that I have long taken care not to do. When I was a very young teacher teaching high school, I taught passionately according to the way I would have wanted to be taught. And I had a very good system . . . for me and for those students who learned as I did.

It was only years later that it occurred to me that my teaching style had probably served a small portion of my students very well, a majority of them partially, and a few of them not at all.

The more years I spent as a writing teacher the more I understood that different people come to their work differently, which is part of what I was saying last week. Some throw words at the page, as many and as fast as they can, then return later to discover what they really want to say. Some work, as I do, putting the words down with thought and care, polishing with each step forward. And I had a student once who created an entire novel in her head, each word, each comma, and then, when it came time to write it down, did so without ever changing a thing.

When I talk about writing, about the how-tos of writing, I always try to acknowledge those differences. Sometimes it’s hard not to say simply “This is the way to do it” when the truth is it’s the way I do it. But if we follow the path of acknowledging individual differences too far, we end up in the world of “writing can’t be taught,” an old axiom that serves only those who want to seem to belong to a very exclusive club.

Vermont College of Fine ArtsWriting can be taught, mostly through doing it and having competent readers let you know what serves them and what does not. That, more than any other way of teaching, is what makes MFA programs such as the one I used to teach in at the Vermont College of Fine Arts so powerful. Students have ongoing relationships with and receive one-on-one critiques both from professionals and from their peers. But while this personal touch is powerful, there are also craft techniques to understand, and learning those does much to clarify a writer’s journey.

Teaching writing for forty years did much to improve my own writing. When teaching, I had to be able to say not just, “This doesn’t work” but why it didn’t work and what might be needed instead. As I listened to myself explaining basic principles of craft, I came to understand them better myself. Hundreds of times I talked about weaving indirect thought through the narration to keep the reader close to the perceiving character, and as I did I grew more aware of inhabiting my own perceiving character.

For twenty years I was in a relationship with a partner who used to accompany me from time to time when I lectured. She wasn’t a writer, but when I grew frustrated enough with the manuscript I was working on to bring up my struggle as dinner conversation, she would sometimes say, “Wouldn’t you tell a student . . .” And she would say exactly what she had heard me say to my fellow writers and what I, myself, needed to hear at that moment. Yes, there are concepts to learn about craft, and while last week I didn’t use the word “always” or say they applied to “every writer,” I certainly implied as much.

Each scene needs to move your story forward.

Leaner writing is stronger writing.

But now I’ll add something else:

All such statements are true . . . until they aren’t.

I know of only one rule that is always true.

You have to make whatever you are doing on the page work for your reader.

A New Teaching Opportunity

writing for children live

I’ll be teaching two on-line sessions with Writing for Children Live this month. One, on “The Basics of Writing Successful Picture Books” will be on Wednesday, September 19th, at 7 p.m. EDT. The second will be a webinar entitled “Point of View and Psychic Distance in Fiction for Young People.” That will be presented on the next Wednesday, September 26th, 7 p.m. EDT. You can sign up, no charge, for either interactive session. These two sessions will launch a new on-line teaching venture, Writing for Children Live, hosted by Kim Taylor-DiLeva.

I haven’t done an on-line lecture before, but this seemed a perfect opportunity to try out this new medium. It’s a chance for me to show up, lay out some of what I know, and slip back into my own world and my own writing. The way it works for the participants is that they can sign up to be part of the free live session and then continue to access the session for twenty-four hours afterward for no charge. After the twenty-four hour period, the internet lecture and the webinar will continue to be available but for a fee. (That’s the way Kim and I will earn something for our efforts.)

It’s going to feel strange, lecturing into a telephone, but this is a brave new world for all of us. I’ll set the lectures up so I can pause to get questions and responses from my audience after each section of the talk. That way I hope it won’t feel so much like addressing a vacuum. And since I’m going back to topics I’ve explored many times when I was teaching at VCFA and at writing workshops across the country, it will be interesting to make them fresh for myself and for those who are listening in. 

I hope you’ll join me!