To Teach or Not to Teach | Karen Kao

This week marks the start of my third term of teaching creative writing at the International Writers’ Collective, a creative writing community here in Amsterdam. It seemed like a good occasion to revisit a blog post I wrote in December 2017, wondering out loud in truly Hamlet-like fashion, whether I should be teaching at all. My existential doubts stemmed from a question Francine Prose asks straight up in Reading Like a Writer:
Can the love of language be taught? Can a gift for storytelling be taught? … The answer is no.
What then was I expected to teach?

Image source: Pixabay

the first time

When I was in college, I worked as a tutor. One semester, I taught math to local high school students. Another semester, I’d help premed students learn to write an essay.  The latter was a deeply painful experience because it turns out that, in order to write you need to be able to think.

When all you’re trying to do is pass your freshman humanities class, then writing is a matter of getting from A to B. Hopefully, you’ve also taken your reader along for the ride. But if you start at J or end at 13, it’s unlikely you’ve mapped out a road anyone can follow.

I had a similar experience as a lawyer trying to teach young associates how to construct a legal argument. That’s an art in and of itself but it builds on some pretty basic communication skills. For example, if you want to get your point across, it helps to use words that everyone can understand. A pleading or a contract or a memo riddled with complex sentence structures, antiquated phrases or Latin, for God’s sake: these are the signs of a weak writer. Someone who either doesn’t know what he wants to say or is afraid to say it.

in a circle

For a long time I thought, maybe some people just can’t write. Their thought processes are so entangled, they couldn’t reason their way out of a paper bag.

But then I think of the poetry writing workshops I took with Charles Wright or the Paris Writers Workshop led by Sam Chang. These were both first come, first serve classes. No gatekeepers, no committee review, no peer recommendations. Of course, there was some degree of self-selection. The people in the room wanted to write and some of them probably thought they already could.

Charles would make us sit in a circle and critique each other’s poems. At some point, he would make a gentle comment in that lovely Tennessee drawl of his. Something like, that plane’s in the air, you can take away the stairs now. And then all of us would see what he saw from the very start: that this poem gets going in the seventh line and not the first.

Sam also put us in a circle. Her talks were about craft techniques like narrator, tone and voice, pacing and arc. From a dozen manuscript pages, she could see the novel in its entirety, possibly with greater clarity than even the author. I submitted to her the ending of what would become The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. She was able to reverse-engineer the entire story and list for me the plot points I would need to address in order to make that ending deliver.

to teach well

Francine Prose says: in order to teach writing, you need to teach reading.
What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire.
So a good teacher is someone who points the way. Who can talk about all the various craft techniques but, more importantly, can illustrate each one with examples from the literary canon.

Why the literary canon, you might ask. First, because not everything is worth reading. And second, you only live once. Jason Guriel of Canadian magazine, The Walrus, puts it this way in The Case Against Reading Everything:
Learning the craft of writing isn’t about hopping texts like hyperlinks. It’s about devotion and obsession. It’s about lingering too long in some beloved book’s language, about steeping yourself in someone else’s style until your consciousness changes colour. It’s Tolkien phases and Plath crushes. It’s going embarrassingly, unfashionably all in. (And, eventually, all out.)

from good to great

Vladimir Nabokov once gave a quiz to his students at Cornell. He asked them to define those qualities necessary to be a good reader. He even made it easy by offering multiple choice. These were the qualities Nabokov listed (paraphrased):
  1. Belong to a book club;
  2. Identify with the hero or heroine;
  3. Concentrate on the social-economic angle;
  4. Prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none;
  5. Go see the movie version;
  6. Be a budding author;
  7. Have an imagination;
  8. Possess a good memory;
  9. Own a dictionary.
  10. Have some artistic sense.
Sadly, his students failed the test.
[They] leaned heavily on emotional identification, action, and the social-economic or historical angle. Of course, as you have guessed, the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense.
I’m guessing that Nabokov was the kind of teacher who inspired his students. In other words, a great one. It doesn’t matter whether you teach creative writing or auto mechanics. The point is to light the flame.

Get a student so excited by what you teach that she’ll go home and get her arms greasy up to the elbows. Take that engine apart and examine every part until she knows what each one does. Then put it all back together and listen to the engine hum. Not humming, yet? Try again.

Note: To Teach or Not to Teach was first published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir.


This is a lovely post, Karen, and timely for me too. I start teaching creative writing again in Fall, and frankly, teaching linguistics is easier.
Griselda Heppel said…
Well I definitely failed Nabokov's test - I thought he was listing all the attributes of a good reader in order of importance and was a bit surprised to see him as ranking membership of a book club at the top! Following the link sorted me out.

Great, thought-provoking post.

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