Recently a former student of mine wrote me a nice thank you note in which she mentioned how she would never forget the moment I told the class that I averaged thirteen major drafts per story. This—a casual remark I happened to drop in my lecture—was the most illuminating moment of the semester for her. I remember mentioning the number not because I find it revelatory, but because I find it amusing: Thirteen! So unlucky! And so weirdly consistent. The remark certainly wasn’t written into my lesson plan, and it wasn’t one of the sound bites that I’m careful to repeat all semester. It was tossed off, the kind of thing I don’t usually say because it’s about me rather than them. And yet, out of the whole semester, that was the lesson this student found most important. Teaching is like that much of the time. The off-the-cuff remarks, the of-the-moment lessons, the things you didn’t notice much are the things that strike chords with students.
I haven’t been a student since 1999, so this incident made me think: what things do I remember?
(I believe in giving credit where credit is due, so I’m mentioning names. I know I have been absurdly lucky to study with these masters, and I give thanks for it.)
Joyce Carol Oates: “This is a good sentence. You don’t usually write sentences like that.” I actually remember the sentence, which was in a writing exercise, not a story, and was long, full of clauses, which I now know to call appositives, that went much further with description than I usually did. I’m sure I remember her remark because of the backhanded nature of the compliment, but it was one of the most helpful things a teacher ever told me. It showed me where to go as opposed to where not to go.
Ron Carlson: “Make your dog a real dog.” When I first started writing fiction, I was really focused on character, and as a result, I sometimes had characters who felt real, but who existed in front of a fuzzy background. In order to create the illusion of an entire world, you need to surround your characters with things (and animals) that also feel real.
Russell Banks: “You’re funny.” One of the things about the faculty-student relationship is that you actually know little about who your students are outside of the classroom. I like to think I’m funny, but there was no way for my professor to know that, and I was remarkably unfunny in class. So when I finally relaxed a little in a story and showed that side of myself, he was surprised. His surprise led me to realize that I wasn’t writing with my whole self. I was writing as some serious student-self who I thought was more like a writer should be.
Alberto Rios: “Stay in the moment.” It took me a long time to realize that not every scene in a story is equal, and that some moments that are over in an instant in life should take a long time on the page. At first it seemed ironic that I learned this from a poet rather than a novelist, but now it makes sense to me. Poets are masters of depicting the moment.
Stephen Wright: “There’s a voice here.” I have always resisted the idea that writers have to find “their voice.” I have always wanted to be able to use different voices. That small difference, that he said “a voice” rather than “your voice,” when talking about my story, was very reassuring to me.
So what’s the lesson for teachers? The obvious one is none of these are critical remarks—they are either descriptive, supportive, or generally applied; apparently whatever specific criticisms I got have long departed my memory. I also think there is a lesson related to being in the moment. To have your plans, your go-to words of wisdom, but to be in a living, breathing conversation with your students. They’re listening, and you never really know what they’re going to remember…
[[This post originally appeared on September 11, 2012]]