Transformative writing, how to teach it

Charlene Smith

If we go deep within to the spaces we are scared to go, we defeat the monsters, discover our true selves and change our lives, I advised one anxious writing student. “Entertain ridiculous dreams; be informal, and work to very high standards. Extract the miracle.”

Because writing is nothing less than transformative if we leave our ego at the door, our masks on the wall and approach writing without the layers of false constructs life has burdened us with.

Teaching writing is pointless if we don’t acknowledge the emotional energy great writing deserves.

In my view, the worst writing teachers sit while their classes do endless peer reviews. There may be an occasional allusion to the elimination of clichés – so often told that it’s become cliché. Or there might be vague references to narrative arc or the clumsiness of adverbs, or nothing at all, as writers hungry for acknowledgement tender their work, give critiques and hope others will be kind when it comes to their writing.

The best writing teachers cajole, encourage, demand and challenge. They teach technique. They help a class explore the real meaning behind words. Together we figure out how to write not just black lines on paper, but to construct cities and the scent of forests, to paint leaves speckled with dew, and the smile of a mother when first she sees her child. And with a bit of luck writing classes are also typified by humor, informality and team-building. Because talent grows in a writing class in which the writer feels supported and in which competition is the quiet motivator.

I primarily teach non-fiction writing. And oh, the people I meet in my online classes and in person. They include the unemployed and the one percent. One class began with a Palestinian writing about his experience of a massacre by Israeli soldiers in a refugee camp and opposite him was a Jew writing about being the child of Holocaust survivors.

 Everything is open for discussion; respectful listening and thoughtful responses are expected. No one holds the truth – there are many truths and while we may declare a particular truth in our writing, in our listening we are open to all, for in the end that’s where breakthroughs in life and writing come from.

I hand out course prep notes that include recommended books; the favorite is usually Stephen King’s On Writing. From the first lesson they write in a manner that agents and publishers expect. They learn about chapter construction, narrative arc, epiphanies, description, purple prose, what makes a great introduction and a memorable ending, interview techniques, research, how to write a query letter and a book proposal, how to find an agent, enter competitions and submit to literary journals, among other essentials of serious writing.

By the end of seven weeks – a class each week – the psychologist is sitting in a corner, on the floor, scribbling furiously, spilling her heart out, her frown has gone, she laughs, she is playful. The Palestinian and the Jew discuss their search for identity and the creation of understanding between former foes. These new writers have broken down the barriers that social mores demand, and in this sacred space, this writing room, freedom is discovered and beautifully constructed words fill pages.