One day in 2006, a former student in one of the nonfiction writing classes I’ve taught at the University of Washington since 1998 sent me the manuscript of a new essay he’d written. Since he was one of the best students I’d ever had, I set aside my own work and read it immediately. When I finished, I literally threw it on the floor in disgust—at myself. His piece was better than anything I’d written in a year.
I was irritated and depressed for an hour, until the obvious dawned: this was as it should be, the way the human species makes progress. Students should surpass their teachers. And I then scraped a little comfort from the fact that it had taken him eight years to get there.
I love teaching and believe in the value of writing courses, even though they provoke controversy within the ranks of professional writers. “Teaching has ruined more American novelists than drink,” hissed Gore Vidal. Did he mean the ruin of teachers or students? Either way, I furiously disagree—unless it’s the kind of teaching built around mean, belittling, destructive criticism, now thankfully rare.
Good teaching in a group setting exposes writers to a wealth of ideas and viewpoints, supplies the motivational force of deadlines and structure, and builds a repertoire of useful techniques, from interviewing to the effective use of rhythm and cadence in prose. That said, the inspiration for any form of creative writing must germinate within the person doing the writing: no teacher can supply it from outside.
Currently I teach in two venues: the University of Washington’s Writing Program, which is in the Extension Department; and the Whidbey Writers Workshop’s MFA (Master of Fine Arts) Program. The latter is the first advanced degree program in the country to be offered not by a college or university, but by an association of professional writers.
For information about the University of Washington courses, click here
For information about the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA Program, click here