My Writing Teachers

writingAfter I decided to become a writer, I enrolled in my local school district for an adult course in creative writing. The teacher was a kindly woman who wrote stories for confession magazines, articles like I Stole My Best Friend’s Boyfriend. Later she admitted that she made up most of the stories, but it was a way to make a little money.

One evening she picked up my story about prisoners on an island. Even though I sat in the back of the room, I recognized my own paper.

“Here we have a story from one of our classmates,” she said. I looked down at my desk and felt queasy.

I stared harder at the desktop as she read. These were my words, words that came from deep inside me. Now they were out in the open classroom.

She finished the story.

“I liked it,” a man said.

“Me, too,” a woman said. “Violence fascinates all of us.”

“I didn’t really get it,” one woman said.

“The writer’s got some good action in here,” the teacher said. “Maybe more character work, more dialogue and more depth to the motivation. But it’s a hell of a good start.”

I felt great. I could do it.

When the course was over, the teacher pulled me aside and said, “Ed, you’re going to make it.”

I appreciated her confidence in me, but I still had a lot to learn.Show, don't tell

My next writing course was in the summer at a local campus of the university. The class consisted of six men and eight women. The teacher was a middle-aged man who dressed casually and started class by attacking President Ronald Reagan.

I had no love for Reagan, but I had signed up to learn writing, not politics. I resented a state employee openly criticizing Reagan, even though I agreed with his views.

Finally he got around to writing. “Write what you know,” he said. “If you know about hotels, set your story in a hotel. If you know what it’s like to be discriminated against, write about that.”

“What if it’s a distant location or maybe even outer space?” a woman asked.

“Good question,” he said. “This woman has put her finger on a key part of writing,” he said and he gave her a generous smile which looked more like a leer. “She understands that what we know is inside us. If we’ve been in one strange place, we can write about another strange place – with the help of some research, of course.”

The next point was, “Show, don’t tell,” and the guy next to me raised his hand.

“What?” the teacher asked.

“I mean, you have to tell some things in a story. You can’t show everything.”

“Jesus!” the teacher exclaimed. “Of course. Everybody knows that. It’s an eighty – twenty relationship, eighty showing and twenty telling.”

If a woman asked a question, he was sweetness itself. If a man raised his hand, he was blunt and insulting.

Week after week this went on, along with attacks on Reagan and Wisconsin’s Republican party. What was going on? I was upset that he was using a state program to air his political views, but I was learning from the man, despite his negativity.

In the third or fourth week while denouncing a Republican judge, he revealed that his divorce case had been heard in front of that judge and the judge had ruled against him.

Things started to make sense. The guy was on the prowl. But he had something to teach me and I kept going, despite his obvious hustling. Other men left in disgust. Every week another man would leave until there were only eight women and me left. I wanted to learn.

I kept my greenhouse work going while I wrote and took classes. Writing was for free time, but I fantasized about being a full-time writer.

writing mottoIn the fall of that year I found a much better program in the continuing education division of Marquette University.  A short man, named Jim Crown, came to the university every night and taught an excellent, enthusiastic class in writing. Jim’s day job was teaching in a religious school, but he put no moral strictures on us. One time, when he picked up my story of the prisoners off his desk, he said, “And now for a little sex and violence.”

I had written a scene showing a character’s weakness and phoniness by portraying him in a sex scene.

When the course was over, I signed up again – not so much because of the teacher, but I wanted contact with other writers.  I found a good writing friend, Tom Radlet, a retired executive of a large Milwaukee firm.  Tom and I sat in the back of the classroom and muttered wise guy comments back and forth. “Betcha she’s sleeping with him,” after we witnessed some flirting and verbal sex between two of our classmates. When a new woman came into the class and Jim called on her, praised her, encouraged her and held her up as a model to follow, Tom and I had a lot of smart remarks to trade, like, “I thought he had five kids and a wife.” And “I hope he doesn’t teach morality at that religious school.”

Tom was a great friend. One summer we went to a week-long writing camp at Oberlin University in Ohio. Despite our negative comments about some classmates, Tom and I formed a writing group from the class and we started to meet and share each other’s work. I went over and over my manuscripts, but when I brought them to the group, they discovered holes in the story or article that I had never seen before.

Two out of my three writing teachers were great and were just what I needed at the time. I try to take the best of what I learned from them in the classes I teach.

And your writing teachers?

(From my book — Once A Priest)

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4 responses to “My Writing Teachers

  1. I have only had one writing teacher. His greatest strengths are his unabashed love for the craft, and his equal acceptance of everyone’s work.. We all have a story to tell, but we often need a guide, someone with skills in both writing and dealing with people. My teacher always made me feel like ‘a writer’ and never accepted “I’m just beginning’ or ‘This is not very good but…’ Like Ed in his blog, it is often difficult to hear one’s words aloud….in front of people. My writing teacher always accepted the student’s work, even rhyming poems. I will be taking another course from him soon, and can’t wait.

  2. When i was first asked to read one of my stories to a writing group, my stomach promptly did a flip flop and I started sweating. It must be like the actor’s stage fright. When it was over, I breathed a sigh of relief and then sat back to hear the comments. Thankfully, they were to the point and I saw where the flaws were, the ones I hadn’t noticed. In a group, whether chaired by an instructor or not (I think that’s best, by the way), you can learn from everyone, as long as they are honest. The teacher gives his insight gleaned from his own experience, while the group members may have a more “gut feeling” way of offering advice. We all keep learning that way.

    • Thanks, Dave. I can’t think of a better way to learn. When I take my work to my writing group, I think it’s damn near perfect, but I soon learn that’s not the case. And this is a great way to learn. As long as it’s a good group and not a social club

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