Tonight I had dinner with Lana Hendershott and her very nice husband, Steve in their house in Hendersonville, NC. Over tacos we discussed what makes a good teacher of writing. Does writing an excellent novel make the writer a good teacher? Can a writer who has not published a book be a good teacher? What makes a student leave a class enthusiastic and excited to get home and begin writing?
A good teacher has to know more than facts about writing. A good teacher must interact with students and give the students confidence to continue with their efforts, to continue to learn more and more and hone their talents to write the very best possible short stories, memoirs, poems, or novels they can possibly write.
Recently a student told me she had left my class so excited about writing her stories she could not wait to get home and get on her computer.
Later she took a class with a well-published writer whose work she admired only to leave the class feeling diminished by the teacher. She felt so intimidated, her confidence in herself dropped as low as it could go.
She indicated it might be a long time before she tried her hand at writing again.
Perhaps the well-published writer/teacher should have promoted her class "for experienced writers." She might have expected her students to be thick skinned and familiar with the rough world of rejection and harsh words of someone who has been in the trenches and knows the ropes.
I remember being that new wanna-be writer who just needed a few words of encouragement. The closet writer who could barely stand to read before a group. And I've seen a good writer become an outstanding writer because in the early stages of his work a teacher saw his potential and gave positive feedback before she pointed out the errors and mistakes he must correct..
In critique groups that succeed for years and years, the writer is first praised for the good things in his story, and then shown how he could inprove the rest.
I recently met a writer, Barbara Lawing. She has a novel coming out and I hope she has much success with it. Barbara critiqued an article for me about ten years ago. She was a beginning editor and I had recently begun submitting my work. I got my money's worth of critique from Barbara, but she used her red pen so heavily, so drastically, that I felt overwhelmed when I saw my manuscript. My immediate thought was, "this is a piece of crap and I can never make it good enough."
I put the article away and I've never looked at it again.
I told Barbara about this when I met her, and she was apologetic. "I was new at this business," she said. "I learned not to do that sort of thing."
And then she gave me her business card and invited me to take some classes with her.
Whether a writer is a best selling author or has published short stories only, this tells me nothing about him as a teacher. I took a class with a poet who is considered one of the best, but if I had taken to heart his criticism of my work, I'd not likely have a published chapbook now.
Sadly, some writers teach just to sell their books. Some use the classroom as a place to build their ego.
Have you taken a class with a known writer and been disappointed in the way he taught? Have you taken a class with a highly touted poet or writer only to be disappointed when she seemed to care very little about you as a student? Let me know your thoughts on this.