Saturday, March 9, 2013

How Teaching Has Helped My Writing

I'll never forget what Pulitzer-prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson said once during an interview at Calvin College's Festival of Faith & Writing. It boiled down to the fact that she doesn't do well when she can't teach along with her writing.

At the time, not having had much experience with teaching, I thought it was sort of a funny thing to say. But now, having had several more years of teaching experience under my belt, I'm beginning to get it. I'm not sure that teaching is quite as indispensable to me as it is to Marilynne. But then, right now I'm deep into a particular project, and quite enjoy the times when I can be fully absorbed in its world.

But I can also see that my experience with teaching--and I do love teaching--has definitely helped improve my writing, both that for academic audiences and creative projects. This semester I'm really seeing the fruits of teaching in these seemingly non-teaching-related tasks.

Take my academic writing task for this morning. Since I'm going to present at the Popular Culture Association conference in a few weeks, I had to take an aspect of my nearly-300 page dissertation and turn it into an 8 page paper to present in 15-20 minutes. The fact that the last few years of teaching has given me experience in just how much complex information I can translate for students in a short amount of time helped me to complete this task in a short amount of time. (And of course the fact that I regularly teach public speaking didn't hurt either: I've planned several spots where I hope to draw the audience into the presentation through asking them questions, for instance.)

But academic writing isn't the only way that my teaching experience has been useful. In my NaNoWriSpr novel manuscripting project, I've noticed that my practice in persuading students to be interested in learning subjects they see to be boring or difficult has helped me in writing my novel as well.

After all, one can't assume one's readership comes into a novel automatically liking it, and so you have to make a strong case for their attention both at the beginning but also throughout the story while dispensing the right kind of background information at the right times. Watching where my students' attention flags--and knowing the same material strikes different classes in different ways--has helped me to be aware that my reader is likely doing the same with my writing at times.

Unlike with my teaching, I don't have immediate non-verbal feedback with my writing. My teaching experience has taught me, therefore, to get feedback during my development process from as many readers as possible to see how different types of people respond to my story. This, like my students' faces, helps me to see how well I'm doing to engage a range of people without relying too much on a single reader experience. And when a theme pops up over time in my reader feedback--as it tends to both in students' faces and in student evaluations--I know I need to consider how to adjust to better engage my audience.

Yup, I'm beginning to get a sense of why Marilynne Robinson said what she said about the teaching. Without the feedback, the practice in translating things for others, the face-to-face interaction with others in a setting like teaching, the process in writing can become a little disconnected from these crucial concepts. Like Marilynne, I'm thankful for the teaching experience I've been granted so far.


Anne Higgins said...

Thanks for posting those comments of Marilyn Robinson's, and your own. I went to the Festival of Faith and Writing back in 2002 and really enjoyed it. I am presently teaching a Poetry Writing course at the university where I teach; just 13 students in the class and I present whatever I'm presenting that day and then write along with them.
I've been teaching for well nigh on thirty-five years, and I still love it.

Best wishes from Anne

Deborah Leiter Nyabuti said...

Thanks, Anne! I love hearing your teaching story--it gives me joy to hear about those who have been teaching so long and still love it. I wonder if I saw you at the Festival in 2002. They all blend together for me in a delightful way since I'm a bit of a junkie (I've been to every one since '96 in various capacities). I honestly can't remember exactly when Marilynne made this comment, except that it was at the same Festival that Elizabeth Strout spoke. :) Have a great day!