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MY STUDENTS / MYSELF (and Elmore Leonard)

This photo of my second grade class and me was taken 40 years ago. Ten children pictured here had been with me the previous year when I taught first grade. We moved to second grade together. I loved these seven-year-old kids. More than I loved the system and the teachers. *(For my thoughts about teachers who shouldn’t be teaching, see link at end to my Boston Globe op-ed piece).

I left that public school to teach writing in continuing education programs. I’m still at it. Two of my three courses this semester began last week. One class,WRITING FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE, is made up of undergraduates, professional people, artists, and retirees, all new to me.

My other class, an advanced workshop, is called AN ADVANCED WORKSHOP.

The thirteen students in it have been with me for many semesters, some for years, and not because they flunked. They are honing their craft, writing essays and books, and revising.

Writing, like life, has few guarantees. Creativity, like chemistry, is magical. Yet I have arrived at the following tips and truths that help my students and me:

1. Writing is putting words on paper or a screen. It is not about waiting for the moment or “the muse.” If we did that we’d be waiters, not writers.

2. Writing is hard work. Harder than calling oneself a writer, wanting to be a writer, and discussing the book that’s in our head. Write only if you really want to write. There are easier ways to be miserable.

3. One should not write for approval or other outside rewards. I had 156 rejections before I sold a single word. The joy comes from the doing.

4. When you write, partner with your unconscious, not with your partner. Or with your mother. Or friend.

5. Woody Allen says 80% of life is showing up. For creating, it is more like 110%. Show up big time with a full range of emotions. Stay focused. Engaged. Present.

6. Nothing turns out as planned. That’s the journey. That’s the fun. If you have to know where you’ll end up, try accounting or math. 2 plus 2 is always 4. No surprises there. E.L. Doctorow compares writing to driving at night with headlights. You have some idea where you might go, but you just see a little ahead.

7. Revising is what writers do most of the time. The first umpteen drafts typically suck. Get the kitchen sink out. Then revise. And revise some more.

8. One becomes a better writer by writing. It is a lifelong process paring it down.

9. Good writing requires self-revelation. Opening up a vein. If you want to connect to others, connect to yourself. Self revelation is different from self-absorption.


10. Writing takes courage. Writers takes risks. Find a comfortable place within and in a group or class so you can put your true self on the page.

11. Follow Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing, particularly #10: leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.

Those are things I claim to know. There is so much more I don’t.

I don’t know what became of my second graders, now 47 years old. Or what my present students will do after they leave me. For now, I hope we connect, learn from each other, and grow. And I hope that they are able to express what it is in their hearts.



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