Hi, loves. 🌿
On writing & teaching
Years ago, before we were all locked in — and then released from — our homes, I mentioned to a few dear friends that I was thinking of starting a writing class from my apartment in LA. A small group of mothers around my dining room table is what I was picturing: coffee, banana bread, notebooks, pencils. Two hours together to read and write and laugh and dig deep and feel some sense of community.
“Oh!” one of them, a successful businesswoman with longtime dreams of becoming a writer, said. “I’ve been wanting you to start teaching classes so that I can self-actualize!”
We laughed together, but the comment made me cringe. Is that what you think writing is about, I wanted to ask her?
Wait, I thought. Is it?
Self-actualization, to no one’s surprise, never came up in grad school. We were writers, artists. What we were doing was work, as vital as the training of medical or law students. We were interested in language, craft, experimentation. We wanted to be successful. We were, the Ivy League line went, special, simply because we were there. The pomp and circumstance seemed — were — utterly ridiculous and grossly overpriced, but once we got around the workshop table, the competition was palpable. Who was the best? Who would sell a book first? Whose language made us all gasp in admiration and awe and jealousy? Who could write the most exciting pages week to week? Who could make the most astute comment, the one that made the whole piece come together — or fall to bits?
There was no coddling and only a modicum of praise, really, but that wasn’t what we were there for. We were there because we were, someone thought, good and could get better. That’s what I thought a writing life was about. Working, working, working. Getting better and better and better, more more more. It wasn’t about me.
My homegrown classes did start with a handful of women around my wooden table, and there was coffee and banana bread and lively but gentle feedback. But within two months, we were shuffled online. Soon people were logging in from New York, Pittsburgh, Northern California, Halifax, Toronto, Vienna, Michigan, Boulder. Some women had always secretly harbored writing fantasies; some just needed a space to process this new, terrifying world; some were writers who wanted a jolt. Very quickly I discovered that there would be no “working” on our writing, no improvements or craft talks or edits or critiques. We were there for an entirely different purpose now.
And also this: that writing about the pandemic was not what anyone wanted to do. We needed, as Donald Hall famously wrote, a third thing: “Third things are essential to marriages,” he wrote, “objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment.” Pandemics, it turned out, required this, too. We wanted a space where we could, for a brief time, forget about it. We were desperate to pour our attention into something other than Covid.
Because our time and energy were limited, we never checked in, never talked about remote school or how scared we were or whether our friends or colleagues or parents had fallen ill or how much we wanted to scream at our spouses or kids or how little privacy we had.
Class became a place of simplicity. A place where we could focus our minds on just a few words moving across the page. A place free of the virus.
Here’s what we did, what we still do, week after week: we read a poem, something by, say, Ada Limón or Lucille Clifton. We talk about what moved or surprised us, what tripped us up. I’m looking for where we all felt something or sighed or gasped — from an image, a line break, a turn of phrase. I’m not interested in the question of whether they like the piece or not. Not liking it allows us to disengage, to turn away, to give up on it.
I’m an essayist so I think of reading (and teaching) poetry in the same way that I learned to watch modern dance. The easiest thing is to say: I don’t get it. I don’t get it! What the hell is going on? This is so weird, forget it. This, too, happened in workshops in grad school all the time. I don’t get this, I wouldn’t read this, I’m not your audience, ask her, I give up.
What is harder, but more satisfying, is to start off by pointing out what you do see: the dancers downstage were skipping in a circle. The ones upstage were moving slowly. The music sped up but the dancers didn’t! Then they all came together center stage. What’s that about? Why did it make me move to the edge of my seat? Why was my heart racing?
Same with poetry: Why the line break here and not here? Why this image and not another? How does this line read alone? Why is this metaphor working so well? Why does this make me so sad? Why does it give me goosebumps? Why does this make me feel so damn alive?
We were reading to remind ourselves perhaps of this one vital thing: we were still alive.
So, yes: we read a poem. We talk it through. We feel our own aliveness, we read into the possibilities. Then we all — me included — turn away from the screen and write by hand for only a handful of minutes. We drop in quickly and write about everything: dying parents, stillbirths, cooking crepes for breakfast, the hills of Tibet, swimming in a cold lake, children growing up before our eyes, hummingbirds outside our windows, protests and civil unrest. When I find myself lost, I look up and I see them searching and working so I get the confidence to dive back in. We embolden each other. Then everyone (but me) reads aloud. Not a week goes by when I am not floored.
But here’s the key, and this is where I am most aggressively working against — where I am questioning — the workshop model I was trained in: we then simply listen to one another. Six women as witnesses, hearing each other without an agenda or a critique on the tongue or a view for making it better or different or, gasp, sellable.
Once we’ve listened, we reflect back what we heard, what moved us and why. This line! This image! The writer, who will often say, I thought there was nothing there, gets to hear how much was there. A whole world. Characters and senses and images and language that stuns. In seven minutes, she has managed to break our hearts.
What I didn’t know before my weekly sessions with these women — what felt dumb and beside the point in my former, more rigid, more overtly ambitious writing life — was that there is value in simply allowing yourself to be brave, and to be witnessed in your bravery. Maybe my friend who wanted to self-actualize was right. Maybe that is, indeed, the point: to make more of one’s life, to be more of oneself, to do it through words, through a creative act. I’ve always written because I had to. Because it was the only way my life (or my mind) made any sense to me. It just didn’t occur to me that this had to do with self-actualization; but maybe it’s actually the same thing.
Maybe my MFA was wrong on some level. Maybe writing the best thing in the room isn’t the point, is never the point. (I never thought it was the point, but bad workshops can do that to you.) Maybe rewriting the shit out of it isn’t. Maybe selling it isn’t. Did any one of us around that MFA table care about the others’ work? Did we really want to make each other’s work better, or did we simply want to prove that we were smart enough to do so?
Because the goal of the classes I now offer isn’t overtly to improve the work — the only way to improve is to read and write more — I listen differently. I listen openly for the good. How often do we truly do that?
I’ve found that I can always, always (and so easily) find it, and that’s been transformative, in my reading and in my own writing. And also, maybe, in my life?
At some point over these last two years, one of my dear friends/students dubbed these groups “self-care and collective care.” Early on, I would have felt deeply weird about this. No, no no no no no, a writing class isn’t self-care. It’s not therapy. It’s art! It’s a skill. We are working. Especially because I was schooled in nonfiction writing, there was a real push to keep the person’s actual life — as opposed to what was on the page — out of the room.
But a few months in, I learned a new lesson. A student wrote about her young friend dying of cancer. When she finished, everyone was crying, eyes locked on the screen, trying to reach the writer, the bereaved. My instinct was to draw us back, to say something about the writing — the way you rendered those last moments was so vivid — but finally one woman simply said: I’m so sorry you lost your friend.
Yes, yes, we echoed. We are so sorry.
So what if we’re actually talking about our lives?
The pandemic has reminded us of how much we need each other. These writing classes are, after all, as much about being together as they are about being left alone to write. This all falls apart the second someone says, I don’t like it, I don’t get it. A shrug. I don’t let people back into class if I don’t feel that they are in it at least as much for everyone else as they are for themselves.
There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.
I think my early mistake was to assume that anyone who signed up wanted to become a better writer. But where I was wrong was that all these women are already exceptional writers and becoming better was maybe never the point. They render their experiences with clarity and vividness and soul and the most stunning, unexpected language. They make us laugh and gasp and cry every week. Like all of us, they just needed the time to write, and the space to be heard.
Perhaps my mistake with myself, the mistake of my schooling, was to assume that becoming a better writer was mostly a solitary and painful slog, a question of putting in the hours, of corrections, of edits, of criticism, of refinement. I know that that’s a big, unavoidable part of it, of course. We all need to put in the time. We need to start over a million times to get it right. If we want to make a moving, complex piece of art that’s also full of heart, we need to work.
But perhaps I, too, just need a little space to be, to play. Perhaps in offering it to others, I was able to finally give it to myself, too.
In grad school, I took a class with Oliver Sacks. It was a master class, a four-week dive into medical narratives. Twenty-five of us squeezed in around the table in the upper Manhattan classroom and hung on his every word.
But the truth was he didn’t quite know how to teach a literature class. He was a physician, a writer, an icon. He might have taught medical students about the brain and he might have rendered his doctor-patient relationships masterfully in his books and in the pages of The New Yorker, but he didn’t quite know how to walk us through a memoir. It didn’t matter. We loved being with him anyway.
On the last day, he took one of his signature long pauses, staring out the window onto Columbia’s campus for so long we weren’t sure whether he’d forgotten our presence altogether, and said, “I think you’ve all taught me more than I’ve taught you!”
This is how I feel now. All these precious women who’ve become my weekly solace in difficult times are helping bring me back to the act of simply sitting down with pen and paper and being curious and open and fearful and playful. Of not knowing, never quite knowing, where my mind might go, but trying, again and again, to find out anyway.
You still have some time to register for my **last** OPEN CREATIVE WRITING CLASS until fall! If you’ve come before, I promise new fun adventures. Open to all levels, only a few spots left. Come play! If you’re thinking about summer options, I’ll have more news about Secret Summer School soon. I can’t wait to share.
ALL THE THINGS
“Cory Booker Aside, Democrats Stranded Ketanji Brown Jackson” (love this Dahlia Lithwick take). “The Story Behind that Photo of Ketanji Brown Jackson and her Daughter” (thanks, Jenny). Hopefully you watched Cory Booker speak to KBJ and KBJ’s advice to young kids of color. Odessa writers on literature in wartime. “How Covid Stole Our Time and How We Can Get It Back” (this was…no joke).