Teach, Learn

I remember when I was learning guitar[1], I could follow the music but I couldn’t hear it well enough to play around with it – i.e. I could follow the rules and get the sound that I was supposed to get but not play by ear and by instinct (and maybe get to some next level stuff). I find myself wondering now if playing by ear is just[2] thousands of hours of internalizing the rules/the code until, like Neo, you can manipulate them at will.

I say that because teaching this adult writing class I am keenly aware of the valley between what I know and teaching what I know. It makes for a fun and interesting challenge when in response to a query re why/why not a particular edit (why’d you cut the ‘the’ before…), I have to bite down the instinctive “it hit my ear funny” response and break down why it hit my ear funny – first to myself and then to my students. If I hadn’t anticipated the question (even with all of my over-preparation) this sometimes happens in real time (sometimes it becomes my homework).

Of course, after these thousands of hours of working with words, like the musician who plays by ear and by instinct, and Neo, I’m not always analyzing while doing (in fact, I’m usually not analyzing while doing). Writing or editing, I just fall in to the flow of it – and, to borrow a metaphor from Stephen King, I have the tools in my toolbox and know which ones to reach for (mostly…because, as I tell my students, nobody knows everything and we all need to double check a lay and a lie every now and again). All of these years into writing and editing, I don’t so much think about the basics – prepositions and predicates – so much as use them; by instinct. But the instinct is born of the theory I learned during the foundational aspects of my education, re-enforced in every course and every workshop I’ve done as an adult writer; it is born of many hours of doing and practicing (ongoing).

Preparing for this course Writing is Your Business (targeted at non-writers who won’t have the shorthand writers in my creative writing workshops might when it comes to language use) has forced me to re-teach myself the basics so that I can impart it. It’s involved lots of researching and over-preparing (so much over-preparing). But with all that, my teaching style has hewed more toward practical examination and application because then it’s easier for me to help students work through the why of it, and, hopefully, help them begin to hear when something hits the ear funny as well.

We won’t achieve this in four weeks but hopefully I’ll have given them the tools to know what to look for as they continue to put in the practice…until they can up to Writing is Your Business Level 2 when that becomes available (it’s coming!)

I have enjoyed working with this first group – people who after a long day’s work, try to absorb another two hours of information plus homework; and hope all future groups (because yes,  another cycle of level one has already been announced for this month) are as committed to learning.

I had my nerves going in to this project; though I have taught before, this is my first time (creative writing workshops aside) building a course solo from the ground up. I’m coming out of this first cycle of level one with a renewed respect for the ones who do this teaching thing day to day and who, as I told my class, have to find a way to communicate their message not to the ones who come in strong and get it right away but to those who, not for lack of intelligence, but because this is not their world/their strength, require simplicity, clarity, and a little bit of hand holding.



(1)Playing guitar is something I’ve referenced before in interviews promoting Musical Youth, joking that main character Zahara was better than I had ever been; the thing she had that I didn’t, was this instinct for it.

(2)Okay, I don’t “just” believe it’s practice; I do believe there is an element of magic (that thing we call talent) that pre-disposes some people to be good at some things and some people to be good at others… but with that then comes tons and tons of practice.

(3)This is a bookend to the post I did when I started this new venture – Teach, Do.


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