By Stephen Jay Schwartz

Teaching is an art.  I sometimes wonder if I’m up to the task.  I believe that I am, but I also know that knowing how to do a thing and knowing how to teach someone how to do a thing are two very different things indeed.

Like, for instance, when I took private saxophone instruction as a teenager.  I was lucky to study with the best saxophonist in New Mexico.  This guy played every woodwind ever made, had recorded numerous solo albums, and was considered a jazz virtuoso.  One day I asked him why I had trouble hitting the lowest and highest notes on my alto and he said, simply:  “I don’t know.  Just do what I do.”  He played the low and high notes and I watched, and I tried, and I honked.  Nothing had changed.  He shrugged his shoulders.

I figured I had a bum sax.  I played first chair in the jazz band through high school and I pretty much just faked the notes I couldn’t hit. 

I spent my first college year at North Texas State University, which had an amazing jazz program.  My saxophone performance instructor was also a student at the school, and he wasn’t nearly as accomplished as the teacher I had before him.  The first thing he said after hearing me play was, “Ouch!  Stop!  Enough!” 

When I recovered from the shock of such wonderful praise, he explained, “You’re not breathing from your diaphragm.” 

I’m not say what?

It seems I had never learned to breathe.  I was shamefully using my lungs when I should have been using my diaphragm.  Before we could proceed with my musical instruction, I would have to learn how to breathe.

It required that I relearn everything.  Worse, actually.  Because I had to unlearn my bad habits first.  If you’ve ever had to unlearn something and relearn it right, you know how difficult that is.  And I wasn’t sure I could trust the guy because in the process of unlearning and relearning I found I’d lost the confidence to play.  I had been reduced to a musical infant. 

I stuck it out, and gradually my confidence returned.  And, as I became more comfortable with…breathing…my musical “voice” came back, stronger than ever.  Within a few months I could play the low and high notes equally well, and I had better intonation all around.  When I returned to Albuquerque for winter break the friends I jammed with couldn’t believe the improvement.  It was the result of spending three months with someone who paid attention, saw who I was, saw where I was at, and knew how to get me where I needed to go.  A teacher.

I have tremendous respect for teachers who can do this, who can take something that no one else sees and turn it into gold.

Recently I’ve been thinking that I should play a more active role in this process.  When I’m working with young writers on their story ideas, when I’m talking about plot and structure and character development, I realize that I’m teaching.  It’s hard for me to see it that way because I prefer to think that two creative people are simply sharing ideas.  But the fact is, when the things I’ve learned from years of working as a professional writer or development executive come into play, when I’m describing things I’ve learned that appears new to someone else, I’m teaching.  And I realize that I love that.  Teaching makes me feel good. 

I did have one teaching job I can look back on to help determine if I’m the stuff that teachers are made of.  It was traffic school.  Not your parent’s traffic school, I’m talking Comedy-Magic Traffic School. 

Now, understand, I am neither a comedian nor a magician. 

Imagine you’ve received a speeding ticket and have been FORCED to attend traffic school.  You are required by law to pay attention to every moment of the eight-hour class.  An ad in the newspaper gives you hope – Comedy Magic Traffic School!  And you figure at least you’ll be entertained.  As the day closes in, you actually look forward to spending your Saturday laughing at jokes and watching death-defying magic.  Take a moment now and imagine how you would feel after discovering that, well, you’ve been duped.  To avoid lawsuits, my employers made sure I knew a trick or two…they gave me a wand and a deck of cards.  They supplied me with inoffensive jokes that somehow managed to incorporate the basic laws of traffic.  They taught me a traffic school version of The Hollywood Squares. 

Now imagine me, trying to teach and entertain fifty pissed off traffic offenders trapped in a banquet room for eight hours.

But the most amazing thing happened…I enjoyed myself.  I had fun.  By the time those eight hours were over I had people coming up and shaking my hand, telling me they actually learned something, that traffic school hadn’t been a tremendous waste of time after all.  That comedy and magic were overrated.

If I can do that with traffic, can you imagine what I might do with something I love?

I bring this up now because I’ve been invited to teach a course at the Omega Institute in Upstate New York called, “Story Development:  How to Write Compelling Novels and Screenplays.”  It’s not until June of 2011, so I’ve got a full year to prepare.  However, I’ll be teaching a continuing class to the same attendees for a period of TWENTY-FIVE HOURS, over just seven days. 

It might seem crazy, going from teaching traffic school twenty years ago to leading a twenty-five hour creative writing workshop at the Omega Institute.  And I wonder if, somewhere around hour twelve or fifteen, I’m going to end up walking circles near the classroom door, scratching imaginary itches, twitching, and screaming, “Why are you all looking at me?!  Don’t you people have better things to do?!” 

And what if my students come back, years later, and say that they’re really doing fine now that they’ve managed to unlearn everything I taught them?

But I want to give it a shot.  I want to be the teacher that I would want to have. 

My fear is that I’m an intuitive writer, that the choices I make are mostly subconscious, that I will not be able to teach my process.  I don’t want to be the guy who says, “I don’t know.  Just do what I do.”  

I want to be the guy who teaches people how to breathe.

Many of you have taught workshops, many of you have attended them.  As writers, what do you expect to gain from a workshop?  As teachers, what do you hope to impart?

20 thoughts on “BREATHING LESSONS

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I’ll tell you what was the most fascinating thing I learned about teaching story – at the first intensive (four-day) workshop I taught. And you will be so good at teaching this!

    Beginning writers have NO IDEA how to describe the story they’re writing. Really. All the people in this workshop had written full first drafts of books and they could not for the life of them describe what went on in the pages. It was beyond comical. It took my co-instructor Scott Nicholson and me almost the full four days to get any kind of grasp on what any of them were writing. The stories were all there – the writers just had no idea how to summarize.

    Now you, Steve – I know you could write a logline in your sleep (in fact I’m sure you have, many a time). So teaching the trick of a logline is something that will focus a beginning writer like almost nothing else. It is pure magic when they get it. But until they can actually coherently describe what their stories are – you will get nowhere.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, and PS – FORCING them to struggle through the process aloud, in front of the whole rest of the class, was what did it. In fact once one started to get it, the whole rest of the class fell in like dominoes. Once they heard other people successfully describing their stories, the lightbulbs were going off like firecrackers. It was an exhilarating thing to experience.

  3. Catherine

    Stephen I’ve attended exactly one workshop on writing, and I wouldn’t call myself a writer. I am however, someone that loves to learn and sometimes listens, and listens some more and can come up with something new, or clarify what someone is saying so it helps them find something new of their own.

    As part of the learning process, I’ve found it most valuable to be shown that there is more than one way to do something…that it is ok to search and adapt what came before me so I can develop something uniquely my own or sometimes just develop my own understanding.

    My High School Math teacher only knew to teach one method of algebra. His way. Each time I would say I didn’t understand he would repeat what he said before, but sometimes louder as though if he only emphasised how right he was eventually I would succumb. I did not go on to senior math( which would of given me a different career opportunities) as I lost confidence in my ability to understand math.As an adult I had the opportunity to learn algebra again. The teacher I had then would suggest when I would say I didn’t understand, ‘ok let’s try it this way’. If that way didn’t work we’d try it another way, and another, until finally one day it clicked. We had by this time deconstructed and reconstructed algebra, a lot. It finally clicked. I went on to get honours in this subject.

    So my advice would be not to worry so much about having to rely solely on your way of doing it. The good thing about teaching is you’re not the only one talking, you’re guiding and teasing out understanding.

    Is it too basic to ask what everyone considers compelling story development? I think work shop attendees would love to know from an industry point of view what is considered light the fire worthy, or compelling work.

    Stephen, I think if you are able to instil in your students a confidence to be able to recognise the fundamentals of compelling story development and some confidence to create unique work, you’ve taught them to breathe.

  4. Rachel Brady

    Maybe it’s about relaying that there are multiple processes "out there" and giving them guidance toward finding their own. Personally, I’d love to learn the SJS writing process, because it produces fabulous results. But one thing I’m coming to learn is that what works for other writers isn’t necessarily what works for me and vice versa.

    I like Alexandra’s logline idea.

    I think it’s important to spend time addressing all the things that are NOT necessary in a story. So many times, there are passages that exist because the writer needed them, not because the reader needs them. We’d like to think these get cut during revisions, but sometimes they don’t. An instructor or insightful classmates can be very helpful in pointing out how to know the difference.

    You’re going to be great at this. Congratulations on the new gig. 🙂

  5. L.J. Sellers

    I’m teaching my first workshop in August. It’s only an hour and a half, but I’m still nervous. My goals are simply that it will be fun for all of us and that everyone will walk out thinking they learned something, including me.

  6. Cornelia Read

    Cathering, I think we had the same algebra teacher.

    Stephen, I think one of the most important things you can impart at a writing workshop is that there is no "secret handshake" in publishing–no trick that will get you a free pass onto the Mt. Olympus of the published. It’s just writing, and rewriting, and LISTENING to critique, but not letting critique plow you under. That’s a really tricky thing to get people to understand, though.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I am so loving this feedback. I’m eating it up. Thank you all for the vote of confidence!

    Alex – great advice. As one of the requirements I’ve asked attendees to provide me with a one-page synopsis of their work-in-progress. This will give me a lot of reading to do before the workshop, but I thought it was necessary. I like the log-line idea even more. And I did intend to go over that synopsis, or basic three act structure, in public, so that all attendees could participate. I’m also suggesting that people read Christopher Vogler’s "The Writer’s Journey" before attending the workshop, since I based so much of my story analysis on his work and the work of Joseph Campbell.

    Catherine – Exactly! I had the same experience with Chemistry. Hated it in high school, loved it in college. And it’s interesting that my young boys have their own, mysterious way of understanding math. They approach a problem in a completely different way than my wife teaches them, and yet they arrive at the same answer in a shorter period of time. It’s rather exciting. I also like your idea about asking the workshop attendees what their concept of compelling story development is. A great way to get people engages from the start.

    Rachel – thanks for stopping by and sharing. I also dig your idea about discussing what is NOT necessarily compelling story, and what traditionally gets cut in the revision process. This is even more interesting for me since I heard my editor’s recent comment about the difference he sees between Boulevard and Beat. I overheard him tell someone that in Beat I describe something in a couple sentences what took me a paragraph to say in Boulevard. My style has become more lean, tighter, faster. I’ve learn to let things go.

    Louise – thanks for the props. I wish you were in the Omega room cheering me on.

    L.J. – thanks so much for stopping by! Fun…I’ve got to keep thinking that. I know I can sustain "fun" for a number of hours. Can I sustain it for twenty-five?

    Cornelia – good advice, very good. Very much the same as I would give to someone hoping to sell their screenplay. Everyone’s journey is different. It can’t just be about selling the screenplay or getting the manuscript published. It’s about loving the process of writing the best story you can possibly write. And carefully listening to constructive criticism without getting defensive.

  8. Judy Wirzberger

    As there are all types of teachers, there are all types of learners. So spot how your students learn.
    You can talk about anatamy for hours, but the only way to understand a body is to look at it from the inside out.
    I like the "how did the author suck me in" – disecting and looking at pacing and wording and play on emotions.
    I also believe in Junior Achievement’s motto: Learning by doing. Write the same paragraph three different ways for three different reader reactions.
    And the absolute must for a writer is to learn it’s not personal. Celebrate what you wrote right, learn from what wasn’t quite so right.
    Authors need to learn – like life – writing is a process.

    The rule for teaching is the same rule for writing – Show, don’t tell.

    You may never know your successes in teaching, just know they are there in fingertips that tap at keyboards.

  9. Allison Davis

    What is the equivalent of "learning to breath" in writing? Probably close to the same thing…getting the basic tool right. (LaMott’s Bird by Bird comes to mind…)

    I’ve taught a lot — most ly legal oriented classes and it’s my favorite thing to do. I get a lot of energy and positive feedback when I can impart something and you see someone getting it. I learn so much more than I teach when I do that. It makes you be conscious and break down what you do, and I think it’ll make you a better writer. I have also taken a lot of courses — Hallie Ephron is my favorite teach of writing craft, because her lessons reach me somehow and make me better. David Corbett is also another gifted teacher — these folks break it down, but also YES breathe life into the material. Stephen, you have such good positive energy, you are going to love this…writing is usually such a solitary task, that the teaching allows you to get outside yourself and reach out…

    Keeps some notes as you think through this as stuff will start to come to you out of nowhere.

    Happy 4th everyone…going offline for the weekend.

  10. Barbara_NY

    What do I expect from a workshop? I expect nothing, and hope only for a single piece of new insight. If I leave with more, then I feel I was gifted with a lil icing on my cake. What I do expect, though, is that you’ll be sure to announce the specifics as the event rolls closer around. I live on Long Island, a mere 1.5 hours away, and WILL be there if I know the whens and wheres. Looking forward to it…

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Judy – I like that idea a lot – "write the same paragraph three different ways for three different reader reactions." Outstanding idea. They do something similar in film editing classes – they give the filmmaker raw footage from a classic bar-room brawl scene from Bonanza and tell them to cut it any way they like. Everyone’s scene ends up different, from the same essential elements. That also reminds me of the Woody Allen film, I think it was "Manhattan," where the "narrator" begins the film four or five different ways, because that’s how stories work. They aren’t fixed. No one opening is the right opening. It’s all a matter of interpretation and process.

    Allison – Absolutely, the teaching I’ve done, the one-on-one work helping other writers also, has ALWAYS had a lasting, positive effect on my own writing. I firmly believe that "you don’t really know a thing until you can teach it." That’s when things really settle in. Have yourself a great 4th, too, and keep it unplugged.

    Barbara – thank you – my first workshop participant. I’d love to see you there. I’ll absolutely make sure I keep everyone up to date on the particulars as we get closer to the date of the event.

  12. pari noskin taichert

    I’m so glad you’ll have this opportunity. You’ll do beautifully.

    One thing that helps is to come up with all kinds of exercises for your students to do. They’ll learn so much more by doing rather than simply listening.

  13. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Pari – that seems to be a refrain I keep hearing. I’m glad I’ve got so much time to come up with ideas for exercises. If you or anyone has some good ideas on exercises, I’m all ears. I’m sure I’ll make my own adaptation of existing things that work. I can tell this is going to be a lot of fun.

  14. Catherine

    If I wasn’t in another hemisphere I’d be interested too. I’d like to add that what helped me finally crack algebra was talking about it, and doing it, and listening. I’d also talk with more than just my teacher about it. Over coffee I mentioned how I was starting to find some progress with a couple of other students. We worked out that between the three of us we had to get, really get some element of the whole. We spent an afternoon each week, at each other’s homes teaching each other what we knew.

    I think you’re already doing this in an online way with this post….but maybe you could use a similar approach to develop your workshop in person. Just drag a few local authors into the sun and drink coffee (or whatever) and see what floats free when you talk….take notes, draw sketches whatever it takes to help you recall what you come up with. It’s amazing what floats free in sessions like this as I imagine you know from the work you’ve done. I mention it again in case your solitary writing habits have sort of pushed this idea off page a little.

  15. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Catherine – I’m definitely going to poll everyone I know, and do the author get-together on top of it all. I’ll probably end up with a year’s worth of options, and then the editing will begin.

  16. Catherine

    With the care you’re taking i wouldn’t be too surprised if somewhere down the track you end up with a text book.

    ‘ How to develop compelling story lines and breathe at the same time ‘

    Today is the first day in a week it hasn’t been bleak here in what passes for winter in subtropical Queensland. I’m off to sit and the sun and drink coffee. Have a great 4th of July.

  17. JT Ellison

    Stephen, I always love having them write a short story – using characters we’ve developed, so they’re actually writing under pressure, then reading aloud and verbally critiquing, which gives them four really useful skills all in one go. You’re going to be great!

  18. Spencer Seidel

    Hey Stephen —

    In my life, I have taken 1 writing seminar, and it was mostly a waste of time because I’d already read the talking points in about 10,000,000 how-to-write-a-novel books. You’ll probably have a range of experience among your students. Don’t assume they all don’t know what they’re doing. Also, I think it’s important to remember that everyone has a different process. While it might be interesting to learn about someone else’s process, it seems to me that the trick to being a good teacher is to help your students find their own way.

    Just my $0.02!!


  19. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    JT – I like the short story idea. Maybe a two-pager or something, utilizing two or three characters, involving tension, drama, an object that all characters want…I remember doing something like that in a class I took once and it was very effective.

    Thanks for the cents, Spence!


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