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?