One of the most poignant essays on writing I’ve ever read is Pat Schneider’s “You Are Already A Writer” (read excerpt here). In it she discusses the epiphany she had when her uneducated, homeless, alcoholic brother showed up on her doorstep one day and handed her a crumpled piece of paper. On it he’d written about motorcycles from hell chasing him, a metaphor for his alcoholism. In that moment, she realized that writing, and being an artist in general, is about having the courage to share your truth in your own voice. There were artists everywhere whose stories and ideas were powerful, but the world would never know it because they lacked the technical skills to present them in a compelling way. This experience inspired Schneider to found the Amherst Writers and Artists workshops.
Schneider’s essay transformed my notion of what it means to be a writer. It gave me permission to explore creative self-expression without worrying about perfect writing. I started to consciously practice completing short pieces from start to finish exactly as they poured out of me, not as I felt they should be presented to others. This meant no editing the first draft as I wrote it, no agonizing over every word. If I got stuck on how to articulate something, I closed my eyes and emptied my mind until the right words came. I realized that the soul of writing is the story being told. The technicalities are secondary and can be learned or, in some cases, unlearned.
When an opportunity arose for me to teach a one-credit “passion” course to college freshmen through a First Year Experience program, I decided on Writing Our Stories. I’d taken a creative nonfiction graduate course at Wesleyan University with author Rachel Basch that changed my life. It gave me the confidence and validation I so desperately wanted and needed as a fledgling writer. I wanted to offer my students a similar experience. I wanted to give them an outlet for expressing themselves by sharing their personal stories.
I modeled the course after the one at Wesleyan, scaling it down considerably for undergraduate freshmen. I started it off by having them read short creative nonfiction pieces and discussing them, practicing techniques through writing exercises, and eventually they worked their way up to writing their own short stories and workshopping them. Their first reading assignment was Schneider’s essay. I wanted them to know from the start that this wasn’t going to be anything like freshmen English.
The course went better than I could have hoped or imagined. The students wrote their hearts out. Their valiant attempts at using dialogue, showing through scene versus telling, experimenting with humor, and using imagery to tell their stories made my own heart sing. I wanted to wrap my arms around each and every one of them when they shared excerpts of their personal stories with each other. This was a class that laughed and cried together, encouraged one another, supported each other’s efforts, talents, joys, and sorrows.
The course improved the second year because I had time to reflect and make adjustments. I broke the students into small literature circles. They had to read each other’s stories ahead of time for homework. Each circle had two discussion facilitators, two passage finders, whose role was to select a few passages that resonated with them, two critiquers, whose job was to offer constructive criticism in a kind way, and the person whose story was being workshopped. The roles changed up to give students a chance to experience each one, and to have his or her story shared.
This process gave the students complete ownership of the experience. My role was simply to move from circle to circle and listen, and offer occasional feedback. We’d discussed in detail beforehand what workshopping was, what the ground rules were, what each role entailed, and did a few practice rounds so that the students had a good sense of the type of language to use in each role.
I was geared up to teach a third year when the university faculty curriculum committee decided it was time to review the courses being offered by First Year Programs. Specifically, they wanted to know the credentials of who was teaching them. These specific “passion” courses were supposed to be faculty-led, but few faculty signed up to teach them, and those that did expected to be paid for their trouble. First Year Programs had a tight budget. They’d never make it if they had to pay all of the instructors. This is why mostly professional staff was teaching them on a volunteer basis, myself included. Without a master’s degree at the time, or any publications to my name, save a poem featured in a college literary magazine, I was deemed unqualified to teach. There would be no more Writing Our Stories.
Fucking faculty curriculum committee. They had no understanding that this course wasn’t about me and my credentials. It was about the students, and giving them the opportunity to engage in creative self-expression and personal growth through writing and sharing their stories. It was about helping them gain confidence as writers. It was about introducing them to and giving them practice incorporating elements of fiction writing into their nonfiction works. It was about giving them a voice. I understood that universities needed standards, but not one member of the committee asked to speak to me about the course or view the syllabus. They didn’t bother to ask for the course evaluations, which were overwhelmingly positive. All they did was look at my resume, see its lack of advanced degree and publications, and deem me unworthy.
Feeling bitter and dejected, I responded to an advertisement seeking a freelance correspondent for a community newspaper. I spent the next year writing news stories on everything from stargazing to hiking to the college financial aid process. I loved meeting new people all the time, going to events I wouldn’t normally have attended, and coming up with a story angle. The problem was that by the time I did all this and wrote the story, I was making about $5 an hour for my trouble. I had to give it up. I decided it was time to finally get a master’s degree, so I enrolled in a graduate English program.
Two years later, with a master’s degree in hand, graduate coursework in teaching writing, numerous published news stories under my belt, and a capstone paper that my thesis advisor felt was publishable, I didn’t feel any more qualified to teach Writing Our Stories than I had before. That’s because you don’t learn to teach by studying it in school or getting a degree, you learn to teach by teaching.
It’s the same with writing. You can take courses in the craft, and even earn a degree in it, but ultimately it’s the writing that makes you a writer. It’s the day in and day out practice, the trials and errors, the failures you learn from, the crap you write that you hope no one ever sees, the showing up on the page, never giving up, and those magic moments when the writing flows out of you like a gift from beyond – this is what makes a writer. At the center of it all is the story.
You have a voice. You have a story. You are already a writer. You have every right to express yourself exactly as you please. If your technical skills need improvement, take a course, but don’t let anyone convince you that what you are offering to the world through your unique brand of creative self-expression is unworthy — especially if that someone is a pontiff at the podium who thinks his shit doesn’t stink.