How is a Writing Teacher an Artist?

One thing I discovered when I was teaching rhetoric to college students, and still applies to the creative writing classes I currently teach for older adults, is the similarity between my writing of poetry, fiction, or non-fiction with teaching. Both give me an opportunity to investigate ideas, fears, interests, and obsessions—to ask and answer questions.

The two roles complement each other, writing being a more introverted activity than teaching. When I write, I do the dance of seven veils. I remain relatively hidden while exposing myself, exploring my mind and imagination in public view, trying to tempt the reader. When I teach, I do a similar dance. Some seduction is needed to catch a students’ attention and turn it towards the important art of capturing their thoughts in writing and conveying them to a reader.

But I’m learning, too, from my students’ successes and failures, growing along with them as a teacher and writer. However, growth requires a willingness to try new things, both on the teacher’s part and the students, so I also must create an atmosphere where such risks can take place. I need to be skillful not just in teaching the craft itself but in managing a classroom, in creating a space where students feel safe to experiment and explore.

Teaching others has helped me to remove some of the veils that otherwise would have kept me from mastering the craft of writing, forcing me to understand the basics of a well-constructed sentence and the abundance of choices I have as a writer. It is more difficult to consciously break the rules if you don’t know them.

Similarly, writing has made me a better teacher. I’m more aware of the many pitfalls and joys of writing. I also have discovered how important it is for writers to find their own voice—and trust it. I teach from that stance. I don’t make rigid rules, such as prohibiting the use of the second person pronoun or any of the other inhibiting injunctions many of us learned in grade school and later.

Growth as a teacher and writer requires a willingness to try new things and an atmosphere in which such risks can take place. Teachers need to draw their students into the creative process, and learning is nothing if not creative, requiring imagination, invention, innovation, and more.

I don’t believe there is a hyphen, slash, or any other kind of separation between the words writer(artist)teacher; trying to separate them seems artificial. If writers are functioning in their artist role, then they inevitably teach; art challenges our usual ways of thinking and perceiving. Similarly, if teachers are teaching well, they work as artists in the classroom, awakening their students, replacing old structures with new ones, taking up residence in their students’ psyches, becoming internalized guides into new levels of awareness.

Helping students to expose themselves on the page requires imagination, intuition, and an ability to nurture and honor their particular voice. Imagination, intuition, and patience are also necessary skills in shaping our own work as writers. We need to listen carefully and follow its lead, not trying too soon to impose order or structure, to assume we know what the material needs.

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