Sunday, May 2, 2010

Why Teach Writing?

I love the question: why teach writing? I suppose my favorite reason for this is the literary community it creates. The simple act of teaching a writing workshop does just that: it creates community. This thought makes sense to me now more than ever.

As you may know, I chose to go to graduate school so my writing would improve. I was very excited about the process when I started grad school too. The one element I was not so crazy about was the teaching practicum which was a requirement in the third semester. The most terrifying part of the entire ordeal was simply that I had no leads, no institutional support and way too many options. The part I felt the most hung up about was that I simply did not want to do it.

Returning home from Vermont after the third semester residency, I knew something had to happen. I had no plan, no base, no lesson plans. In short, all I had was the fear of not getting the requirement met. One day in mid January, I was wondering the streets just south of downtown Denver looking for a library, or a school, or something to help me along the teaching process. I understood the requirement, yes, many MFA grads go on to become teachers. But why me? I didn't want to be a teacher then, and I was so uncertain if I wanted to even do this practicum. At the lowest part of the day I found my salvation in a dress shop called She-She.

Before I go any further, I do not have a fetish with women's dresses, nor was it random that I went in there. My friend owned the shop. It was not an uncommon thing to find her in She-She working on projects. If anyone was going to help, I knew it would be her. She has always told me that it pays to know a thousand people and Crystal Sharp knows at least ten times that.

Crystal and I had gone to college together. Those were our undergraduate days at Metropolitan State College of Denver. The two of us had maintained a good friendship in the years after graduation, and on that day in January of 2008 when I needed to find an organization to house my teaching practicum, I had no idea it was Crystal.

The Holiday Chalet Bed and Breakfast(1820 E. Colfax, Denver, CO 80218 (303) 321-9975) became the hope and salvation for a successful teaching location. Crystal suggested in a very definitive tone: “Anthony, just do it at the hotel, in the tea room.” In that instant, The Tea Room Writer's Workshops was born. Crystal has always been so supportive, not only of me, but of all the organizations I've been a part of. I say it here because it is important, and if you come through Denver, you must stay at her hotel: The Holiday Chalet.

With a location, and a parent organization as a sponsor, I was ready to start my practicum. I needed students. I made my friends join up. My friends made their friends join up. I only had one reason for teaching this workshop: a school requirement. Remember earlier when I said community is why I teach writing? It's amazing how much can change in just a few short years.

Rather than brag about the successes of The Tea Room Writer's Workshops, of which there are many, I feel inclined to tell you about the change it made in me. As far as the graduation requirement goes, yes, I completed it. I spent 25 classroom hours with people who either wanted to write, or wanted me to succeed in school, or wanted to be around their workshop mates. I found the participants so pleasant to be around, I looked forward to the workshop planning, and I even kept some of them in mind as I planned lessons. I found all of them to be good writers, even with the small amount of direction they were given. I so thoroughly enjoyed the process that when it came time to write my teaching essay, I had all good things to say. I had good things to say about the location, good things to say about the process, and good things to say about the experience as a whole. The facet of my grad program I dreaded the most, I landed up loving the most.

But where does the community fit in?

After graduation, I tried teaching a semester at Denver Community College. I don't want to say anything bad, and I won't say anything good about that experience. I guess, I felt entitled to the job. I also felt a little obligated to do it. One semester at the community college was enough. It was not the teaching experience I was looking for, that's all.

As Mark Dragota and I were in the very beginning debates about Umbrella Factory Magazine, I suggested that we teach workshops as a way of making a few extra dollars for the magazine. Like me, Mark dreaded the teaching practicum in grad school. Unlike me, however, he got out of it. As the Umbrella Factory Writer's Workshops developed, I was so delighted to see in him the excitement around teaching that I had had in the former workshop series.

The first round of Umbrella Factory Workshops went by quickly. They were rushed, too short in duration and in frequency. They were poorly attended. The best part about them was that we used the Tea Room at the Holiday Chalet. For me, at least, it was a strange sort of home coming. During the weeks that the whole workshop series went on, I got the opportunity to meet a few great people. Some of them are good writers too. During this whole process, several people arrived at Umbrella Factory so eager to be a part of things that even I was amazed. From these early workshops we still have a home at the Holiday Chalet. We met Sue Eberling, a fantastic instructor, and we met Corrie Vela, our workshop program director. Not only was it refreshing to meet these two women, but it was pleasure to meet some of the people in their networks. As time has gone on, I've come to enjoy their friendships as well. This is how the community has grown. It is a community where Umbrella Factory Workshops are the catalyst. As the next season of Umbrella Factory Workshops ensues, I can't, simply cannot wait to meet the people who will come. It's an opportunity for a richer community, a literary community which I think our town needs. I need it too. I gain this community simply by teaching writing workshops. I feel like the majority of the readers of this post are writers. I hope that's the case because they are the community I'm seeking. I hope all of the writers out there can make sense of this: go start a community of your own. Do it through every means you can think of, teaching workshops, giving lecture or readings, or writing a blog.

In future posts: The Jump Start, The Anecdotal Screenplay; my basic teaching principles, and some elements of fiction I find important to teach.

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