Andi Cumbo - Writer, Editor, Online Writing Courses, Classes & Lessons

Break-Through: My Job as a Writing Teacher

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Everything I say as a teacher is ultimately aimed at people trusting their own voice and writing from it. I try different angles and tricks. Once they do break through, all I teach is dressing on a turkey. -Natalie Goldberg

They sit there – 16 of them – fresh-faced with the fall semester.  Some affect nonchalance; some lean forward eager.  I try to affect both – a happy, quiet confidence that belies the nervousness I feel every time I start a new class.  6820201970

After I do introductions and review the syllabus, I say, “Now, let’s get to work.  Take out your pen and paper.  Write. ”

Sixteen moons of stunned silence stare at me.  They have no idea what to do.  12 years of schooling has taught them that we write to assignments, not out of ourselves.

This will be my major goal as a teacher – to help them realize that the golden jewel of writing sits in their chests, behind their sternums.  That any prompt in the world will only give them a shovel to dig toward that infinite gem of them.

It’s this way in every class – my job is simply to help the people I am honored to teach see that they have the words right there, living in them, if they just breath through to that reservoir of goldenness.

But every student I’ve ever known creates her own resistance, that pressing back against herself that keeps her from her words. In some students, that resistance manifests as rule-following. He thinks he doesn’t know how to write or read a text unless I, the teacher, tell him how to do so.  With these students in mind, I write assignments with tiny starting places – a waterwheel, a special tree, the way tears feel on the skin – and then let them dig with that image or experience.

For other students, arrogance is their resistance. They believe that a first draft is “hotter,” more “real” than something revised and that their work is the rare art that comes out fully formed, a nascent Venus spewing from human foreheads. They believe that if they revise they lose fervor, or intensity; they don’t yet know that the heat has to be tempered to be experience. With these students in mind, I require revision of every single piece – sometimes 3 or 4 drafts just in our class – to show them that there is strength in structure, in depth, in detail.

For other students, a massive wound swallows up their words, coating them in the language of hateful step-fathers and negligent mothers.  They believe that nothing they say will ever be good enough and that their worth is somehow tied to their ability to produce. For these students, I require writing – nothing more, nothing less. I require pages of work, every week, whether they feel like it or not because it is only the practice of writing that will build their strength despite their wounds.

On rare occasion, a student walks in who is ready to work, to put his hands in the mud and dig. He doesn’t need lessons on how to use the shovel, and he doesn’t need to be reminded that his first hole might not quite be wide enough for him to slip through. He has found a way past the teasing shouts of classmates who said he would never be able to dig more than a few inches.  For those students, I stand back.

Here’s what I have learned from almost 20 years of writing and over 10 years of teaching writers – we are all scared as hell. We may mask that fear in rule-following, hoping that the guidelines will keep us from embarrassment. We may hide that fear behind an arrogance that shelters us from critique because if it’s perfect the first time, no one can criticize. We may walk around with our fear emblazoned like a prep school shield on our chests because we need to know people why we just can’t.  It’s all just fear.

All these years of working with words have taught me this – behind that fear, down deep in ourselves, where the rules are useless and the arrogance evaporates, down below the voices that chant our failures, there, in that golden center of ourselves, we are powerful, and beautiful, and strong.  And it is there where the words live.

It’s taken me a long time to know what Goldberg so beautifully states – my job is a teacher is to help students break through to themselves, to help them get behind that fear because when they do, all that golden light is going to bless us all.

How does your fear of writing manifest itself?  How do you conquer that fear?

On August 5th, I will be teaching four, online writing workshops – one in memoir, one in short story, one in creative essay, and one in poetry.  Each class runs for six-weeks and includes reading, discussion, and writing assignments as well as a bi-weekly class-wide workshop.  You can get more details and sign up at this link if you are interested.  Thanks.

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Author: Andi

I am a writer, editor, and writing teacher whose most recent book, The Slaves Have Names, tells the story of the people who were enslaved on the plantation where I was raised. When I'm not working, my husband and I are working to make our small farm - God's Whisper Farm - a retreat here at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

  • http://www.ordinaryservant.com Pilar Arsenec

    Oh. My. Gosh. This post is completely awesome. Wow!
    Tears are running down my face as I write this.

    What really got me was this… “They believe that anyhing they say will ever be good enough and that their worth is somehow tied to their ability to produce.”

    I also can relate to not knowing how to read or write text and bottomline, fear.

    I have been on vacation this week and it has been a challenging time for me on several levels. One of the things that I am confronting about myself is my not being good enough and being performance driven to prove my worth.

    Writing sure brings up a million and one insecurities.

    Thank you, Andi for everything. I really appreciate you.
    Pilar Arsenec recently posted…The Devil Has No Mother by Nicky CruzMy Profile

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      Ah, but see, Pilar, you do know how to write and to read. It’s your fear that tells you that you don’t. Instead of telling yourself you don’t know how to do something or trying to find guidelines for how to do it, try just reading and writing from the truest part of yourself. Maybe buy yourself a journal that you don’t plan to share with anyone, and write deep. :)

      • http://www.ordinaryservant.com Pilar Arsenec

        Oh yes, I have been journalling consistently for over a year now. I have boxes of journals from my teenager years and my twenties. Then for whatever reason, I just stopped after that. I picked it back up a year ago around the time I met you online and haven’t stopped since. Thanks for always encouraging me, it means a lot.
        Pilar Arsenec recently posted…The Devil Has No Mother by Nicky CruzMy Profile

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