I trained in martial arts for 11 years, and during those years one thing was drilled into our head — your main goal as a martial artist is to become an instructor. Why? As a teacher you continue the traditions that have been passed down to you, you help others benefit from martial arts training, and you become a better martial artist yourself. Every student you teach, in effect, is also your teacher.
Martial arts involves a great reverence for teachers, and requires a high level of respect for instructors. That was drilled into me so deeply for those 11 years that when I started an MFA program I tended to see my writing teachers the same way. I actually was so intimidated by my teachers — those REAL WRITERS — at first that I forgot to see them as regular people. Time helped me overcome that shyness in some cases, but I still, even now, think it’s important to credit my teachers at moments of success.
Recently, thanks to a referral from fiction writer Tanya Whiton, the Assistant Director Extraordinaire of Pine Manor College’s MFA Program, I began working as a writing coach. A lovely writer in Maine was seeking help with memoir writing, and after we exchanged a few notes and a phone call, she hired me. A week ago I received her first packet of work — 30 pages of creative nonfiction prose. I spent a couple of days reading it, marking her manuscripts with comments and suggested line edits, and writing a letter to her that offered suggestions and ideas. Then I sent the packet back. The process was very much like the one used at low-residency MFA programs, where students send their teachers a packet of work once a month for review.
Teaching, for me, is very fulfilling. I don’t have much experience teaching in an academic classroom, but I was a swimming teacher and a gymnastics coach for years as a teen and in my twenties. A few years ago I volunteered briefly at a school for troubled boys, helping a friend of mine who is an English teacher with the boys’ yearbook project. I also spent some time volunteering in a sixth grade classroom in Lexington, Mass., helping to teach English. The only time I’ve taught in front of a classroom by myself, however, was when I gave a one-hour lecture on “voice” during my final residency as an MFA student. The lecture was a requirement for my degree, and thankfully, it went well. The most satisfying part was afterward, when a number of students made a point of telling me they had enjoyed the lecture and learned something that would benefit their writing.
Michael Steinberg, the writer-in-residence at Pine Manor, has told me many times that teaching helped him become a better writer. After reviewing just one packet of work for my new “student” (she’s not really my student, but I’m not sure what word to use…mentee?) I see what he means. Every time I noticed something in her work that might be expanded on or improved I was reminded to watch for similar issues in my own writing. Any craft thought or idea I had in relation to her manuscripts was something I could also consider in my work — not the content, of course, but the craft ideas, the tools. Helping her learn reinforced my own knowledge.
When I drafted my letter describing what I’d seen in her manuscripts and summarizing my suggestions for each piece, I was careful to be balanced — to offer encouragement and praise for her very good work, while at the same time offering constructive suggestions. I sent the packet off and a few days letter received an email thanking me and asking if I could arrange a phone call. A day or two later, we spoke — and my new writing colleague (maybe that’s the best term to use) told me that she felt overwhelmed by my comments. She wasn’t unhappy, she assured me, and she was up for the challenge. She is a very diligent reader and writer, and she is amazingly dedicated to learning this craft. She was just amazed and overwhelmed at how much she had to learn. “I feel like I’m going back to the drawing board!” she admitted, a little discouraged. “Maybe I just don’t have what it takes to be a writer.”
The funny thing is, I’ve had this exact same conversation with my own teachers. I have felt just the way my Maine writer feels, more often than I’d like to admit. Sometimes, especially after a few rejection letters roll in, it’s hard to believe that I should be putting myself (and those editors) through any more of this. Maybe, I’ve told myself — just as she did — I just don’t have what it takes.
On days like that I’ve been lucky enough to have some wonderful teachers, like Michael Steinberg, Joy Castro and Laban Carrick Hill — names my fellow MFA students will recognize — talk me down and offer encouragement. And that’s just what I was determined to do for my new writer. I spent an hour on the phone going over her work and explaining my comments, all the while determined to let her know that she can stop worrying about having what it takes, she just needs to write. What we can do together is share ideas and arm her with the tools of craft. By the end of the conversation I could tell she felt much better. She was already talking about which pieces she would revise for her next packet and what new work she would send. I was so happy to have helped someone else the way my teachers have helped me. Kind of a cosmic give-and-take. Before long, after all, I’ll be the student again when talking to my own teachers.
One day, in the karate dojo, we were instructed to do 1000 punches. We were lined up in perfect rows, standing in a “high horse stance” with toes pointed forward, legs shoulder-length apart and slightly bent at the knee. Everyone wore a black “gi,” or karate uniform, except the teacher, who wore white. One by one each student shouted out a count to ten, in Japanese, with the other students repeating each number and punching each time. The count passed down each row from one student to the next, then from the front row to the second row to the third row, and then, when it reached the last student in the back row, it started again with the first student in the front row.
By the time we’d reached 1000 punches our bodies were, of course, tired. Our punches had improved with the practice and then weakened with exhaustion. But the interesting thing was that we had all achieved this particular training exercise together. One of us couldn’t have done it without the others. Sure, one person could stand in their back yard and do 1000 punches. But would that person maintain their stance quite as well, or punch quite as hard? Would they be surrounded by the same sense of energy? Would they shout out the count strong and steady 1000 times?
Every karate student’s body is different, and that means each person’s stance and punch is going to be uniquely their own. But students reach their potential with the help of their teachers and fellow students. In the end, every student is a teacher. And every teacher is a student.
I think of writing that way, too. Osu!