Tom McAfee years before I met him
Believe me, I wasn’t a good poet when I studied creative writing as an undergraduate. I don’t say this to be falsely humble: I wrote poems with lines like, “you are the rose to my thorns,” and like many 20-21-year olds, I focused on dramatizing my already off-the-charts feelings about relationships, trees, skies, and birds. If someone actually sat me down in 1979 and told me that, based on what I was currently writing, I obviously wasn’t cut to be a writer, I would have been devastated. Lucky for me, I had some great writing teachers, especially the late Tom McAfee, a Alabama-born aging alcoholic with a heart made half of vodka, half of gold, who would meet his poetry students in the Tiger Hotel bar to show us the kindness and craft and writing and teaching.
I’ve also had my share of teachers who didn’t give me the time of the day because I wasn’t one of the two top students in the class. One teacher screamed at me when, having to present a poet we loved, I talked about a poet he hated. Others led classes as hazing rituals, punishing and pushing out anyone who wasn’t man enough to take brutal deconstruction of his/her writing. I may have learned about the importance of precise images and active verb tense in such classes, but I didn’t learn much about what it takes to write.
On the other side, for the last 29 years, I’ve taught college-level creative writing at the University Kansas, Haskell Indian Nations University, and especially at Goddard College. I’ve also facilitated dozens of community writing workshops, retreats, intensives, and online classes, working with populations as diverse as Latina women and girls in Kansas City, to all bioregional organizers in an ecovillage. I’ve worked with a group of 10-year-olds and 84-year-olds in western Kansas, a dozen men in my living room, people living with serious illness at Turning Point, low-income women of color at a housing authority, and conference-goers exploring mythology and ecology through writing. To be honest, I find little difference between the most advanced college-level study and newbie writers in a senior center when it comes to what matters to the writers: to write in their own original and powerful voice using their best words to give voice to what brings their lives the greatest meaning and vitality.
In the last few days, the interwebs have been abuzz over a former MFA teacher’s tirade about the very “real” writers he taught, and how bored he was having to work with other students. Such an attitude is elitist, scornful, and potentially damaging when it comes to helping writers write, whether they’re in the world’s top MFA programs or in a small town coffee shop, trying to put their life’s strongest stories into words. It’s also the opposite of worthy teaching.
Teaching writing is a form of love, and like all real love, it’s fueled by listening, staying curious, and learning together. There’s a lot to talk about too — the craft of good writing in service of what’s on tap to be written and who’s writing it, traditions and trends and possibilities that help writers expand their relationship with language, and the process of making something out of nothing (as Steve Martin says about one of his novels, “I did pretty good, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank pages”). The best teachers hold the space for people to learn to trust themselves as writers enough to take healthy creative risks, clear away distractions and ideas of what they think the writing should be, and listen carefully to what the writing wants to be. As a teacher, I talk a blue streak about craft, genres, other writers, and revision, but I also try to help students go further in their life-long development of their own best critical perspective on how to write and revise.
Both writing and teaching writing takes great discernment: feeling out what’s possible at the edge of what we know, dwelling all the time in not-knowing. It’s a little like divining for water, which also takes perseverance, patience, a return to the ground of our imagination, and a good dose of gumption. Sometimes the writing is astonishing, and sometimes the writer is priming the pump for something better in the future. Always, it takes courage and work to get something on the page, and that deserves respect, especially from people who teach writing.
I’ve witnessed so many writers over the years who, like me, didn’t seem to write anything particularly special at first, and then, over time and often in the container of an intelligent and compassionate community, found their way to poems, stories, novels, memoirs, plays and songs that knocked my socks off. At Goddard, I’ve had the honor of working with so many students over so many years who such strong things — spiritual memoirs about circling back to childhood visitations, mixed genre poetry and prose about thriving after surviving great abuse, speculative fiction about parallel universes, and collections of songs about overcoming oppression. In community workshops, I’ve sat breathlessly in circles around tables of varying sizes while someone read a poem about loving so deeply and looking so clearly at life with late-stage cancer. Through online classes, I’ve been dazzled by how communities of writers, who have never met in person, give each generous clear-seeing and inspiration while sharing their first sestina or most recent chapter.
Good writing is not in the hands of a few chosen by self-proclaimed judges of what’s worthy. Whether you started writing your first poem this morning or if you just finished your final story, writing is your birthright. Don’t let anyone tell you anything different.