Oct 04 2014
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On Teaching Writing

I teach writing and I also teach painting. Sometimes I teach them together. Recently, I taught a weekend workshop at Gallery North, in Setauket, Long Island. There were five of us: four students and me. We painted flowers, freesia and roses, then wrote, describing the flowers.

I worked along with the other four. It was a pleasure for me but also a way to make myself vulnerable while holding the hands of my students while they made themselves vulnerable. I vocalized my own performance fears, the voices with which I judge myself, the inertia of resistance, the slow letting go into not caring about being judged by the fictitious others we project.

I’m experiential and tactile by nature, and I like to teach by modeling. I try hard to dispel the illusion of authority that a student naturally wants to see. I don’t respond to authority. The teachers that have been significant to me have been able to connect with me personally, so I strive to connect with my own students. This opens people to discover that being themselves and finding their own voice is enough—their voice is the very thing that is needed, to write, to paint, to be creative.

The thrust of my teaching is to lead people to the revelation contained in their own words. Once that joy is discovered development follows naturally through practice. I trust students to discover their strengths, from the momentum and thrust of their work.

I am fed by witnessing the miracle of a group of worried strangers coming together in a workshop and finding themselves, connecting with each other through their work. That work wasn’t a mirage. They produced it, can hold it in their hand. And can produce again.

For me, that kind of transformative experience is what teaching is all about.

I teach writing and I teach painting. To me it seems that writing prompts offered to writers are like flowers in a vase. As the painter is freed by responding to a still life, the writer is freed by the prompt. Here is a thought, a memory, a situation, a possibility. Look at it, turn it over. See what there is to say about it. The pen connects. Resistance scatters.

Where do they come from, these words? Some place larger than the one we’re used to living in. We experience the surprising expansion of our existence when we write. The creative self is unconfined. And sharing the thing we’ve written brings a satisfaction as mysterious as the source of writing itself.

We’re born to share ourselves. We paint and we write for others. We don’t lose ourselves but find ourselves in sharing our work. We pour ourselves out and the cup never empties. That’s the secret we carry—our creativity. It is a pearl of great price.

I believe no one can know the impact of their work but by writing and sharing what they’ve written. There are no beginning writers, as there are beginning painters, because people who take up the pen are practiced—in speaking. Speaking is an extension of our being. We weren’t born speaking, but we’re born speakers. The desire to communicate is part of the desire to live. The capacity to express ourselves drives life. As every face is different, every handwriting, so is every person’s writing voice unique.

There is another stream that feeds into the written word. Mostly we don’t know it’s there waiting. It’s the flow of speech that comes in quiet, the solitude of the self. Writing is a contemplative experience. Words tumble out of us and we catch them with the pen. That, too, is transformative. It’s what teaching is all about.

Helena Clare Pittman is the bestselling author of A Grain of Rice.  She’s the author/illustrator of 16 other books, including a prestigious “Smithsonian Book” edition and a recommendation by The New York Times‘ Best Paperbacks.  Helena teaches widely at numerous institutions and is an Associate of the Center for Creative Writing, where she teaches Writing for Children (online) and two weekend workshops in upstate New York: Writing For Children and Memoir Writing.  Helena’s newest book, the novel Ruthie Pincus of Brooklyn, is available in print and Kindle edition at Amazon.