When I was a graduate student in my first semester at the University of East Anglia, I had my first one on one tutorial with my workshop tutor.
I won’t disclose much of what he said or passed between us; in the UEA program, we agree to not divulge information from these tutorials. It is meant for the student, to help the student improve. But I will say that my tutor was patently frustrated with me. Not because I was a failed writer, per se, nor that I had done that poorly (though, looking back, I know the work I submitted awful on so many levels, I cannot even count the ways . . . ). He was frustrated because he saw something promising my work, I think, something which excited him. And he desperately wanted me to improve and to succeed.
I could not understand his frustration at all. This past summer, I had the privilege of teaching a Creative Writing Independent Study. My student had been enrolled previously in my Introduction to Creative Writing course and showed a great deal of promise. She inquired about a Creative Writing II, and since there was none, the creative writing department chair suggested an Independent Study.
Throughout the course of the summer, the student and I met once a week and we worked through the process of writing from the ground up. Everything in the course was tailored for the student and to address her writing and creative process, and to help her grow in her understanding of that process. The culmination and primary focus of the course became her final project. The final project included a detailed reading and writing diary, in which the student logged the amount of time she spent reading each week, and the progress she made in her writing; the project also included rough drafts and revisions, as well as the final, finished draft of a novella length work; and a reflective essay in which the student documented her process over the course of the summer, and discussed her literary influences. All and all, the final project was equivalent to an honors dissertation from a four year institution.
There are many remarkable things about this course, and the project, but one of the most was the consistence with which my student exceeded expectations. She never baulked at the challenges placed before her; she only put her nose to the metaphoric grindstone, and produced the best possible work she was capable of. All the while, she did not even realize how remarkable her gifts and talents as a writer and creative thinker were. In fact, my student often expressed doubt; that she thought she was a “fraud”, because she had only begun writing with any regularity — or writing at all — about 2-3 years ago.
It was here I began to understand my own tutor’s frustration, four years ago on that cold, rainy afternoon in the UK. Because here was someone who was not only genuinely talented as a writer — with a natural gift for using words and telling stories — but someone who was willing to do the work required to become a genuinely good writer. And she was not only completely unaware of it, but doubted and sometimes seemed to dismiss her own abilities.
I wish I could say she was convinced by the end of the course. But I am not sure. There were times when I — like my tutor — tried to explain to her what a talent she did have, and how she should not dismiss herself so easily. And I believe that I might have frightened my student more than inspired her, just as my tutor frightened me. It is a certain kind of fear; not a fear of failure, but a fear of expectation. How can I? thinks the student. How could I ever accomplish this great thing? My instructor believes I can; but he is already a real writer, and he knows more than I ever could. How can I even be capable in this person’s eyes, when I know so little and am not a real writer?
I did not conquer my fear that day, nor many days after. I probably still have not altogether overcome it, but I am no longer nervous about taking my place in the world as a writer, alongside other writers. Maybe I have not published so much — yet — but I know my abilities, and my determination. And that had to come at my own pace, and my own time. Not at the insistence of my tutor — though he was right, and he was knowledgeable. It was something he could tell me, but which I had to learn for myself.
And in teaching my own student, and finding myself in the instructor’s position, has reinforced and clarified that for me on many levels.
As the character Morpheus says to Neo in The Matrix: “But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.”
I believe that a good teacher does just this: they show their students a door. But it is ever, and always, up to the students to walk through. It is imperative in fact, to the students’ growth that they make that choice for themselves, in their own time.
I sincerely hope that one day my student — who is still hesitant to embrace some aspects of her talent (not without reason) — will find it in herself to walk through that door and rock it.
I know she can.
Until then, I will support as best as I can, but I will also have to remember to step back. To let go. This is her journey, and her choice.
The story — which will be blogged in real time from late summer through late spring of next year — follows sixteen year old Eden as she grapples with her mother’s death and growing up in a small, religious town in Midwestern America.
PPS. There is now a Creative Writing Independent Study Summer 2012 page, which includes an overview of the course, the syllabus, the guidelines and rubric for the final portfolio, as well as the link to The Nerve Carnival.