Tag Archives: teaching

A Good Teacher is Hard to Find


Brevity recently posted about a writing teacher with a problem: one of her memoir students was afraid that if she told her story people would think she was a jerk. This particular student’s story involved higher stakes than most of us will ever face (her remorse over the death of an innocent man), but if you’ve ever tried to write memoir, you know this fear. No matter your circumstances, memoir writing always includes the challenge of putting yourself out there in a story.

What struck me was the homerun advice this teacher gave her student:

The following week, I struggled to find something to tell her. Then I found a quote that for me defined the real purpose of the personal memoir. It was from Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day…. “Does it happen all at once or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You come. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are REAL, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are REAL, you can’t be ugly, except to the people who don’t understand.”

I told my student that she had to be real. If she revealed her true self and experience to the world, then she could only be a jerk to those unwilling to understand.

— Debbie Hagan

Where do you find teachers like this?

I ask this literally. I had excellent teachers when I was an undergraduate, but choosing them was completely dumb luck. I’ve tried taking classes since, and while I haven’t had any terrible teachers, I haven’t been that impressed either.

I have tried different strategies to find a good teacher, all to no avail. One of my recent teachers, who published a wonderful memoir and was teaching at one of this area’s more prestigious (and expensive) schools couldn’t articulate how to use present tense verbs to make temporal transitions. Teaching is a completely different skill set from writing. I have no doubt that this teacher knew how to make these transitions in her own writing, but she couldn’t explain it to save her life.

To be fair, I’m not sure I could clearly explain the mechanics of grammar. And I’m not even sure that’s what I want in a creative writing teacher. I am more interested in reading my work and listening to other’s work. I like the feeling I get collaborating with other writers. So what do I want from a teacher? I want encouragement. Honesty and good judgment. If I am frightened, I want my teacher to struggle the following week to find something to say.

I am not sure it’s possible for someone to teach you to be a financially successful writer, but it shouldn’t be so hard to find a good teacher.

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Alice Sebold Taught Me How to Write Fiction

Sometimes I am so out of it, I shock myself.

Alice Sebold taught fiction writing at Hunter college in the early 90s, but I didn’t realize until last night that Alice is now the bestselling author of The Lovely Bones  and Lucky. She was one of my favorite teachers.

The last time I spoke with Alice she was leaving NYC to be the resident writer at some sort of writing retreat in California.  She said she had just discovered she  would be getting less than $500 a month in salary and wanted to know  what I thought. I said, “It could be worse.” I am so glad I didn’t say  something caustic. From her Wikipedia entry, it looks like she went from the  retreat to University of California: Irvine and the rest is–as they say–history.

I have no excuse for why I lost track of Alice until last night. For the past two years I have read primarily memoir and have even fingered the spine of her memoir, Lucky, in the book store. Somehow I just didn’t put it together. I am very happy. Success couldn’t have happened to a more deserving writer than Alice Sebold. I am also going to include her name prominently on all my future submissions: Tim Elhajj studied with Alice Sebold.

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