Practice What You Teach

Practice What You Teach

                  When students think of writing teachers, they probably visualize instructors reading for class, creating lectures, conferencing other students, grading drafts and revisions, going to conferences, and leading workshops. Writing teachers and students may forget that good teachers practice what they teach. Even as we instructors practice our craft, we often forget to step back from our writing and reflect on it meaningfully, and to take those struggles and experiences into the classroom to our students. We often forget to remind them that we are writers and learners just as they are.

Modeling what we teach not only improves our rapport with the student, but it can also create a growth process for both teacher and pupil. Learners are able to see that we do not just teach them to write, go home and judge the product of their struggles, and return with a fateful grade; students see that we struggle with our writing just as they do, and that our writing does not come out perfect. We must brainstorm, outline, draft, revise, draft some more, revise some more, edit, rewrite, rinse, and repeat, just as students do.  Good teachers model their own vulnerable and messy processes to build trust with students. And students see that teachers are students as well. As a result, students understand that writing is messy and neat and tricky and straightforward and visceral and logical and cathartic and painful and beautiful and complex–writing is a lifelong learning process.

I wrote the following narrative about three years ago in Writing Pedagogy at Sewanee School of Letters during my MFA program. The piece reflects on a short story I was revising at the time. It was family history spun into a fictional work, In the Fog. At the time, I was struggling with making character, dialogue, and setting real. This is my reflection of struggling and working through that process, which is ongoing. Showing a work in progress, a reflection on such an experience, or both to students can benefit them as writers, so I hope this piece will benefit both. For teacher and student alike (and I hope you consider yourself both), I hope you will benefit from this piece, and share your imperfect writing process with a larger community to demonstrate and foster growth. I aspire to model what I teach—imperfections, warts, and all.

Revision Narrative: From Four Sons in the Fog to In the Fog

                  When I started writing my story, I knew I wanted to write a fictionalized version of a family story that goes back four generations.  My mother’s mother told me this story numerous times. It might be illuminating to incorporate the backstory into a larger fictional piece, allowing creative license to enhance the characters and events and to allow me to freely explore this avenue of my family’s history.  During World War I, my great-great grandmother allegedly went “insane” when her four sons went off to fight, and when all returned safely, she became functional again.  In the meantime, her husband, a seemingly progressive man for the time, took her load as well as his own.  As I pummeled out the first draft, I changed some of the original details of the story.  For example, I made two of the four sons twins. To my knowledge, none of the boys were twins.  Also, none of them got into bootlegging, and no one murdered the oldest.  Additionally, I chose fictional names popular during the period, without asking my grandmother for those details.

As the story formed, I needed to make the mother’s (Prudence’s) mental illness believable, but through colloquial southern dialect of the early century. As I read and reread the first major drafts, I tried to create consistency in the characters, time frames, and language as I imagined for people and circumstances of the time.  For instance, speaking with older family members shed light on the rural southerners from the early 20th century.  They used colorful and limited vocabulary, but this by no means connoted ignorance. However, I assumed people in this area would not be familiar with psychology. From older relatives, I also gathered average rural Georgians would generally be kind, but no nonsense people, working with their hands and practicing “old time religion.”

When I received feedback on the story, the diversity of classmate suggestions helped me.  Few of the suggestions were surprising, but the specific details of where and what to revise helped me immensely.  The general pattern of suggestions included shaping stilted dialogue to be more organic, reworking minor glitches in character consistency and logistics, and tweaking the language to be fresh and believable for the education level and region of the characters. Almost all comment sets suggested fleshing out the boys’ return from the front in various ways. For starters, I went through every set of suggestions one by one, including those of the instructor, and wrote corrections in the margins on a fresh copy of my latest revision.  I chose to take strong comments and leave others.  If the professor noted an issue or classmates suggested something multiple times, I especially took note of those. After mulling through the draft about thirteen times, I punched in the corrections and added scene in places where they needed to be fleshed out.  By deepening the dialogue between Homer and Henry (the oldest son and father), for instance, I was able to develop more convincing characters and deepen the relationship between the two.  Moreover, I added more dimension to Prudence’s mental illness by more clearly explaining time frames involving her.  Additionally, incorporating more scenery near the end enabled the progress of the story to unfold more gradually and build resolution more satisfactorily.  I added detail to James’s (one of the younger sons) homecoming with an Italian wife, and the return of all the brothers, particularly Homer, who is the catalyst to the climax in the story. All this built better characterization and set the resolution in motion.

My story still has several drafts before it will be similar to anything I would consider “finished,” so please evaluate it accordingly.  For me, competent, much less efficient story writing comes from weeks and dozens of drafts.  Alas, six weeks cannot fully allow this.  I still need to work on the end scenes in the story, but they are here.  I will continue to revise, reshape, and rework various elements in the piece.  While I may be satisfied with the outcome at some point, for me, it will never be complete.  However, I feel my story has improved, and hopefully, you’ll find the revisions have moved the story in the right direction.

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5 thoughts on “Practice What You Teach

  1. Thank you. This is a really well written essay on the writing process. I share similar opinions on confronting the messiness of writing, not in my students’ writing, but of my own! While I have not shown them my own drafts and reflections, I verbalize how connected I am with the same process I teach in class– the best writing is in the rewriting. I talk to them about what it takes to research and write a dissertation, and occasionally I share what type of feedback I receive from my laser-sharp adviser and readers… even what happens when I don’t rewrite and revise as much as I should! Their confidence grows not only in what I tell them in class, but what I show them of my own struggles and successes as a writer. Best, ZCB

    • Thank you Zack. I think it is really important to show the students our vulnerable process of revision so they are more likely to get their hands dirty and undergo this growth process as well. Best, Rachel

  2. I really appreciate how you captured the sense of discovery that occurs when you give yourself permission to listen to advice. You weren’t surprised by the comments in general, but the specifics helped you to sharpen your insights. When later you decided to start working on the story, it sounds like you discovered that more than one thing fell into place, and that you had more to say than what you originally thought.

    I am always amazed by the process of writing. The process is often more fascinating than the final product. In the process, we discover who we are, and what our subconscious is trying to say about the world we observe. Thank you for sharing this awesome piece.

    • Thank you Laura. This piece is intended to do that, show them the process of writing. It is one thing to tell the students writing is a process, it is another to show them that process through tangible experience, I think.
      Best, Rachel

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