The art of everyone ?
Well, maybe not everyone, but part of the point of our website is to inspire creativity in the people we come in contact with. To that end, our founding editor, Florina Falce, thought it would be a good idea to offer workshops each quarter. We’re already planning courses on visual arts and cooking that will launch in 2021. But right away—starting in less than two weeks—we’ve got a writing workshop taught by Amy (McDaniel) Robinson.
I asked Amy (who is not only a writer / teacher extraordinaire, but also my wife) a few questions about her motivations as a teacher.
What’s your motivation for teaching writing and creativity? How is leading workshops rewarding for you?
The energy of my students motivates me. I guess, in a kind of precious way, I’d offer this caveat to your question: I don’t teach writing and creativity; I teach people. And another one: it isn’t so much rewarding as it is an almost appalling honor. Every time I begin teaching a class, I’m struck anew that students come ready to trust me, ready to learn, ready to listen and try things and push themselves. So they start by giving me this great gift, and then it’s my job to be a good steward of that gift. Because it is most certainly provisional, and all teachers must beware of forgetting that their students’ continued faith in them isn’t guaranteed.
I mean, it’s just a pleasure. A joy. In workshops, I get to witness a thousand transformations, moments of clarity, moments of discovery. When people grow as writers, or when people learn to nurture their creativity, they learn about themselves. They learn how much they can do and say and be.
What are some of your favorite moments of teaching, whether in the university or in Bangladesh or high school or NOLA or online writing workshops?
1. Our poetry evening at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh. I taught two first-year college writing seminars the semester I was in Bangladesh: poetry, and food and culture. There were probably 8 or 9 other writing seminars taught by other teachers, and when we looked at course selections, food and culture was close to the top choice, and poetry was by far the least popular. So I started with a pretty tough crowd, and I made them shout at the start of each class, “Poetry is for everyone! Poetry is not a secret code! Poetry can change your life!” and by week 2 or 3, they believed what they were shouting. Poetry changed all our lives that semester, and to celebrate, my students put together a beautiful poetry evening with readings and rose petals everywhere and candlelight and poetry activities for everyone.
2. In New Orleans, I co-taught a writing workshop for high school students who survived Katrina, which had happened less than a year before. They wrote personal narratives about the storm and its aftermath, which was still ongoing. We quickly learned that the actual writing would have to happen during class time, rather than back home, which for at least one student was a cramped FEMA trailer. And of course, in class, teenagers tend to distract themselves and each other. Out of seven students, we somehow ended up having three couples in the group, so hormones were one problem. So I kept saying, look, your name is going to be in this book, not mine. And they would get right back to work. But the funniest part was how one girl kept saying, every time I said that, “She’s playing y’all like a fiddle.” Or eventually she’d just say, “Like a fiddle!” Which, I mean, she was right. But I guess I’m a pretty good fiddle player, because it still worked, and we compiled their essays into a book that we sent to educators worldwide, and parts of it still make me cry when I reread it.
Can writing be taught?
Yes, but I’m not really sure I’m the one doing the teaching. I introduce my students to teachers: Joan Didion, James Baldwin, Charles Simic, Maggie Nelson, Roxane Gay. You know how people used to arrive in a new city with letters of introduction written by mutual acquaintances? Hemingway came to Paris with letters from Sherwood Anderson to Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Sylvia Beach, who owned Shakespeare and Company? The letters said young Ernest had extraordinary talent and that he and Hadley were delightful people to know. It’s like that in my classes. Like, here’s a writer you should know. She’s extraordinary. She’s delightful. She taught me something, too.
Nobody asks, can writing be learned. Of course it can be. I’m still learning every time I read something or work out a sentence or find a way to write the next one. But the difference is, when I was in writing workshops, I didn’t know how to do any of that, how to learn from mentor texts or find ways of revision that worked or motivate myself without an external deadline. So I don’t teach people to write; I teach them to learn to write. There’s a lot to it: learning to believe in yourself while also learning to accept feedback, learning how to think about audience while also not thinking about audience, learning how to read other writers—those teachers I mentioned—to find your own voice.
That’s how teaching writing is different from editing. Everybody needs a good editor, whether you’re self-publishing your cookbook or writing for The New Yorker. And sure, I give my students editorial feedback as a teaching practice, but my role is different. The goal is toward autonomy and self-possession as a writer. Once you’ve learned how to learn to write, and you’ve decided to devote yourself to writing, you don’t need a teacher like me anymore.
I know your novel is with a few agents right now.
Imagine you sold it for something ungodly, $675k—would you still want to teach this course (or, start StudioFriend.co?)
Dang, you’re really tempting fate with this question. But yes, absolutely. My ultimate vision for Studio Friend is to offer writing workshops and creativity classes and coaching to people who can’t afford anything of the sort. Ideally, at least half of my students would have full scholarships to our programming. So that could happen much more quickly if I had my own ungodly sum to work with. At the same time, I want it to be self-sustaining, so that the income from tuition, coaching packages, and subscriptions people who can afford to pay would cover the costs of scholarships and free subscriptions for teachers and all that.