November 22, 2012 5 Comments
Like most writers, I have to work to support my writing. Unlike a lot of writers, I get to do something really awesome. I get to teach. Teaching is a wonderful privilege. And while the responsibility of growing and shaping young minds can sometimes be a little daunting, witnessing that light bulb moment when a student grasps a concept or learns a new skill, is a powerful motivator to become even more effective. And teaching creative writing is no exception.
Prior to my life as a writer, I taught high school computer studies for years before leaving teaching. I spent about five years doing other things before I started taking my writing seriously enough to write full-time. These days I teach creative writing to high school students and computer literacy to primary school students to support myself while I write.
I value teaching immensely. Not because it keeps me in contact with the demographic for whom I write, and not because it provides me with plenty of plot and character ideas for my novels, though both of these are absolutely true and have immense value and advantage for an author. I value the experience of teaching because despite the fact that I am the teacher, I have learnt so much from my students. Teaching these kids is making me a better writer.
There’s the seven-year-old who hasn’t yet mastered the art of forming letters or writing words with a pencil but who can write paragraphs of a story she has imagined using a computer keyboard; the fifteen-year-old boy who communicates only through grunting supplemented by various other bodily sounds, but who writes beautiful prose about the world as he sees it. The fourteen-year-old girl who always has a smile on her face but who shared her inner turmoil by writing a heart-breaking suicide letter that required immediate intervention, and the twelve-year-old with extreme anxiety issues who cannot speak but writes science-fiction narratives that wouldn’t be out of place in a sci-fi anthology.
Writing gives kids a release—sometimes their only release. It gives them an opportunity to make a connection, not just with the world around them, but with themselves. And in doing so they learn how to utilise an age-old instrument of power—the pen, or keyboard, as it was. No matter that the process of writing is different these days, the power it conveys is the same.
Not so long ago, a sixteen-year-old boy in one of my writers’ groups wrote a story about a kid who had been taught to use drugs at age six. SIX. The narrative told the story of a child living on the streets and being taken under the wing of group of teenagers. It had an intimate knowledge of scoring, and self-administering drugs. But more disturbingly, it told of the trade-off the young boy had to make for the care of the older boys. He wrote that learning to take drugs was the best thing that could have happened to this little boy. The young author had based his story in a city of Australia. I asked him about it. He shrugged and said nothing. I talked generally to the group about authenticity and believability, about real places and events being consistent with those places. In my mind, I was wondering how realistic this kind of story would be in this place (Australia) at this time (2000s). At the end of my time with that group, as I was finishing up at that school, the author told me that the little boy in the story he wrote was him. It was a true story. His story.
I was gobsmacked. This kid had fallen through the cracks in a system designed to protect children, and had survived on the streets by himself for five years. He’d been living in a comparatively stable environment since he was eleven, but (understandably) not without problems both at home and at school. But this boy was alive. He was not in gaol, he was not drug-addicted, and he was not violent. He was a quiet, introspective, albeit sullen boy, who managed to get himself to school every day, maintain friendships and even work at a part-time job. And he wrote. And I am a better person for having read his story.
They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and there are some stories, true or not, that would not sell because readers could not or would not relate to them. It’s probably true. I used to consider this when I began plotting. I don’t anymore. I don’t care. If these kids can overcome the loss of family, being abused, abandoned, neglected, rejected, and survive to tell their stories, I will read them. And value them. And when I feel inclined to complain about writers’ block or having to work to support my writing, I’ll thank my lucky stars that I have the wonderful opportunity to teach writing to kids who could really use the opportunity to share their stories.