“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” Kurt Vonnegut
In my MFA program, I kept bucking against one problem in every class on the teaching of writing that I took – no one was telling me how to write a syllabus. I’d sit – through discussions on innovative ways to reach communities with writing classes, through tear-filled talks about empowering the voices of our students, through heated arguments about the power-hierarchy in a classroom – and the whole time, I kept thinking, “When are they going to tell me what readings to assign and how much writing to require each week?”
I wanted to know the HOW of teaching.
How do you write a novel? How do you begin an essay? How do you write a great last line for a poem?
Writers ask these “how” questions a lot because it is easier to ask them than to actually write.
The truth is that there is no answer to any of these questions that will work for more than writer or even for that writer more than one time.
The only answer is to write, to try, to jump, and then fly.
What my MFA mentors at Antioch knew but I didn’t, yet, was that like writing, the teaching of writing is not about the HOW but about the act of putting words to the page. There is no formula for writing a perfect writing syllabus – it’s trial and error, just like the writing itself.
This is why revision is such an essential element of writing – we try, we fail mostly but find a tiny rock to cling to on the way off the cliff, and we climb back up to try again. That’s all there is. No perfect practice. No ten step formula. No “figure it out once and do it exactly the same every time after.”
As a teacher, I’m learning this again and again -that my job is to introduce techniques, to give models, to push students to probe, to help them to the top of the cliff, and then to give them a little shove so that they jump. Then, I scramble down to be there when they land, tending wounds and helping them back to the top of the cliff again.
Writing is trial – by fire and tumble, by water and jagged rock. All there is to do is write and then write again.
Like life – a day over every twenty-four hours. Full of new cliffs to stare from and the chance, every day and every page, to feel the weightlessness of the fall.
And once in a while, our feet catch the wind just right, and we fly, arms outstretched and mouth wide open. But sometimes we fall hard, and we go head over head through the air. There is gift in this, too, for we learn, and sometimes at the bottom of the cliff we find the bluest water filled with golden starfish, all waving their arms to cheer us on.
Flying or crashing. For these moments, every jump off that cliff is worth it.
What stories do you have flying or falling?