Tag: teaching


Teaching, Writing, Teaching, Writing

My first teaching job was as a Sunday School teacher, which winds up being very good experience for being a writing teacher in New York City. Because the thing about teaching Sunday School is you can’t force anyone to stay. You can’t bribe them (although you can give the occasional bit of chocolate.) You can’t scare them (and you don’t want to. Of course.) All you can do is keep it interesting and hope they will want to stay in class.  During my time as a Sunday School teacher I was always trying to come up with ways to be interesting. I recall using sugar cubes to create a model of the great temple of Jerusalem. I would hide passages of the Bible and kids would have to find them. There were always a lot of marshmallows involved. And fire. If you give an 8th grade boy an opportunity to set something on fire, he will bond with you immediately. (For Ash Wednesday we would write down things we were sorry about and set them aflame.) The nice thing is that really all of my Sunday School students have gone on to be great people, and I love running into them. One is a minister. A great joy. When you teach a class of adult students, especially at night, when they are tired, many of the same rules apply. Without the fire. You have to keep things moving. You have to surprise them. I’m forever hunting for fun writing exercises, and for things to do at 9:30 at night, after we’ve all been sitting there for two and half hours. I’m always conscious of the fact that people are choosing to be in class, and they might just easily choose not to. When the class is over, and people are leaving and smiling at me and saying, “See you next week!,” I always feel like I’ve won a victory. And then I run for the train, and go back to my quiet little room and my dogs, and I write.

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During the summer I don’t go into NYC to teach for Gotham Writers, which is what I normally do. Instead I work for Gotham’s Mentoring program, which is to say I work one-on-one with students over the phone. Every Monday at 6:30, for example, I talk to one writer from New Hempshire who’s working on a cozy mystery. She’s just getting started, so we’re at a brainstorming stage and if anyone were listening to my side of the conversation they’d find me insane.   Does her uncle have a reason to kill her? Does that poison cause you to have convulsions? Could he secretly love her? Is there money involved? He seems nice, but who is he really? We spend our time speculating over murderous topics, and I feel like our energy feeds off each other. I always feel inspired about my own work when I’m done talking to her, and judging by how many pages she’s written, she’s inspired too. Then there’s an older gentleman from California, who’s been working on a short story for some time. Anyone who doubts whether writing can be taught should read his work. He’s gone from being somewhat long-winded to writing something that’s really good and he’s going to be sending out to literary magazines. Not all my students are published, but some are, and it’s always a triumph. Today I’ll be talking to a new student, and that’s always exciting. Who is this person and what are her dreams and what can I do to help her? It’s always a bit of a puzzle to figure out. A little bit like constructing a mystery.     

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Two classes

Although I spend a lot of time writing, reading manuscripts, walking dogs and watching Dancing with the Stars, every Wednesday I emerge from my lair and teach two novel-writing writing classes in NYC. I teach one from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then the next from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. In between I hang out at the Gotham Writers offices, which is a fun place to be, and I usually spend the time working on a chapter of something. What that means is that every Wednesday I get to hang out with 28 or so novelists. That also means I’m reading 28 novels in progress. And it’s taught me many things. 1. Writing a novel is an exercise in patience. Some of the people in my class having been working on their novels for 4 years, and they’re not done. They’re serious writers and they’ve taken on ambitious topics and it just takes a long time.  2. Revision really works. There is a huge difference between the first draft of a novel and the fifth, and yes. Sometimes it takes five drafts. Sometimes more! 3. No one really knows what they’re doing (the teacher included). Everyone writes a novel in their own way, but my job is to help my students figure out what is the best way for them. 4. Writing can be a lonely job, and it helps to have a supportive bunch of people around. 5. People in a workshop can see things in your work that you just cannot see for yourself. It does help to have readers who can tell you what they don’t understand, and where your work seems slow, and what you’ve done that’s wonderful.  6. Everyone has a strength. Sometimes it’s plotting, sometimes it’s dialogue, sometimes it’s voice. Once you know your strength, then you can jump into the fray. 7. Writing is exciting and satisfying and exhausting and worthwhile. So is teaching.

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What's in a name?

I teach novel-writing for Gotham Writers in New York City. My classroom is in an office building that looks right out on to Times Square. So from my window, I see something like this picture. Even when my class gets out, at 10 pm, it still looks like that.  Sometimes it’s a little scary. The other night I left work and walked by two people, arms folded across their chests, sleeping in a box shaped to look like a coffin. But for the most part working in Times Square is exhilarating, and I feel like I’m tapping into the energy that makes New York City so vital. My classes tend to reflect that vitality. My students come from all over the world–from Haiti and Dubai and London and Pakistan and of course, from the United States too. Their names are often unfamiliar to me. I grew up in a suburban part of Long Island, in a time and place where most of my friends were named Betty or Marcy or Patty. So it’s always a worry for me that I am either going to forget or mispronounce one of my student’s names. So I’ve hit on this writing exercise I do at the start of each class, in which I have each student write about how she came to have her name. The stories are always fascinating. Some students are named after a relative. A surprising number are named after characters in TV shows. Others have names that are completely made up, which is fun too. For example, one of my students has a name that has a syllable from each of her mother’s best friends. When I hear the stories behind the names, it becomes much easier for me to remember who the people are. I spend a lot of time thinking about the names of the characters in my mysteries. Usually I have a pretty good idea, but one character gave me a really hard time in my new book, Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency. She’s the person who comes to hire Maggie. She’s rich, proud, a bit distant, of French descent. She’s also a devoted caretaker to her mother. She’s essentially a good person in a prickly package. Originally I was going to call her Augusta, and have people in the village call her Gussie. But the more I wrote the name Gussie, the less it felt like her. I spent hours going through directories of French names. Jacqueline? Too fancy. Claudette? Too sexy. On and on, until finally I found the name Racine. Not a name that has a nickname. Just a slicing sort of name. It fit perfectly, and that’s how Racine Stern came to be in my book. Where does your name come from?      

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