Pensive Prowler #17 by Dmetri Kakmi
The Indelicate Art of Teaching Writing
Being a writing teacher is not easy. Some days you want to strangle a student. Harsh words. Spoken out of rashness and frustration. Words I will regret. Let me explain and you might find sympathy in your heart for my predicament.
Earlier in the month, as I addressed a writers’ group about the work that lies ahead for the year, a participant asked what is genre. Later the same man asked what is a protagonist, and later still he ventured to query the meaning of chapter.
Flummoxed, I tried to accomodate and then threw my hands up in despair when he suggested I produce a list of “specialist publishing words” so that he can refer to it as I speak. This for a group of men and women who are supposed to have full control of English, and who have been writing for some time and wish to workshop their efforts with other writers. That is the course outline.
Genre, protagonist, chapter. These are English words in everyday use, I pointed out to the gentleman. There is nothing “specialist” about them. Besides, a professed writer such as himself ought to be familiar with elementary writing concepts if he hopes to get anywhere with his work. “What’s elementary mean?” he said.
Minutes later, another participant announced he does not read books. At which point the room closed in on me.
I boarded the train later that evening feeling dismayed and wondering what the hell I’m doing. This teaching to write business is a sham, I told myself. You can’t teach people to write. You can create a safe, encouraging environment. You can pass on techniques about how to achieve this or that effect, but talent and drive can’t be taught. They’re innate. You either have them or you don’t. You’re either driven to write or you play at “being creative”. You either practise until you hone your craft to the best of your ability, or you sit in front of the television, watching Game of Thrones and telling yourself you can write that book, given half a chance. Only better. One day. Not today. Maybe tomorrow. After that essential cup of tea. And the world will be astounded.
This palaver, this laziness of the mind, cuts to the core. I take my work as a writer and as an editor seriously. I’ve dedicated my life to it. Nothing was given me on a platter. As a Greek migrant in Australia, I fought hard for every scrap on my desk. Therefore, it’s galling to meet people who think they can waltz in and have everything laid out for them. It’s the lack of respect. Not for me. For the craft.
The blame fall squarely on the writing industry. To get funding and to perpetuate the many tentacled beast it has become it fosters the idea that we must all be creative; that every one is a writer and everyone deserves to be heard. To which I say, pish-posh. That’s very equitable. But it’s not true. Everyone is not a writer. That’s like saying everyone is a ballet dancer because they enjoy watching it once in a while. People may have a story to tell but that doesn’t mean they have the ability, or even the will, to tell it, even after they’ve attended a number of memoir writing classes in Paris or a Greek island. To claim otherwise is false and unfair. It brings in bright-eyed people who are bound for disappointment.
Writing is a discipline, like music or painting. A writer is someone who dedicates her life to the act of writing and who spends the better part of her life nurturing a talent she cannot step away from. A writer is someone who writes every day, who steals two or three hours here and there, and bends her back to the task, refining, honing. A writer is someone who has done the hard yards through daily practise and through persistence, study and contemplation, hoping to scale the summits.
It’s not someone who picks up a pen once and finds it a strain on the muscles.
It’s not someone who is taken by the glamour of it all.
In a way, the writing life begins the minute you pop out of the womb. For me it’s to do with love of words.
Growing up in Turkey, I could read before I went to school. Family legend has it I used to pick up newspapers and magazines in the street and read, as if it came naturally. Or as if I had been taught in a classroom of the mind to decipher the Turkish alphabet, which was the language ethnic Greeks spoke on the street. At home, we spoke Greek. Mind you, I could not read or write Greek, my native tongue until later, when I came to Australia. I merely spoke a dialect, which mixed an islander Greek with Turkish to create a unique melange of its own. In any case, I could read Turkish before I went to school; and then, when the family migrated to Australia when I was ten, I picked up English in a matter of months.
I’m not big-noting myself. The point is this. Language is imperative to communication, and I did everything in my power to meet the challenge. When writing’s clarion was too loud to ignore, I put myself through the wringer to learn inconsequential things, such as how to structure a sentence. Syntax. Grammar. Punctuation. Gaining an extensive vocabulary and so on.
In other words, I learned all the archaic things people deride nowadays as they jumble a limited stock of words and emojis in the faint hope of expressing themselves in wooly sentences.
The pleasure in teaching is in supporting dedicated writers. They absorb the teacher’s knowledge and experience and then they supplement it with their own intensive study and passion. They don’t turn up empty handed, expecting to be force fed like geese bound for foie gras. They do the groundwork. They know the rules of the game. They know that in certain literary genres the unwary protagonist, like the unwary student, can be killed in the first chapter. It’s elementary.
Dmetri Kakmi (Episode 158) is a writer and editor based in Melbourne, Australia. The memoir Mother Land was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. His essays and short stories appear in anthologies and journals. You can find out more about him here.