Beware of Writing Teachers

Pat Schneider writes in her book, Writing Alone and With Others, that a good writing teacher will make you want to write and a bad one will make you feel like quitting. (paraphrased) That’s a little simplistic, but I think she has something there. It doesn’t matter what credentials your prospective teacher has, what matters is does she inspire and encourage you to write?

I took two writing classes when I was in college. Both were on writing creative nonfiction, but one was for beginners and the second was for those who had a little experience. I managed to get into the second one based on work I did in the first. I had a wonderful experience with the first class and the second one almost destroyed me as a writer. I’m still recovering from the damage.

Both teachers are published writers who have written several books, both fiction and nonfiction. Both are nationally known. Both were great teachers. But I reacted completely differently to each of them. At the end of the first class, I was eager to go on, which is why I applied for the second one. Little did I know that it would be my undoing.

The first teacher was a man and the second a woman. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it. But I do know that the second teacher caused me to make an emotional investment in her as a person and when I didn’t feel like she liked me that well, it felt like she was telling me that I was a bad writer. She had (has) a strong personality, scads of charisma, and a very personal way of relating to her students. She made you feel like she really liked you and cared about you–until something happened and she suddenly became cold. That’s when I felt completely undermined as a writer. I was like a little child who thinks she causes her parent to abuse her: If I was a better little girl (writer), she wouldn’t abuse me (shut me out).

Not that this teacher was abusive. She was always completely charming. She would sign her emails: Love, ______, and would tell you that she wanted to be your friend. Toward the end of the quarter she mentioned that she liked to get together with her friends, and somehow I got the idea that she might like to go to lunch with me. So I asked her and she accepted and we met a couple of weeks later for lunch. We were having a nice conversation on the surface, but I could sense that her attention was wandering. When we parted, she was fine, but didn’t say that she’d like to do it again sometime. That was fine, but when I sent her a friendly email later, she completely ignored it. I waited a while and sent another. I never asked her to lunch or anything. She ignored that one. I began to feel like a stalker. And I finally stopped emailing her; it was just to painful to be rejected.

On one level, this didn’t have a thing to do with what she thought of me as a writer. But the rejection of myself as a person translated itself into feeling rejected as a writer. Pat Schneider states that “A good teacher engages you with affection and keeps appropriate boundaries.” Perhaps my story is a good example of why that’s so important. I wasn’t in that class to make a friend; I was there to learn how to write. I ended up torn about myself as a potential friend and writer.