Kate Flora: Summer is a great time to refill the well of creativity. A quick trip to L.A. for The Sound of Music sing-along at the Hollywood Bowl. Passing banks of roses at the edge of the sea and admiring the swaths of lupines along the Maine roads.
Every summer I make the same vow: No, I will not teach. I will sit on my porch in an armchair and stare out at the sea and read books and play in my garden and work on a book and take it easy. And every summer, without fail, when I get the e-mail asking if I’d like to teach, I find myself saying yes. Why? Because, also without fail, spending three hours a week in a room full of writers is wonderful.
What do they teach me, you ask? What could they have to teach a writer who has been at
this for thirty years and is working on her twenty-sixth book? In a nutshell–everything. Much in the same amazing way that having a small child teaches us to see the world anew, spending time each week listening to writers take the same homework assignment and give it a dozen individual spins reminds me of all the tools we bring to the table when we sit down to write, and the many ways we can wield them.
Language? You bet. This room has writers from all over the world, from different age groups, who work at different careers. They may all be doing a sensory isolation exercise where they go to a place and write three paragraphs of description, each using a different sense, but when they share their work, they will take us into many different places and firmly anchor us there. From the deadly serious to the highly comedic, their writing helps them to understand their distinctive voices and world views, and reminds me of the importance of choosing the best word. Of crunchy nouns. Of the challenges of describing smells or the tactile nature of surfaces. Of dynamic flow. I am awed–and jealous–as I listen.
Voice? Again, you bet. Stunning opening lines. Powerful contrasts. Undisclosed yet evident character. Simple descriptions that manage to reveal deep emotional connections.
Writerly choices are all over the place.
How about a sense of place so powerful you can feel the blisters on your feet, the crunch of pine needles, smell the mingled scents of a summer commuter train or dining at an outside restaurant? How about an observing eye that makes things architectural? Or one that operates cinematically, beginning with the wide, establishment shot and then zooming in on the essence of the piece?
Or a sense of taste so vivid the entire class is hungry?
Or combining three such different smells that each one is elevated, giving the piece more depth?
There are no rules about where the place must be, and their writing flows from dark, fraught interior spaces and the cramped immediacy of a car seat to towering trees twisting in the wind and the varied grays of stormy skies.
I think you get the picture. Every summer I break my vow and teach another writing class because there’s a kind of magic that comes from doing it. Magic in the many ways that different writers can write. And a reminder that as writers, we never have have this craft knocked. We’re always learning. A reminder that we all began with the blank page, and all of those endless editing heads, perched on our shoulders like a many-headed hydra, telling us we’ll fail. We won’t get it right. We don’t know what we’re doing. So part of the magic is watching writers shrug off those don’ts, and you can’ts, and you musts, and finding their way to their own writing practice.
So sorry, lonely white L.L.Bean chair. I’m not on the porch after all. I’m spending time being inspired by writers. Maybe next year.