I stared at my computer in shock.
Would I teach the course again in the fall? Absolutely. Not even a question.
The library wanted me back? Fabulous.
The surprise was that this was even necessary. But no – my short story class had sold out so quickly that the Community Libraries of Providence wanted to know if I would run it again. It was a free course, and who doesn’t love free, but for so many people to sign up that even the waitlist was filled? I was stunned.
After years as a software trainer, I finally moved into classroom teaching in the summer of 2022. While I (correctly) figured my skills would be transferrable, I didn’t expect a high demand for them, especially in a small city like Providence. I have always been self-deprecating, but I couldn’t help but wonder at the interest being sent my way. Call it serendipity, call it fate, call it something in the water, but the people wanted creative writing, and I was happy to give it to them. A last-minute gig teaching Intro to Creative Writing at Salve Regina University soon followed.
At first, my classroom teaching stemmed from purely mercenary motives. I had just been laid off, and would accept any offer to teach. You need a creative writing teacher, no matter how low-paying? Count me in.
As the fall progressed and I picked up two more library classes, I noticed something. I never left class feeling drained, something that had never been true with my corporate job. In fact, I felt invigorated. I jotted down notes in the margins of my teaching plans, stuck post-its full of character quotes in my planner. I ordered books on pedagogy, researched different writing exercises, and corrected my teaching style based live feedback. I wanted to get better.
More importantly, I liked it. I liked stepping into a room, talking about literature with a group of like-minded individuals, and discussing what was and wasn’t working. To see a student’s face shining with relief that their piece was good, and that their classmates liked it, was a beautiful sight.
Once I started working with my collegiate students, I realized that their instruction was also my own. I returned to my own novel draft with renewed vigor and a different perspective. Oh, I realized, each character focuses on a different aspect of time in their inner monologues: past, present, future. Each character has a different level of psychic distance. Oh. Oh. Oh. By coaching my students into better form, I was teaching myself. It was making me a better writer In the lifelong journey that is the writer’s craft, it was clearly the next step taking me from MFA graduate into a literary professional.
Mercenary concerns aside, I was still unconvinced of my own efficacy. Was anyone getting anything out of these classes? I was clearly benefiting. But anyone else? I didn’t know.
I needn’t have worried. In the fall of 2022, I saw R.F. Kuang speak at Brown while promoting Babel. When asked how she reconciled participating in an institution (academia) that she so often criticized, she answered: “Academia is one of the few places where discursive conversation still exists. It’s one place where everyone has done the reading, and you can expect everyone to have a nuanced discussion about what you’ve all just read. It’s a place where you can still be wrong.”
Her hopeful words about the sanctity of a classroom, of a learning space, reassured me. As minute as it seemed, my classroom was a safe haven where my students could experiment without the harsh strictures of the world bearing down on them. They could be wrong. They could try again. As my evaluations started to roll in, they corroborated R.F. Kuang’s thoughts. “Please let us know when you’re teaching again,” they said. “You created such a welcoming environment. It was a pleasure to be in class.” “I never thought I’d enjoy a class about writing,” one college student said. “I never thought of myself as a writer. Now I do,” said another.
I’m under no illusions here. I won’t pretend I’m saving the world. I’m not a doctor, or a surgeon, or a humanitarian worker. I’m just a writer. A creative writer, at that. And yet. I’m giving people space, space for them to express the most creative versions of themselves, a space they clearly need. I see the most vulnerable versions of my students – no matter their age. I see the wide-eyed childlike versions of themselves, the ones that delighted in stories and the magic of words before they were convinced to take the straight and narrow. Even still, I’m proof that that life route is no guarantee. You can still get laid off. That stable job can be less than stable.
So, why teach creative writing, anyways? Perhaps I let my own cynicism delude me. In a world hell-bent on devaluing the arts, I’m offering a safe enclave to be creative. And I’ll be here, no matter what. From online lectures to in-person classes, I’ve made it my personal mantra to ensure that my teaching is available to anyone, no matter the price point. It’s not even that surprising that my creative writing workshops have been successful, as I have greatly benefited from my own MFA and previous classes. It was my own insecurity that prevented me from seeing how beneficial creative writing – and its sanctified spaces – could really be. After all, training folks to use accounting software wasn’t going to make the world a demonstrably better place.
At the end of class, my students leave and go back to their lives. None of them may ever publish a piece of writing. But regardless, I hope they know that I am here to support their freedom of expression and that they’re welcome to try anything they’d like in my classroom. There is a need, and I will happily step up to the lectern.