The challenge(s) of teaching writing

By Caitlin Kelly

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Maybe it’s really unfair to teach writing without ever having formally studied it, or having been taught how to teach; (I studied English literature at the University of Toronto.)

Yet I’ve been teaching others how to write better for decades, starting with an undergraduate journalism class in Montreal at Concordia University. I was then only 30, barely a few years older than some of my students, some of whom were…not terribly motivated.

I admit it — I’m not the best teacher for people who just don’t care to work, and work hard. Writing can be fun, and deeply satisfying, but it always has to resonate with your reader.

It’s not just all about you!

And if you’re not reading a lot, and widely, across genres and styles, you’re unlikely to be, to to become, a terrific writer.

You’ve got to read a lot, and some tough, smart stuff, to analyze and appreciate the skill and structure of great writing.

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Just because the tools — laptops, phones, tablets — are now easy to acquire for so many people, there’s a fantasy that writing should be easy as well. Thanks to computers, anyone can now bang out a gazillion words and hit send or publish and say — DONE!

(Oh for the long-lost days of typewriters, the bang and clash and clickety-click. Best of all, the ripping out of an offending piece of paper, {what was I thinking?!} the crumple and toss of it. How far can I throw the damn thing!?)

A few steps the best prose requires:

Have you revised the hell out of it?

Have you read it in hard copy?

Have you read it aloud?

Have you shared it with a few critical beta readers?

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I’m now teaching, again, a four-week class at the New York School of Interior Design, on East 70th St. in Manhattan, where I studied in the 90s, thinking I’d leave journalism and change careers. I loved my classes there, and did well, but my first marriage ended and it didn’t feel like a great decision to start a new career at entry-level wages.

I love the variety of people who take my classes there, a mix of ages, experience and nationalities. I never assume a specific level of skill, which makes it even more challenging — where to begin?

This time I kicked off our first two-hour class, only one of four, with a song lyric by one of my favorite musicians, British singer/songwriter Richard Thompson, whose work is astonishing.

The song, Train Don’t Leave, is only 2:21 but tells an entire story of conflict and resolution. That’s tight writing!

Here’s a few lines:

She’s sitting on the train, the train’s gonna to leave
Bags in her hand, tears on her sleeve
Banging on the window with all of my might
But she won’t look to the left or the right
We had a fight and it wasn’t pretty
Now she’s leaving, ain’t it a pity
Going to wait tables, down in the city
Hold that red light one more minute
6:18’s got my baby in it

Note the verb tense; the conversational voice; the visual and auditory details (bags in her hand, banging on the window), the emotion…

The best writing combines the personal and universal.

It connects with the reader quickly and deeply, whether the work is a news story, a poem, a novel, a letter to the editor.

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One of my favorite books, written by a British Airways 747 pilot

It’s not easy!

What do you find most challenging about writing?

How are you learning to do it better?

(And, yes, I coach and offer webinars! Here’s the link.)

The tribe meets…

By Caitlin Kelly

The late, great NYT writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker at many such events
The late, great NYT writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker at many such events

1. A unit of sociopolitical organization consisting of a number of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent. 

Whether you write poetry, fiction, journalism — or unanswered emails — writers’ conferences are the place where the tribe finally meets.

In the past few weeks alone, there’s been AWP, the AHJC, The Washington Independent Review of Books and ASJA.

You might be a high school student trying to choose a college writing program, or her mother, seeking advice after decades of experience, like the Texas woman I mentored.

You might be a Toronto tech writer teaching us all how to use Twitter by tweeting with a few astronauts in the International Space Station.

You might be a legendary biographer telling us how gender affects your choices.

Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She was so much fun!
Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She was so much fun!

We meet to compare scars — rejected manuscripts, lousy agents, silent editors, killed stories, the-fellowship-we-didn’t-win (again!).

We meet to celebrate triumphs — the fellowship finally won, the grant, the residency, the award(s), the teaching position(s.)

We meet to fiercely hug people we’ve only spoken to, for months, maybe years, by email or Skype or in writers’ online groups.

We meet to learn how to (better) use social media, how to conduct research more effectively, how to sell to trade magazines, how to avoid being sued and having to sue a deadbeat publisher.

We meet to hear how to win a fellowship that, as one dear friend said so well, will pay us more to not write a word for a year than a year’s hard work writing.

We — professional observers — get to see who arrives wearing cowboy boots or a very large hat or a silk floral dress.

We — paid to listen carefully for our living — hear who offers a loud monologue to a polite-but-bored fellow writer.

Like every ambitious professional — whether 10 minutes into their career or decades — we’re all eager to learn new skills and polish the ones we have. We want to hear what the latest technology tools can do to help us work better/faster/more efficiently.

My first book
My first book

It is a very small world, and one where an incautious word chattered in a hallway, or over lunch or in the ladies’ room, or tweeted in haste, can haunt you years later.

A powerful player who shared my lunch table in Bethesda a week earlier — where I spoke on a panel at the Washington Independent Review of Books meeting — passes me in the Manhattan hotel hallway a week later at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, which just ended and which I also attended.

A writer who moderated a panel in Maryland now sits as an audience member in Manhattan.

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)
My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

The rooms are perfumed with that writer-specific blend of insecurity/ambition/ego/nerves/excitement/hope/dread/fear…

We’re bound to — as I did — run into the woman whose fellowship I have applied to three times (so far) but never won.

We’re bound to run into the younger writer we taught or mentored whose career has sky-rocketed while our has not — offering them, our brightest smile tightly fixed, our congratulations.

We’re bound to run into a colleague we love and admire who finally, deservedly, got a fantastic fellowship — and the one we’ve loathed for years now crowing over her six-figure advance and/or annual income.

Like other creative fields — acting, art, film, dance — there is no level playing field. Even if we never publicly acknowledge it, we all know it; talent does not guarantee financial success. Hard work may never produce the results — prestige, respect, national attention — some of us so crave.

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People you love personally may flail for years creatively while people you find socially vile thrive and chest-beat via social media to remind us all how amazing they are.

All the academic credentials — the costly BA, MFA, even (maybe especially), the Phd — can’t protect a writer from a book that just doesn’t find a publisher or fails to net glowing blurbs or reviews from the right people.

The tribe knows that.

You can, always, hide deep within its folds.

The writer’s week: Skyping Holland, grading papers, waiting for news of….

By Caitlin Kelly

THINK LIKE A REPORTER

For those of you new to Broadside, every six weeks or so I describe my working life as a full-time writer living in New York. I write for newspapers, magazines, websites, anyone whose pay is sufficient, whose work is challenging and can use my skills; details and samples here.

Email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com if you’ve got some!

Monday

Juggling three assigned stories, two for the financial website Investopedia and one for The New York Times, for whom I’ve been writing freelance for many years. Having a terrible time sourcing the Times piece though and have shaken every tree I can think of: my LinkedIn contacts, LinkedIn groups, Facebook friends and Twitter. I need to find couples living, or soon to live outside the U.S. and reach out to my many friends worldwide, from Austria to Germany to Bhutan to Britain.

Finally! I find a couple who fits the bill and schedule a Skype interview with them from Holland for next week.

An editor I’ve been working with for years, but have yet to meet face to face, offers me a rush job for a very nice fee. Luckily, I have a spare few days in which to take it on. Another story with elusive sources finally comes together as I find enough people and pitch the editor; we haggle over money and I now await the assignment.

It’s a constant balance of how much time to invest in putting together a pitch (i.e. an idea for a story, not the finished thing) and when to hit “send” to an assigning editor.

"It's the one with he goats in front"...Pratt's deKalb Hall, built in 1955
“It’s the one with the goats in front”…Pratt’s deKalb Hall, built in 1955

Tuesday

I teach two classes this fall at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and 3pm Tuesday is the deadline for my writing students. It’s interesting to see who sends their work in soonest and who waits til the very last minute. I’m really enjoying their writing, but it’s also strange to be so vulnerable to their subjective opinions of me and my teaching — their evaluations  will determine my fate.

Pitching more stories to Cosmopolitan, USA Today, More magazine. Reached out to editors I was last in touch with a few months ago to see if they have anything for me to work on.

Check in with a Toronto writer whose agent is supposed to pitch a collection of essays, mine among them. The book proposal still hasn’t gone out yet; it’s nice to be enough of a “name” that my inclusion might help sell it.

And yet…I share a name with a younger writer at The New Yorker. A Manhattan headhunter emails me to tell me about a job opportunity. Sweet! Several emails later, it’s clear the headhunter has no idea who I am and thinks (!) she has been emailing the other one. For fucks’ sake.

Our rings
Our rings

Wednesday

I hear about a terrific editing position — in Toronto. I live in New York. I apply for it and my husband says, of course; a great job is a rare thing in my industry these days. Most journalism jobs don’t pay enough to justify a commuter marriage, but you never know.

Awaiting the results of a fellowship I’ve applied for in Chicago. The topic I’ve proposed — to study gun violence there — interests me, as it was the subject of my first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.”

I go for my usual Wednesday morning walk with a friend, who thinks there’s money in writing books. Sadly, there really isn’t for most writers.

Today is my third wedding anniversary, so Jose and I meet for drinks and dinner in Manhattan at The Lion, whose back room is gorgeous and welcoming. The room is buzzing, filled with 20-somethings.

In a table near the front sits actress Susan Sarandon — almost as pleasant a surprise as finding a free/unpaid parking spot directly in front of the restaurant, saving me $30 or so for a garage.

The New York subway is more....interesting...but driving is quicker
The New York subway is more….interesting…but driving is quicker

Thursday

It’s a good two hour drive from our home to Pratt’s campus. We live north of Manhattan, and I drive down the FDR, the highway on the East Side of Manhattan, intrigued by the city’s mix of poverty and wealth. Under one of the bridges, homeless people still sleep in their blankets and sleeping bags while helicopters arrive at the helipad, gleaming Escalades waiting to ferry the 1% crowd to wherever they’re headed. Police boats and barges and working vessels pass on my left on the East River.

I climb the four flights of stairs to reach my first classroom.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus
Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Lunch in the college cafeteria, meeting with a student, then 2.5 hours’ downtime before I teach blogging there at 4:30 to 6:20. Tonight is a faculty reception at the president’s home, which is spectacular, the original mansion built for the founder of Pratt, a 19th century industrialist. I chat briefly with two other professors then head off into the night — and get lost. I swing around Prospect Park twice in frustrated, exhausted horror. I can’t read my map, (the print is too small), and just keep driving until — finally — I find my way to the highway I need.

Friday

Into Manhattan for a meeting of the volunteer board of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, which can grant up to $4,000 within a week to a non-fiction writer in financial crisis. We were getting many requests in the past few years but, luckily, many fewer these days.

Long discussion, with no clear resolution, as to what now constitutes a “freelance writer” — when so many people write for so little payment or even none at all.

I hop a city bus downtown to the East Village and discover that my Metrocard has expired; the driver kindly lets me ride anyway.

It’s a gorgeous sunny fall day and I wander East 9th Street, only to discover that one of my favorite shops has closed.

Gone!
Gone!

I drop into another, a fantastic vintage store where I scored big last winter, and decide against a chocolate suede hat for $88. In a sidewalk cafe, I watch European tourists and models and just….sit still for a change, enjoying calm, carrot cake and mint tea.

Fresh mint tea. Perfect!
Fresh mint tea. Perfect!

Finally meeting a source — an American woman living and working in Bahrain — for dinner. I interviewed her by email a few years ago, and we’ve been following one another on Twitter. We’re meeting in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel on 44th Street, once a legendary hangout for writers but now a more-polished upscale version of itself. I’ve been coming here for decades and have seen it through three (so far) renovations.

The evening is a bit of a blind date for both of us but we’re laughing like mad within minutes of meeting one another as we discover a raft of unlikely common interests. Like me, she’s a quirky, feisty mix of ideas and entrepreneurship.

It’s rare to become friends with a story source, but it’s nice when it happens.

 

Back to school!

By Caitlin Kelly

"It's the one with he goats in front"...deKalb Hall, built in 1955
“It’s the one with the goats in front”…deKalb Hall, built in 1955

Guess what Robert Redford and I have in common?

The Brooklyn-based school where this week I start teaching freshman writing and a small mixed-year class on blogging, Pratt Institute.

The college, ranked in the top 20 in the Northeast U.S., occupies its own campus, a long rectangle in Clinton Hill, whose collection of handsome buildings made it, in 2011, named by Architectural Digest as one of the nation’s most attractive campuses.

When I went there for my interview, I was running through thick snow. I’d never been on campus and wasn’t sure which building it was, so I asked a passing student.

“It’s the one with the goats in front.”

And it is…a row of goat statues stands in front of the building, itself, designed in 1955 by the legendary firm of McKim, Mead and White.

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If I get the enrolment we hope for, I’ll also be teaching students at the New York School of Interior Design, in Manhattan on East 70th. Street. I’m excited and honored to return to the school, where I was a student myself in the 1990s, hoping to leave journalism for a new career; my marriage ended abruptly and I decided to stop my studies.

I did very well there, learned a lot I’ve used ever since in my own home and helping others design theirs. I loved the school and its small, rigorous classes and passionate instructors. I had only happy memories of my time there.

One of their foundation classes, Historical Styles, required memorizing every element of interior design from ancient Egypt to the year 1900. What did a 16th century Italian bedroom look like? What fabric would you find on an 18th century Swedish chair? Would an English floor in the 14th century be tile? Earth? Wood?

Nor would I ever again confuse Louis IV, V or VI again! (We called it Hysterical Styles. It was tough!)

I still remember the passion of my English professors from my undergrad years at the University of Toronto, especially our Chaucer prof, who has us all reading Middle English aloud. Practical? No. Amazing and fun and a great lesson in the power of language? Yes.

It’s been an interesting challenge to find and choose readings for my syllabi, and I’ve got everyone from David Finkel (on war) to Rose George (on the shipping industry.)

I enjoy teaching and know that a terrific teacher can forever inspire a student and alter their course, just as a rude, dismissive one can crush young idea(l)s very easily. It’s a challenge to balance cracking the whip for excellence with scaring the shit out of everyone; one friend, who teaches journalism in Arizona, has been called “tough” and “difficult” in her student evaluations.

Both of which are really code for “demanding.”

If you aren’t required to produce excellence in college, it won’t magically occur to you when you’re competing to keep and get a good job. College is about much more than graduating and “getting a job”, certainly, but understanding what it means to meet high standards — to me — is as much a part of the experience as any specific subject matter.

My English degree from U of T never won me a job. No one asked for my GPA nor about Chaucer nor my understanding of 16th. century drama or Romantic poetry. But the ferocity and passion of my profs in those four years made very clear to me, from my very first freshman class, what excellence looked like, and what it takes to achieve.

That has proven valuable.

My college experience wasn’t one of partying and drunken escapades. I was far too busy freelancing every spare minute, for national newspapers and magazines after my sophomore year, to earn the money to pay my bills, living alone in a small studio apartment. So I have only a small handful of college friends, never had a college room-mate and, when my alma mater calls me for donations — as it did recently — I decline.

College was helpful to me, but it was also often a lonely time with a lot of financial stress; U of T is huge (50,000+ students) and, then, paid little to no attention to undergraduates as individuals. So I don’t have the sort of gauzy nostalgia, or deep gratitude for a lucrative later career, that would prompt me to open my checkbook.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus
Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Are you headed back into the classroom?

If a student, what year and what are you studying?

If a teacher or professor, how about you?