I’m often asked why I teach. The pay, if there is any, is pitiful, and I usually spend more time preparing to teach than I do teaching (although I’m getting a little better about that). The answer is that I love being inspired. When I watch someone struggle to do something that’s relatively easy for me, my natural inclination is to offer assistance. When I see a student make the transition from someone wondering if they can write to someone who knows damn well they can write, my inspiration bucket suddenly overflows. They’ve accomplished something, and so have I.
I’ll never take credit for what they’ve achieved, but I’ll revel in the knowledge that I helped them do it. The feeling is amazing, and amazingly difficult to explain.
I remember the day I opened a box containing a shipment of my first published novel, Druids, a collaboration with my Canadian writer friend, Barbara Galler-Smith. We’d worked on the project for over a decade, and when I held a real, live copy of the book in my hands for the very first time, I wept. Not a very manly thing to do, I know, but I couldn’t have stopped those tears any more than I could have parted the Red Sea on command. (Druids is one helluva book, by the way. You can get a copy here.)
That was ten novels ago, and while I no longer tear up when a copy of a new book arrives, I still feel a thrill. And it’s not all that different from the feeling I get when a student of mine experiences the same tangible proof of their success. They’re holding something only they could have done, the product of their imagination and hard work. That book, and any accolade for it, belongs to them.
For me, that process begins in the classroom (mine are all continuing ed classes). It begins with a small crowd of hopeful, curious, and often doubtful people. They’re there to learn, to see if they’ve got what it takes, to see if they, too, can create something from nothing. Their doubts are based on fears, imagined or real. Some of them hated writing in school; for some, English is a second language; for still others, they’ve gotten the idea they’re too old to start working on something as difficult as writing a book–any kind of book. And yet, they keep coming to the classes. They keep working on their skills. They keep asking for more and better techniques, methods and strategies for improvement.
And they do improve!
They figure out how to bend the writing “rules,” such as they are, to their will. They learn what works and what doesn’t. They share their efforts with other students, offer insights and suggestions, make comments and evaluate the pros and cons of story, theme, setting, character, plot, and all the other elements that go into the stew. Learning to recognize the good and bad in the work of others makes it easier to discern it in their own. I can tell them what to look for, but ultimately they’re the ones who must find it.
And every time they succeed, I succeed a little bit, too. It’s not altruism; I’m as unlikely a candidate for sainthood as anyone you’ll ever meet. I have an addiction; I thrive on the accomplishments of those I mentor. They inspire me, recharge my batteries, and motivate me to go back to work, whether it’s writing or teaching.
Over the past three years, six of my charges have published books–three of them twice! And another half dozen will join them before the year is out. That’s what I call inspiration.
God, how I love what I do!