My Teaching Philosophy:
Zig Ziglar, a Mad Scientist, and the Sublime Fiction Triangle
Zig Ziglar asked, “Do you want to be a wondering generality, or a meaningful specific?” That question impacts my life, writing and teaching.
Years ago, when I was a young and struggling single mother of two small children, a friend gave me a cassette tape of Zig Ziglar talking about goal setting. My friend Gary thought it would help me focus on finishing my undergraduate degree and making a better life for myself and my family. It took weeks of my friend calling to see if I’d listened to the tape for me to finally put it in the car’s cassette player one morning on the way to work, just so I could say, “Yes, Gary! I listened to it!” That tape changed my life. I listened to the tape periodically as I finished my BA and developed a small business, a cleaning service. I wore the tape out and had to buy another one. The thing that triggered my focus and honed my determination was this. Zig Ziglar asked, “Do you want to be a wondering generality, or a meaningful specific?” That question still has an impact on the way I live my life, and I still listen to Zig. Some folks think Zig is just for sales reps. That’s a mistake. That question has also had an impact on my writing and my teaching. I realized whenI began teaching creative writing that I was asking students to use meaningful specifics.
The Mad Scientist
Thirty years ago I went to college to study microbiology and anatomy and physiology. I learned anatomical structure layer by layer as I dissected formaldehyde-soaked cats. I studied the beginnings of communal behavior by closely observing developing cultures in Petri dishes swabbed with everyday substances. What was invisible became visible; from what appeared to be nothing, something specific took shape. Much of my education depended on looking, and going back to look again, then magnifying my view and looking closer still, and so on—returning over and over to the work to see what it could teach me.
Second semester my sophomore year I had an epiphany. I hated chemistry! I shifted to American Studies and took an elective—my first fiction writing class, taught by novelist Lee Smith. A novelist and poet, I have now been teaching creative writing for fifteen years, and I’m still learning from good writers and teachers. However, I cannot say my early experiments as a science student were a waste of time. What I learned about observation, limiting beliefs, patterns of behavior, interrelated structures, harmony of mechanics, relationships of parts to the whole, thoughtful care and use of tools and instruments, and the importance of an open and inquisitive mind informs both my writing and my teaching of writing.
No experiment is a waste. A writer must write badly to write well. The microscope is your friend. Risk and discovery go hand in hand. I do what I ask students to do; we take the same risks. We write toward a story or a poem or an essay. We read aloud to hear our mistakes and our music, discover the importance of voice, and recognize the particular story’s or poem’s voice when it surfaces: its vocabulary, its rhythm, its attitude.
We employ a collecting notebook for everything that catches our attention: overheard conversations and turns of phrase to body parts and body language. We include photographs, potential epigraphs, anything that might spark a story or feed a story already underway. We mine memories for vivid images, events, fears, questions. We think about how we can give away pieces of these memories to characters, observe how characters use these particles of experience differently. When I think of Faulkner’s comment that fiction comes from experience, observation, and imagination, I think of the Petri dish, germs of experience and observation swabbed on the gel of imagination, cultured and measured with the tools of the craft. The laboratory is a metaphor for where I go as a fiction writer and poet, and that is where I ask my students to go as their teacher. Curiosity and risk are key to understanding the organic nature of characters, setting, story. To be writers, we must create a laboratory and experiment.
The Sublime Fiction Triangle
My approach to writing and to teaching writing is global, not linear. We start with geometry, the Sublime Fiction Triangle, to build stories from the ground up, not from left to right. The Sublime Fiction Triangle consists of three points: character, action, language. As we play with these aspects of storytelling by employing meaningful specifics—objects, gestures, word choice, dialogue—the lines connecting the three points of the triangle become taut. The line between character and action becomes scene, the line between character and language becomes voice, the line between language and action becomes narrative strategy. As the triangle becomes more stable, energy builds at the center and scenes develop an organic relationship to one another, while themes evolve from the experience of the characters in their landscape. A story manifests. It is a delight to witness an aspiring writer’s journey through this process.
Returning to the work is instructive; revision is the real science. Significant discoveries are made in the midst of revision. As with scientists, when a chemical reaction begins, we become more observant: we notice, record, reseed, examine the negative as well as the positive, check in the shadows. We witness the story first ourselves, then we shape the story with artful intention so a reader might also witness and be changed.
We workshop in the traditional sense late in the process. First we regularly read aloud to hear what is “off.” We hear where we need to look closer, work harder, tighten, expand, change a word, whisper, sing, shout, slice, salve. By the time a manuscript is workshopped, each page is better crafted and each critic is better able to critique the page before her and receive the critique when her own work slides onto the stage of the microscope. This technique is as valuable in the graduate classroom as it is in the undergraduate classroom.
According to author Larry Brown, every writer signs on for an apprenticeship, but we don’t know how long each individual apprenticeship will take. The masters we apprentice ourselves to are the good writers who come before us, who function as preliminary and sustaining guides. Being a writer requires a particular kind of literacy. Reading good published work, and often moving outside one’s comfort zone in terms of language, subject matter, structure, and intention, as both model and challenge, is crucial to a writer’s development. It is important to read the work of writers who go to difficult places in fiction, to read work that may be intimidating, or even to read a really bad novel to see what it teaches about writing a good one. Students bring in small samples of language from their current reading or a favorite book: a well-wrought sentence or paragraph, a metaphor, a description, a transition. Together we examine the anatomy of good fiction one muscle or tendon at a time. I constantly refer to books and stories as we move through a course; I ask students to do the same. As a class, we develop an annotated reading list for future reference. Yet, as we face these beautifully crafted works of fiction, we are made mindful that the best writers had to first wrestle the initial draft to the page, feel around in the dark for what they later shaped into narrative.
Even the classroom is a Petri dish. Every class has its own culture and chemistry. My goal is to set the stage for a group experience that is both safe and challenging, both nurturing and rigorous, despite the sometimes healthy egos and insecurities that abound in a room full of writers. We must come to terms with the difference between the dream of fiction writing and the reality of it. We must push our ego to the side, not let it get between us and the story. Writing good fiction is hard work, and oftentimes beginning a piece of fiction or sharing raw work is nerve wracking. It is just as important to learn the art of offering and receiving good critique, to separate a perceived problem from the suggested solution, to become a discerning listener.
The Big Dogs
While my teaching experience is primarily in creative writing, my writing students receive a literature lesson every time I hold a seminar or workshop. The best teachers are good books by good writers. My students always go home with additions to their reading lists. We talk about how to look at the work critically, analytically, as an art form. We return to the work over and over again to glean more. We discuss the work as an example of good storytelling and as a made thing where intention and narrative intersect.