Teaching to Learn

- by Elaine Isaak

Tomorrow, I’ll be at the New Hampshire Writers’ Project Writers Day, teaching World-building 101.  This conference is a fun one-day event that attracts writers from around New England to teach and to learn.  And one of the things I’ve learned is that those two activities are intimately connected.

One measure of how well you understand a topic is not how well you apply it–that may be intuitive, it may be only the part that comes naturally to you–but how well you explain it to others.  And even in subjects you’ve taught a dozen times, you may find insights you hadn’t caught before.  I’ve been teaching about writing since my first novel was published, and writing about writing (see the writers’ manual I’m putting together over here).   Inevitably, as I prepare to lead a workshop, or as I’m teaching, I’ll make new discoveries.

My last workshop was a little thing (I thought) at the Boskone convention.  One of the organizers had the idea of doing a writers’ warm-up, a half-hour of exercises to get the writing muscles ready for the day.  So I came up with some fun story-starters to spring on my audience, and figured I would write along, too, keeping in my the new series I’m working on.  One of the exercises was to write about the first meeting of two characters from a story who clearly have a history together which is not told in the primary work.

My hero had an antagonist–a professional rival–in the first book.  It’s clear from their time together that they hate each other, each holding the other in contempt.  But why?  So I wrote about them. . .and I wrote my way into a story that provided a critical moment forming my hero’s direction in life.  It was a gift that fell in my lap, and one I would not have had without teaching.

Sometimes, teaching gives us the same spur it does for our students, a spark of inspiration.  Sometimes, it’s in the preparation that you come to a new understanding of the subject matter.  Other times, the hyper-awareness of that subject as you consider how to present it encourages a different perspective on how you’re handling it in your own work.

Looking for a way to jump the rut in your writing, a chance to articulate your understanding of the elements of craft, or a chance to brainstorm your own next steps?  Those who can. . . teach!  (And if you’re already a teacher–or you’ve ever loved one–you need to see Taylor Mali’s What Teachers Make.  )

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