As I prepare to head out to another summer workshop, I am thinking a lot about what I want the week to be: what I want to learn, what I'm willing to put forth, what I have to bring. I've heard from multiple sources that Carl Phillips is a very good teacher, so I think I've got a great week to look forward to.
Anticipation, as it so often does, makes me look back as well. I'm thinking about some of the writing teachers I've had over the years. Since I haven't (yet!) done an MFA, these pretty much fall into two groups: those who taught me when I was an undergrad English major, and those who've taught me in summer (mostly one-week) workshops.
I'll be the first to admit that I had some pretty terrific teachers as an undergrad, and that I did a pretty piss-poor job of taking advantage of their gifts. I was probably not too different from a lot of other twenty(ish)-year-olds in that one of my biggest goals, in each poetry workshop, was to prove that I was talented. Maybe part of that was the phenomenon of being graded, and being the Good Student who wanted to maintain her high GPA. But that attitude got in my way so big time -- I was reluctant to take risks that might not work out, to go out past my comfort zone, to fail productively. Plain and simple, I didn't want to look bad. I would have learned so much more if I'd been willing to risk looking like a fool sometimes.
I've had some pretty terrific teachers since then, in summer workshops, too. Most have been at least good; some have been amazing. I love the intensity of a short one-week workshop. I love the challenge of going into a room full of strangers, and having to almost immediately drop a lot of defenses, take risks, put myself out there, make myself vulnerable. At its best, it is exhilarating. At its best it changes me, often in ways I don't begin to understand for weeks or months after the fact.
That necessity of walking in and almost immediately making yourself vulnerable, instead of having a few weeks or class sessions to ease into it and get to know your fellow poets as you do in a longer workshop, means that it's absolutely essential for the teacher to create an atmosphere in which it is safe enough to do that. This means in part: discouraging snark, discouraging show-offiness, encouraging risk-taking, demanding & offering honesty, demanding & offering respect. It also means, sometimes (and here's where some people will probably beg to differ), making an effort to find anything to praise -- and sometimes, acknowledging a student's failure. Both can be difficult to hear. Both can be difficult to trust. (And trust is so key here.)
The best teachers I have had, and I'm thinking of two in particular, have managed to say to me in so many words that I had talent, that I was doing very good work -- and to say it in such a way that it terrified me, made me feel like throwing up. Because what I got from the praise was that I was holding something alive and powerful in my hands, and that I had a responsibility to do something about it. They told me that I had a lot of hard work ahead of me, and knowing how hard that kind of hard work is, the prospect was (and is) daunting.
And that's my favorite praise of all time, the kind that makes me feel like throwing up. The words from those two teachers are the ones that I hold on to and come back to when it does get difficult, the tapes I replay when it's dark inside my head. Because I trust that that praise is real. It's not just blowing sunshine up my ass. As a summer-workshop student, I'm wary of praise; it would be easy, I think, for a teacher just to sit there and tell their students how wonderful they are -- knowing that after the week is over they may never see those students again, and knowing that, frankly, that's what some students want to hear.
People will pay good money to go to summer workshop after summer workshop and be told that they are amazing. I don't want that. I want to be pushed towards places that scare me. If at some point during the week I feel like crying or I feel like throwing up, that's probably a good thing. I want to be asked to work harder than I would ask myself to work. And I want to be given an environment, a temporary community, in which I feel safe enough to do that, in which I know my effort will be respected and taken seriously. If I can have that and also some good hard laughter and some silliness now and then, even better.
Yeah, I don't ask much, do I?
Bear with me here for a moment while it gets weird in here: It's kind of like sex. You put yourself in this position of vulnerability, where you could very easily get hurt -- and sometimes a little bit of pain even makes it better. The power of the experience comes directly from that vulnerability and openness. Also: attentiveness to what the other person(s) may be experiencing is important, the cues (verbal and nonverbal) they give you. And faking it doesn't do anybody any favors.
So that drifted away a bit from thinking about teachers to thinking more generally about the workshop experience, but of course it is usually the teacher who has the most responsibility for setting the tone of the workshop experience. And even though you may get valuable feedback from your fellow students, it's usually the teacher you want most to hear from, their words you're paying for.
I think, too, of my sensei, back when I was a serious martial arts student. There were days when she pushed me so hard and so far past my comfort zone that I hated her, and that was an important part of my growth. I think that happens more in a long-term teacher-student relationship, and there isn't necessarily enough time to reach that point in a one-week workshop -- but I can think of at least one teacher about whom I have thought, if I worked with you for long enough I'm sure I'd hate you at some point, and then thank you for it later. (And I find myself wishing that I could have that opportunity. I am so weird sometimes.)
And so, a request. Tell me about your teachers. (Name names, or don't, whatever you are comfortable with.) Do you respond best to a Paula Abdul, relentlessly pointing out the positive, cheering you on, believing in you even when you suck? Or does a Simon Cowell help you more, not mincing words or putting up with any of your crap, dishing out the tough stuff you end up thanking him for later? Or are the best teachers maybe a little of both? Does some praise help and some praise hinder? Are there aspects of the teacher-student relationship that interest you, that I haven't touched on here? I am fascinated by this dynamic, if you hadn't already guessed.