Guest blog by Ross Trudeau: Moving The Human Heart

Hi folks. MG here. Ross blogged last week about ability grouping in his English classes. Today he tackles his struggles in teaching Creative Writing. Ross writes: Roger Rosenblatt is a celebrated author of essays, novels, memoirs. He also happens to be a family friend. This past summer I took his class. It’s was a 10-day workshop in memoir writing at the Southampton Writers Conference. There were 12 students – hobbyist and professional, ranging in age from early 20’s to early 80’s.

I’ve never had a better teacher.

Students were universally rapt from bell to bell, eager to engage and learn. And, most notably, we all seemed ready to take risks from the outset. Honesty, experimentation, and self-reflection were the norm, even here in the presence of complete strangers. Personally, I was on fire: I felt confident and successful. I wanted to write, fail and improve. My anxiety at being in the presence of bona fide writers was gone.

Two years ago in the New Yorker, Rosenblatt wrote “An Inspirational Letter To My Students.” Rosenblatt:

"Nothing you write will matter unless it moves the human heart," said the poet A. D. Hope. "And the heart that you must move is corrupt, depraved, and desperate for your love."

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Over the last few years I’ve felt moderately effective teaching English. I have not enjoyed the same success teaching Creative Writing.

Here’s one issue. Fear. Some students believe failure on an assignment is a condemnation of something fundamentally personal.

This August, teaching Creative Writing again, I thought back to Rosenblatt. I’d only ever told my students that writing could benefit them. It could be cathartic, it could be reflective, it could be fun. Could Hope’s words work for them? Could endowing students with the challenge of being useful to others mitigate their inhibitions?

With all the gravitas that an essentially goofy dude like me could muster, I tried to repeat for my kids what Rosenblatt told us. Level gaze, quiet voice, direct eye contact. Deep breath.

“Listen, guys. It simply isn’t enough to write for yourself. In this class, self-importance and ego must be checked at the door. Other people—the very people in the room with you right now—need you.”

And I kept repeating it. Weekly. Daily.

The last three years are littered with the carcasses of my grand hopes for what Creative Writing could be. So I allowed myself only the most guarded optimism when this year’s group of creative writers seemed to be listening to each other more. And supporting each other more. And, as they say, “opening up” more.

In September, just a month into the school year, a student turned in a memoir about a serious fight between his parents, one that seemed to prefigure separation. He had some trouble reading it aloud, and there was a palpable shift in the mood of the room when he was finished.

I cold-called three students for feedback. They were effusive in their praise. It really was darn well written. After a comment praising his courage, I cut in and said to the author, “Look, there are two or more people in this room who haven’t said anything to you but feel nothing short of major gratitude for you. I just know it. They found this useful to read, because they’re carrying the same heavy load, and you just made their burden slightly easier to bear.”

A student chimed in, “That’s me.”

Another: “Me, too.”

And a third raised her hand. And a fourth, smiling, tearful.

This kind of bravery has become relatively common in recent weeks.

Do I credit my “framing”? I don’t know. It’s possible that it’s random chance, the individual students who happen comprise my class this year. Still, I offer it as a “teacher move” I’ve cribbed from another. I’m definitely using it again next year.

-Ross Trudeau