teaching

Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
E.L. Doctorow

Sometimes I feel like I am living my life the way I write. I am driving at night in a fog. And my headlights are not always be working.

I never planned to be a teacher. In 2003 I was asked to apply for a position on the faculty of what was then the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College. In what I count as another unexpected gift from the universe, I got the job, and I have been teaching there ever since.

Me working in my office.Some say that there are millions of stories out there in the world, waiting to be told. And some say that there really only are two, or maybe it’s five, or maybe it’s ten stories that we all just tell and retell over and over and over.

But I believe that each of us has one story that is ours to tell. And no one else in the entire world can tell exactly that story in exactly the right way. That is our gift, and that is our responsibility: to tell those stories that are ours alone as best we can.

I’m not sure that writing can totally be taught. But I do think a teacher can help a student find his or her story, and find the best way to tell that story.

Kurt Vonnegut compared teaching writing to being a golf pro; he said you don’t really teach the student, you just walk the course with him. And that’s what I try to do. I try to walk the course, offer suggestions and advice and encouragement. I try to help each of them find the voice and the heart and the intellect of their story. Along the way, I also try to share with them some of what I have learned about writing and story-telling.
Vermont College's campus.
What I didn’t expect when I began this job was how much I would learn about writing and my own process. I learn from the other members of the amazing faculty I work with. But I also learn something from every student I work with. Challenging them to go deeper, to work harder, to take risks, I find I now have to challenge myself. I am a better writer because I am a teacher.

I also never expected how wonderful it is to have a former student contact me and say, “You know that book we worked on? I just sold it!”

The name of the school is now Vermont College of Fine Arts. The program just continues to get better and better. I am proud to be a part of it.

From “Why We Tell Stories”
by Lisel Mueller

Because we used to have leaves
and on damp days
our muscles feel a tug,
painful now, from when roots
pulled us into the ground

and because our children believe
they can fly, an instinct retained
from when the bones in our arms
were shaped like zithers and broke
neatly under their feathers

and because before we had lungs
we knew how far it was to the bottom
as we floated open-eyed
like painted scarves through the scenery
of dreams, and because we awakened

and learned to speak