Wednesday, May 8, 2013

How Teaching Makes A Better Writer

One of the greatest challenges facing a writer is the creation of real, fully-fleshed characters.  I remember thinking when I was in the early stages of writing Isabelle's Confession that I didn't want my characters to sound like Ivanhoe.  Not that I'm disparaging Sir Walter Scott's opus, but it does make for slow going when reading it.  I also remember thinking about all the criticism leveled against the film "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" because the actors didn't speak with British accents.  Members of the English nobility were still speaking French at the time the historical Robin probably lived, so the argument is flawed.  In any event, I decided early on that I wanted my characters to be as real and as human as I could make them.  To that end, I wrote dialogue for them that sounds like people speaking today on the theory that everyone's language sounds modern to them, no matter when they lived.

This is where teaching comes in.  I'm a high school French teacher, and I've been teaching various levels of French off and on since 1983, when I was an "apprentice teacher" at Alma College.  It occurs to me that I find writing dialogue easier and faster than writing narrative because it's what I do all day: I talk, and I listen.  Being a world language teacher means I know how to listen particularly carefully (having played in an orchestra for many years can't have hurt, either).  I probably should've been a playwright or a writer of screenplays, but I digress.  I listen to my classes talk all day long, not just about learning French but about their likes, dislikes, hopes, aspirations, frustrations, and so on.  Life is lived in dialogue, and my ears are filled with it all day long, so when I want to put words in my characters' mouths I simply channel my students and other people I've listened to.  Life is lived in dialogue, after all.

I think my writing also benefits from the innumerable experiences I've had over the past fifty years.  I've lived in the Midwest, on the East Coast, in the Deep South, and in the Pacific Northwest.  I lived for six months in Paris.  I've traveled all over the US, to Canada & Mexico, and across Europe.  I took a motorcycle trip with my dad from Michigan across Canada to Maine and back.  I've also had a lot of different kinds of jobs, from a Wells Fargo security guard in college to a camp counselor to retail to fast food to radio sales to teaching.  I also know how to do a lot of different things.  I sew, crochet, and have done needlepoint.  I can ride a horse and train a dog.  I have a black belt in Taekwondo and a blue belt in Hapkido.  I can tow a trailer.  I'm pretty handy with most home repair and maintenance jobs, although I draw the line at electrical work.  I'm a good cook, and have made everything from empanadas to homemade bagels to hollandaise sauce.  And that just scratches the surface, but you see what I mean.  It all adds up to innumerable experiences--mental, physical, and sensory--that I can bring to my writing.  I'm not simply the result of all the books I've read, but also all the people I've met, the songs I've heard, and the things I've done.  I've felt a lot and thought a lot, and I believe it helps in bringing real people to the page.

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