The secret toy surprise


The question made me look over my shoulder.

It must have been meant for someone else.

“Ever thought about teaching a writing class here?”

Who, me? I was a solitary freelancer whose only human contact was email from my editors.

This was in 2011, long before I established Always Wanted To Write as a writing studio.

I’d been taking fiction classes at the Downtown Writer’s Center in Syracuse, NY, and they needed an instructor to oversee a critique class of advanced non-fiction writers.

The invitation was a lightning bolt.

It electrified the placid landscape of my settled, quiet writer’s life. Up to that point I’d had a fuzzy, vague image of myself as a working writer, successful enough but mostly unmeritorious. Typical. Teaching would intensify the focus on me, my work, my own habits good and bad. To presume to teach is to lead by example. I’d have to step into the glare, my assumptions, abilities, knowledge of the craft all laid bare.

If I said “yes” I’d open myself to hard scrutiny.  If I said “no” I could just fade back into the shadows.

Who, aside from actors and politicians, runs toward that glare?

I’d never taught a writing class before. Never saw myself as a teacher. Most of us, when beginning a new endeavor, ask, What have I got to offer? I was no different.

We doubt ourselves.

That’s commonplace. I doubted my ability to impart anything worthwhile to my students. I doubted I had the technical know-how to “judge” them for their work.

I wanted to say, “No, but…”–my default response. Then I thought back to the improv class my husband and I signed up for as a couple. He was a natural, jumping into every scene and skit with full-on commitment. I was the one who hung back, who entered into each moment doubtful, with “No, but…” defeating every gesture.

The first rule of improv is to be open and accept whatever’s handed to you. The guiding principle is “Yes, and….”

I couldn’t possibly help others unless I reached out my own hand, held tight to what I was given, and moved forward, not with certainty but with possibility. I had to trust. I had to accept. I had to let go.

I stepped into the glare, said yes…and went on to make mistakes, surrender control, uncover joy. Teaching is the secret toy surprise I hadn’t expected to find, the sunset glow after the tempest.

No doubt I’ve been an imperfect teacher.

No doubt I’ve inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings; it’s hard to share your work, especially if you’re new to the craft, and every writer is tender. But I try not to reject. I try to accept and add insight, guidance, encouragement.

My writing philosophy, especially for beginning writers, is too long to go into here. But it’s at Next Act for Women in an interview about my writing coaching and instruction.

Wherever your own path as a writer leads you, may you go forward with agreement and acceptance. “Yes, and…” is a fine way to start.

Photo by Trina Christian /

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