A Fiction Class

A Fiction Class

The Corbin Art Center

A friend asked me today what sort of class I am teaching. A fiction class. I replied.

Meaning that you made it up? He said.

It still doesn't seem real, so perhaps I did make it up.

It seems a long time ago, this summer, when I wrote an email to the Corbin Art Center here in Spokane (a part of Spokane Parks and Recreation) and asked if they might have a use for a creative writing instructor. I got a prompt reply: not at the moment, but we'll keep you in mind.

In October, I got an email from the director, asking if I wanted to teach fiction writing. As in, the art for which I went to school. After some deliberation, during which I second-guessed my ability to teach and really everything else, I accepted.

This past Monday, I drove to the center, which is, incidentally, a beautiful old mansion which now hosts art classes. When I arrived, I found that my class had been assigned to the dining room. I placed my notes at the head of the table and began to pray.

According to the sheet I had been given, the class was maxed out at 10 students. In a writing class, this is a perfect number. I thought about that and then thought about how outnumbered I was.

I had prepared a lesson dedicated to character. I wanted to build a strong foundation of getting to know the people we would be writing about so that plot would flow easily (hopefully) by the second week. This is pretty standard. My exercises were also standard, I chose those that I had found the most helpful from my own education, and improvised one. I had an outline with the approximate time that I expected everything to take. I rewrote those times several times during the evening.

My role sheet gave me copious information about my students. I could tell you right away that two of the ten were men, that the students ranged in age from fourteen to slightly over sixty. The majority of the class consisted of women who hovered between five and twenty years older than me.

My students came, one by one. If they were surprised to see me sitting at the head of the table with a clipboard, they hid it well. I am told that looking younger than I am is something that I will appreciate later in life, but just then I really longed for some sort of potion to make me look at least thirty-five.

The class began, and when I say that, I mean that I said: "Why don't we get started" and initiated the most used icebreaker in the history of classes: "please tell us your name, why you are taking this class and what your experience with writing has been up to this point."

I found out that almost no one was there for the same reason, and yet, everyone was there for the same reason. I found that I was teaching two high-school students, a former creative writing major (!) who studied poetry almost exclusively (oh good), a mother and daughter, a retiree, a professional writer with a local magazine.

What happened next was amazing: I started by giving a very simple "get to know your character" exercise and gave my students a few moments to do it. When they read aloud their exercises, I got shivers. It was as if I was back in one of my own writing classes, listening to my peers. Every character was different, interesting, many of them very different from the person who intended to write about them. All of a sudden I realized that this class would be all right, not because I'm an amazing teacher (although I didn't run from the room, cry or say anything controversial. Okay, I didn't say anything too controversial) but because I have been trained by some of the best teachers and professors ever, who have also been trained by people they consider the best at what they do. I'm sure that they once felt the way I did on Monday: afraid, uncomfortable, inept. My success on Monday came from standing in company with many who have come before.

As the evening unfolded (it was a 3-hour class) I watched the students bond with one another. I split them up into groups and continued the assignments, taking into account the advice I'd received from my professors about mixing up activities. Before long, we were all laughing and talking, I would like to think that they were no longer looking down on my youthfulness, and they were enjoying themselves, more than that, they were learning something. Amazing.

One great teacher moment came when I began to speak about character. My students pulled out their pens and started writing as I spoke. It was everything I could do to keep going. They were taking notes.

Another moment, which perhaps was not amazing, but made me feel like a real teacher, came when one of my students texted under the table during class. I wasn't even ticked, all I could think was: I am a real teacher, someone is texting in my class!

As she left, one woman, who is about eight years older than me, stopped to ask if I would prefer to be called "Mrs, uh, Ms." I interrupted her. "Just call me Cara" and spent the next few moments smiling about that interaction.

Next week we are on to plot and structure. I'll keep you posted.

PS. To all of you who have heard me say, at one point or another, that I would never teach, feel free to laugh. This, I have to say, is a pretty classic Little Did She Know.