Friday, December 16, 2016

Deja Vu: How Being a Teacher Makes Me a Better Writer

DL Hammond has brought together a few blogging friends for the Déja Vu Blogfest. The idea is to revisit a blogpost you made at some point during the year. So here's one I wrote at the beginning of 2016. I still like it, and I hope you do, too.

I've been a teacher for twenty years. That's a wonderful and horrifying statistic in itself. In fact, I've not done much of anything else in the way of paid work. I had a brief run as librarian and a secretary in small town Alaska. Otherwise, I've spent my entire working life in the classroom.
There are occupational hazards in being a teacher. You tend to take over in group settings, trying to organize everyone (which is not always appreciated by your adult family and friends). You tend to over-explain, assuming that the listener will need to hear it multiple ways to get it. You correct people's errors, even when it would be more polite not to do so. You're chronically busy, stressed, and under-slept, which can make you a cranky-pants.

But as I've moved to being a teacher and an author, I've found out that there's a lot I've learned from my teaching life that serves me well in my writing life.

Comfort with public speaking. A roomful of people who voluntarily walked into your panel or book talk or reading is a far easier audience than a roomful of middle school children who are required to be there. But that doesn't mean they aren't intimidating. I'm grateful that stage fright is not an issue for me.

A lack of dignity. Sometimes you really have to be a clown to engage children. I've worn crazy hats, let people put pies in my face or dunk me in a booth, and done some pretty amazing role plays as a teacher. So far, I haven't been asked to go to those extremes as an author, but it does make it easier to put myself out there as part of an event. I'm difficult to embarrass.

Diplomacy. I deal with a lot of stupidity as a teacher, and I've learned to do so with kindness. It won't help most situations to make someone (a student, another teacher, a parent, an administrator) feel bad about whatever way they've just put their foot in it. As a writer, I have had to deflect weird responses and questions from interviewers or readers, too, and defend my artistic choices to beta readers and editors who seemed to just not get it. Not to mention participating in a critique group, where I need to kindly point out the flaws in someone's heart's work. Good thing I've got a lot of practice.

Ability to Work Alone, Unsupervised. As a teacher, I have a supervisor in the for of a school principal.
But she or he sees very little of what I actually do. In some cases, I could probably have read a book or shown movies for weeks at a time without my supervisor finding out. Luckily for my students, I have high standards for myself and a strong personal work ethic. As a writer, I am even less well-supervised. In fact, I often don't even have a clear deadline to finish by or any directions at all about what I'm supposed to be creating. Without that self-starter attitude, I could easily just play solitaire and watch Firefly again instead of actually ever writing anything.

Able to Think on My Feet: No plan survives contact with the enemy. That includes lesson plans. No matter how well I think I've planned, I always have to adjust on the fly. And I'm good at that after all these years. Turns out, that happens on the page, too. No matter how well I've planned out my story, change will come. Characters will surprise me. A plot twist will blindside me. And I can roll with it, follow it where it goes and trust to revision to smooth it out for the end product. In the classroom and on the page, I've built more than one silk purse out of a sow's ear.

Listening: Any teacher will tell you how important it is to listen to your students. As much as state legislators and pundits want to make education into a nice, clean, easily measured objective process, it really isn't. It's a very messy, human process, as much about relationships as it is about expertise and technique. And you build relationships by listening. You also get a lot of writing material that way.

So, who knew I'd been in training all these years. Too bad teaching didn't make me insightful about marketing. Then I could afford to give up teaching!

Want more deja vu? Check out the linky for more second chances:

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  1. Nice post! Glad you reposted!

  2. I laughed out loud about the part where you explain the same thing in different words repeatedly because you assume it will take at least three tries for the information to sink in. Been there, done that!!

    I was a teacher for 25 years, and I agree with all your points. Thanks to my years of teaching, I am comfortable playing to the room as a presenting author, switching gears, thinking on my feet, whatever it takes to get the job done!

  3. For a good part of my career I have worked as a trainer - sort of a teacher - and I too smiled broadly when I read the part about explaining things multiple times. Not only are you doing it multiple times, but each time is done in a different way because you never know which one will strike a chord with your target audience.

    Thank you so much for taking part this weekend and re-sharing! :)

  4. That's cool, I kind of got a sense that all these skills were interchangeable, but you nailed it in the post. And kudos to you for embracing one of the most important professions in our country!!

  5. Very cool stuff! Thanks for resharing this.
    Happy teaching.

  6. This is great! I, too, am a teacher. I'm in my 17th year. BUT I have terrible stage fright and still do embarrass easily! Gah. So...speaking in public is something I'm not sure I can do as an author...but if the chance arose, I suppose I'd take it and have to take a lot of deep breaths. I can stand in front of my students, but other adults and way!


  7. I never thought about teaching as being like presenting as an author, but I guess it is. Good that you have experience and don't get stage fright. I'm terrible at any kind of public speaking unless I'm acting and can be someone other than myself.

  8. Great post! I agree about those skills (as well as some of the pitfalls). I seem to have come by a lot of them naturally, as my actual teaching has been pretty limited (a few semesters as a graduate TA, and 3 as adjunct faculty). Unfortunately, that one about longing for the red pencil when reading FB is totally accurate as well!

    My Deja Vu Blogfest Post

  9. The best part is recognising those great skills you have. Great post - glad you repeated it :)