From Student to Teacher and Back Again by Victor Giannini
The Master of Fine Arts in Writing and Literature at SUNY Stony Brook Southampton (I can’t say it in one breath either) has afforded me incredible opportunities as both a student of creative writing, and as a teacher of writing. I’ve had the great opportunity to be a writing teacher through YAWP (The Young American Writers Project). Meaning my fellow teaching artists and I actually go to public schools and teach, as well as run retreats, seminars, and tutoring.
Amongst the many invaluable experiences at this MFA, there are two treasured lessons I learned under the mentorship of Roger Rosenblatt. They allow me to be both a student and a teacher at once. Now, I’ve taught an odd variety of classes prior to YAWP, from pre-school to circus arts, street combat survival, and graphic novel writing and self publishing. But teaching writing is my true passion, and Prof. Rosenblatt has dispensed more advice than my brain can hold (such as “Sit where I can’t see your face”, or “Quiet, you are ridiculous”, and “How the hell did you get my home phone number?”).
Yet two specific lessons carry over from all of his varied courses. They’re indispensible to my own writing, but most of all, indispensible in my role at YAWP. And thus we stand before students ranging from 11 -18 years old, all eyes on my co-teacher and I, our students expect us to do for them what the MFA has done for us.
Yikes? No way. Each classroom is distinct, but the guidelines never fail.
So Prof. Rosenblatt’s two guidelines… What are they?
One: Steal, but steal smart (we’ll get to that in a moment.)
Two: When lost in your work or motivation, remember that worthwhile writing attempts to do the following. It makes:
- Sorrow – Endurable
- Evil – Intelligible
- Justice – Desirable
- Love – Possible
When my students begin worskhopping each others work, I write these four guidelines on the board (I don’t tell them to steal). No matter how lively the conversation, inevitably they all hit a wall. Instead of ranting myself, I’ll point at the board, and no matter the age, they understand these four ideas. They resume helping each other. The fact that they absorb these ideas, no matter the age, instills within me a confidence that when all our classes our over … my students might not need me. Someday when they inevitably face that blank page and confront that terrible screaming called silence, they will find their voice. Of course I hope they’ll always seek and trust my advice. But it’s greater to know that they can keep going, helping each other, down that lonely, noble road, we call “writing”.
Ah, don’t worry, that first rule about stealing! I didn’t forget.
Steal, but steal smart? I admit I’m not fully sure what Prof. Rosenblatt means, but what I’ve surmised is that when you come across an idea, an expression, a way of communication that is too good to pass up, steal it. Make it your own. That is quite different from plagiarism (and one reason I never teach it myself). Honestly, I can’t speak for the good Prof. here, only offer my own interpretation (but I can give you his phone number to ask for yourself, hee, hee, hee …)
So steal smart. The four guidelines. Try it out.
So thank you Prof. Rosenblatt, your classes at the MFA have made me a better writer. I’ve done my best to pass your wisdom on through YAWP. I assume it is your wisdom, unless you’re stealing smart.
So … when a student asks where these amazing, universal, brilliant guidelines, came from … I tell them I made them up!
Yes, Roger, I’m taking credit for your gift! I hope that’s stealing smart … or at least makes you laugh … don’t kill me yet, there’s still so much more to learn and give.