I went to Fordham University at Lincoln Center in Manhattan because I had heard about a young, amazing creative writing teacher there. It was the smartest decision of my life. I took every course she taught, writing or literature, and she mentored me both as a writer and a teacher.
Her style was remarkable: She was funny, relaxed, and had a high tolerance for what might seem like chaos to some people. I found her consistently, quietly determined to bring out the best in her students. She was never censorious, arrogant, or dogmatic. In our workshops she somehow managed to help us revise our fiction without turning it into something different. Without making it like what she thought it should be.
The last few years I've been teaching creative writing at Michigan State University as a guest and have also had a handful of gifted independent study students. Even better, I'm recently back from a six-week stint at Regent's College in London where I taught students from an MSU study abroad program. The writing class blended fiction and creative non-fiction and the focus was writing about difference, examining themselves as Americans in London and also studying English culture as outsiders.
We read Bill Bryson's hilarious book about England, Notes from a Small Island, which served as a touchstone, along with Miranda Seymour's powerful memoir Thrumpton Hall and Val McDermid's expert collection of short stories Stranded. Both McDermid and Seymour were able to visit the class and talk about their work, which was a unique experience for all of us.
We faced some obstacles. London underwent a heat wave, and our classroom was cramped, airless, and on the broiling west side of a building. Acquiring a fan proved to be impossible. Don't ask me why. The lawn behind us was occasionally the scene of noisy, distracting events nobody warned us about. We even had to deal with power drilling and hammering in the basement below us at one point. But the students were good-humored troopers. More than that, they were inventive, supportive, hard-working, talented -- and there were only 16 of them. That's an ideal size for a writing class. It allowed them to bond quickly around their writing and get to know each other's style and strengths intimately -- and made it possible for feedback to be more than just cheerleading.
As the author of over two dozen books in many genres, I encouraged everyone to take risks in their work, sharing times in my career when I did so myself. Some of the students developed astonishingly in the short weeks we had together. And quite a few told me afterwards that I had inspired them -- but they inspired me, twice, to write short pieces that I shared in class.
When it was over, I felt intensely grateful that I'd had a writing mentor in college who had modeled dedicated, patient, relaxed, non-bullying work with students. Not changing what your students write but doing your best to bring it into fuller bloom. That's not easy. You have to be totally present and focused and aware -- but it's amazingly rewarding, and an amazing high when it goes well. My mother was a teacher in Brussels after World War Two and when I had the good fortune to meet a group of her former students (all of them senior citizens by then), they told me that sometimes she was so happy in their classroom that she would just hug herself with delight. I know exactly how she felt.
Lev Raphael's most recent book is Assault with a Deadly Lie: A Novel of Suspense.