Dani Shapiro
March 17, 2011

On Teaching

I’ve been thinking lately about the role teaching plays in my writing life.  I started teaching creative writing pretty much at the same moment I began publishing novels.  I was twenty-seven when my first teaching job–at Stern College for Women, a part of Yeshiva University–was bestowed upon me by the writer who had last taught that workshop, who had to take an unexpected leave.  If they’re taking a creative writing class, she advised me, something has gone wrong.

Something has gone wrong.  I love that.  She was saying it because these were young Orthodox Jewish women who were supposed to be getting degrees in a useful field such as accounting, not creative writing.  And it was true–they came to my class in exquisite opposition to the dress code (leggings under skirts, since pants weren’t allowed) and brought with them their confusion, doubt, guilt, resistance, desire to express something about their inner lives.   I fell in love with them, and I fell in love with teaching.  I went on, over the years, to teach in many MFA programs and even to start a writers conference.  And it always stayed with me, that phrase.  Something has gone wrong.  We could flip that phrase on its head, and say: something has gone right, when a writer finds her way into a workshop, when a writer begins to find her voice.

We writers do our work alone in our rooms.  We live strange, out-of-step lives.  We take naps during the day.  We work in our bathrobes (sometimes).  We spend stretches of hours without saying a word to a soul.  I realized recently that I hadn’t left my house for a couple of days.  Hadn’t left!  But what was most arresting about this realization is that it didn’t seem strange to me.  That hermetic existence is one I’ve chosen for myself, and which suits me.  But because much of my life is very quiet and hermetic, I’m very aware of wanting–needing–to periodically surround myself with other people who have chosen to do the same.  Many of my friends are writers.  My husband is a writer.  But teaching writing–the tremendous pleasure for me in sitting around a table with ten or twelve students who are grappling with the page–is something that has sustained me over the years.

As we get ready to make our annual trip to Positano for our writers conference–very much getting out of the house!–I’m leaving my own work on my desk.  The first third or so of a novel, which I won’t work on while we’re gone.  A pile of galleys and manuscripts I won’t get to while we’re gone.  But when we’re back, I know that I will have learned and grown in ways that I will bring back to my own work.  Because true, deep focus on the work of others–what succeeds, what doesn’t, and why–has the remarkable effect of helping one see one’s own writing more clearly.