By Ignatius Valentine Aloysius
We are graduate students in a program I view as intense, topnotch and rewarding. And we are The Apprentices, writers all from genres of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction who give back to the community during one weekend in early December, when we teach free one-hour creative writing workshops. These classes run back-to-back and take place in “the mansion,” an old gothic structure by the lakefront in Evanston. In fact, The Apprentices is an outreach of Director Sandi Wisenberg’s Seminar on Teaching Creative Writing course, an essential component of the MA/MFA Creative Writing program at Northwestern University.
My thrill and anticipation for The Apprentices began in the final weeks of Sandi’s course, when I was required to forge a title, subtitle and brief description for a teaching topic of choice. Each student in the class faced this challenge, and we had a few minutes to resolve it. If you were done beforehand, you offered your assistance to other classmates. Soon we’d all written rough drafts outlining our workshop topics that we hoped to teach two weeks later on the weekend of December 7 and 8, 2013. My title and subtitle, “Up Close, Out There: How to Use Distance and Point Of View in Your Stories” came quickly, and I wasted no time fleshing out the details of my workshop as I saw myself running it in a room full of eager participants.
But how many participants did I have? I would not know until the next week. Meanwhile, Sandi prepared the final announcement and emailed it to The Apprentices Listserve, which consists of about three-hundred email recipients. The list is growing. On average, each graduate student faced anywhere from twenty to thirty-five workshop participants, no small figure when you consider that any creative writing course is more effective in an intimate setting. While I prefer a smaller group setting myself, I felt a certain awe and mild apprehension about the larger class size on the day and hour of reckoning. How would I perform in front of thirty participants, the final number in my workshop? How much ground might I cover successfully in fifty-five minutes, the time limit?
I showed up at the mansion an hour before my workshop, which was scheduled at two that Saturday afternoon. I’d have the smaller, more casual lounge, the room with the unlit fireplace and rug and table lamps, and sofas with pillows everywhere. Chairs went up against the walls, pushed tight near each other, and decorative pillows were strewn loosely on the rug for anyone wanting a divan-like experience (no one took the hint). I wanted to be sure that my class saw me as a man of confidence who hid his nervousness as well as he could. Tall, thin, brown skinned, with dark eyes and black hair, I had dressed down in skinny red jeans and layered long-sleeved shirts, with cuffs folded and drawn up to the elbows.
Introductions were out of the question, and I had to pass out copied, stapled handouts. How would I remove that feeling of cotton in my mouth and get on with the teaching? Where did I put my water bottle? My notes were in my bag. And the red apple I planned to jumpstart my conversation with?—An apple for the teacher, etc.—that didn’t happen, thank goodness. A dumb idea! But then I panicked because I couldn’t find my reading glasses. Where had I placed them?
I breathed in deep. I found my glasses in a back pocket, and took the floor as soon as Sandi introduced me to everyone. I taught students in the graphic arts for more than ten years, she told the class, but this was my first time teaching a course in writing, which was true. I smiled back, somewhat wired, delicate, wondering what my class thought of that. A part of me wished this fact hadn’t been mentioned, but I knew it was necessary to prep everyone for mistakes I might make. I put my concern aside and spoke without delay after I heard the door behind me click shut. I felt the need of the filled room, the eager stretching of it. I looked into my students’ eyes as I spoke, and began with the handout: two double-sided pages of published story excerpts. I read and talked and used the chalkboard to express my views; I took the class through a writing exercise, and several more as time progressed. I asked for volunteers to take turns reading from the excerpts, and demonstrated how these authors handled point of view and narrative distance. I included Eudora Welty, Faulkner, Hemingway; and Edward P. Jones, Karen Brown, Ben Fountain, Lorrie Moore and Arundhati Roy.
As soon as I began and in a matter of minutes, the room changed into something like a deep winter bowl lit by a million sparks of wonder and engagement. I had floated away from the mansion, and the class stirred with me. We had launched our very own colloquies. Filaments of curiosity and rigor crisscrossed the spaces between us, wrapping the class as if it were a bold and spirited gift. And the hour seemed to melt away into an effortless bourn.
Then the door opened. Class finished. I thought of my performance, the other graduates’ too. How would we be evaluated, all of us who belonged to The Apprentices? What would we remember most of this teaching experience, and how might participants remember what we offered them? I had transcended my initial unease, and the satisfaction I received from giving back made me want to do it all over again. Now I’m scheduled to start teaching a free ten-week fiction workshop on campus in January.
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