My writing teachers in this life have been few. In fact, I count only 3 whom I would consider major influences on my writing. Doris Betts, acclaimed novelist and short story writer who has just gone to meet her great Author, was the last and most important.
My first writing teacher was Mrs. Mengel, in third grade. I wrote about her recently. She had an incalculable impact on my life.
My second writing teacher was Mrs. Holsing, in 7th through 9th grade. I took her creative writing class, which was more than writing-- it was reading, listening, and acting in plays as well-- and the next year I pined so much for it that I made a stink to drop my science class for it, and the indulgent administration of the school, incredibly, said yes. In ninth grade, we put out a student newspaper. I learned so much from her that I considered college writing classes superfluous.
My third writing teacher was Doris Betts. Doris came into my life almost 30 years after Mrs. Holsing, years into a terrible conviction that I had to keep writing, and that it was a kind of curse. But by some providence I got into a weeklong residency class with her, and I was never the same.
Doris Betts changed thousands of students' lives. She was a born creative writing teacher, or she became a stellar one soon after she was weaned. Every moment in class with her was pure joy and I wanted to write down every word from her mouth, every gem of wisdom.
Doris had the particular talent of acting as if she was challenging you to your limit, and criticizing you mercilessly, while at the same time nurturing and encouraging the hidden gift you always suspected you had but never had the guts to acknowledge openly.
She gave us Peaceniks (that's what she named us, after the college where we domiciled for that week) a crash course in technique. Mrs. Mengel and Mrs. Holsing, they rooted and cheered for their students and kept them writing, as is age-appropriate. But Doris taught me skills.
Doris taught us Peaceniks scene construction. She taught us source of light. She taught us point of view-- first, second, third person; limited, omniscient. She taught us how omniscient POV implied a moral component to a story. Third person tight was best for writing with a child as the main character (my first published fiction is in that POV, coming out 3 years after Doris' class). She taught us that writing well is among the hardest things you can do, and the most satisfying.
She taught us to revise.
She taught us that even if we are not writing full time, for a living, it is our obligation to be living full time.
At the end of the week, Doris bestowed upon me the office of President of the Peaceniks. I was to be in charge of all future reunions.
Well, Peaceniks, here it is: it is our privilege and responsibility to come together, one year's hence, to celebrate Doris' legacy. Exact time and place to be announced, but you can come to our house. We have extra beds.
Activities to be announced. But they will include enjoying ourselves, which Doris loved to do, too.
And until we meet again, keep living full time.