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On Teaching & Resting - the latest blog from our Writer in Residence

I’m going on an impromptu hiatus this month. The satisfied exhaustion of having led a 3-day workshop in April, paired with Lighthouse’s full docket of Feminist Book Fortnight events in May, means I feel comfortable taking a little break, or rather, comfortable redirecting my energy.

Laziness aside, I’m really looking forward to this period of rest because as fun as resident-ing has been so far, the majority of my time has been taken up with event planning, rather than actual writing. I don’t mind; this is what I signed up for and what I wanted to do with the residency, but it does mean that there are projects floating around in my brain that I’ve been inspired to write but haven’t had the time to start.

This paradox is nowhere more true than with the short fiction workshop I’ve just completed. Spanning 3 days over the course of 3 weeks, and created almost entirely from scratch, the number of hours I’ve put into it both during sessions and outside of them has almost certainly exceeded the minimum wage rate for the ticket sales revenue.

Again, it’s more than worth it. Even aside from the fact that fine-tuning the materials to use them again will take far less time than creating them did, I learned as much from the participants and from the experience of teaching them, I’m sure, as they did from me. And what I learned is of inestimable value to my practice as a writer and programmer. During our discussions on developing theme, concept and effective storytelling strategy, I learned how to listen as much as how to speak. When teaching and working with participants one-on-one I learned how to watch a person to see that they’re following what I’m saying, and how to gauge what they need from me and adapt my materials on the fly in order to give them that. I learned that people don’t always closely read the events copy but that when they pay for a workshop they come in good faith, more than willing to learn and challenge themselves. During our sessions I learned how to move a conversation along when it goes off track and how to veto a subject when it distracts from the lesson, but also how to tell when to let things move in an unexpected direction.

I also learned just how interconnected the disparate aspects of writing short speculative fiction really are: you can’t separate a story’s plot from its message from the bits that make it sci fi or fantasy. Every part needs to carry weight and deepen the meaning of the piece as a whole. I had taken this precept as a starting principle when I was creating the materials for the workshop, but after sitting down with nine other writers and readers of speculative fiction I well and truly understand what it means.

Teaching is hard. You’ve got to be fresh, clear-headed and mentally agile, especially if your materials are meant to be flexible and you’re leading discussions and exercises. You’ve got to slow down and watch your students, and avoid falling into the one-sided ease of delivering a lecture without regard to what the students are getting out of it.

Charging money for a workshop, too, has made me especially attuned to the cocked head, the tiny frown, that indicates that a participant is being left behind. I created this workshop because I felt I had something of value to offer writers who are just starting at short speculative fiction. I’ve been reading, writing and editing short fiction and spec fic since 2014, but it wasn’t until very recently that I’ve begun to feel that I had the authority and range of experience to start putting my thoughts together in the form of “lessons”. So when a student emails to let me know they valued what I taught them, I feel a thrill that convinces me again just how much I enjoy teaching.

I’ve become attuned, too, to how I myself perform as a product; not only the deliverer of a set of lessons but someone whose very milieu is short speculative fiction, who engages with it actively enough that they can offer extemporaneous advice when it is needed.

I didn’t always pull it off; during our last session I was tired, not having slept well the night before, and I was more than happy to take a less active role in the session as participants gave each other feedback based on a rubric. I felt my professional veneer slip once or twice when a participant asked me an unexpected question, but this, too, was a learning experience for me, an exercise in mental agility. I was forced to stretch myself, to let go of the crutch of a planned lesson, to cast around for a time when I myself had been in my student’s position, for advice I could give them.

And if I was caught off-guard a few times, my students kept faith. They’d come to learn and they were learning. When I started to waver I could trust my lessons, the simple tenets I’d set down at the beginning of the sessions, and return to them. I found I could trust not only myself in the moment, but my past self who had created the materials. Teaching is hard but it is a great builder of self-confidence.

So now I want to put my money where my mouth is and apply the techniques I’ve been teaching more intentionally to my own work. I’ve got an old draft of a thing I want to rewrite, and I plan to take it apart and put it back together again this month, based on my own rubric. I’ve wanted to set myself a “one hour a day” writing goal for a while but I could never quite make it stick. This month seems like the perfect time to try.

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