Friday, May 9, 2014

“In Defense of Teaching”


On Wednesday, April 30, Maryann Miller posted a reference to the above link on Facebook. Mildly curious and nursing an injured shoulder that restricts activity to almost nothing beyond short stints at the computer, I watched/ listened to the short video. And then I listened again…and again. The words resonated more with my “writer” each time I heard its powerful message.

Part of the video debated the lasting value of the book 1984 by George Orwell—hence the writer in me snapping to attention—and the teacher was clearly frustrated with the current state of our educational system. I asked myself, “Do parallels exist between writing and teaching? Can we speak ‘in defense of teaching’?”

When we write, we often teach life lessons, intentionally or not. Children learn how to treat other children, adults, animals, and so forth. Adults see the results of wrong actions and the worth of
positive relationships. Principles, values, and integrity (or lack thereof) in our characters can make powerful impressions on people who might remain oblivious to the same in other forms of communication. How-to books teach skills and insights missed or unavailable in classrooms. Editing guides can make dry, uninteresting grammar rules come to life—especially when they include examples of traditionally accepted usages. Biographies of successful people can inspire us to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. The list goes on.

Consider our own Dani Greer, a vital team member at Little Pickle Press, a publisher dedicated to creating books and other media to help children grow up to be responsible adults through meaningful exploration of the world they live in.

Note the works of Amanda Litz, author and founder of Traveler’s Trunk Publishing, producer of books designed to encourage acceptance of differences, autonomy, and self-confidence.

Fantasy fiction writer S. K. Randolph’s books, The Condra’s Fire and The Dimensioner’s Revenge, abound with subtle lessons for youngsters and adults alike, woven seamlessly into the fast-paced storylines.

We also examine how we view body image, the terrible toll of eating disorders, and the basis for true self-esteem in Kathryn Craft’s wonderful novel, The Art of Falling

Do you weave lessons into the fabric of your works? How do you make them an integral part of your story rather than a written rant that might otherwise be delivered from a soapbox? Have you had any feedback from readers regarding what they have learned from your books? Do your stories touch your readers on a level that will leave a lasting impression that transcends time and culture and emotions?

As writers, can we defend teaching?

Linda Lane and her editing team mentor and encourage writers at  all phases of the writing process. To learn more about what they do, please visit them at www.denvereditor.com.

17 comments :

  1. Some books are for the escapism and fun, but I feel that almost all of them will have some point or fact that the author wants to teach. Some of us unconsciously weave lessons through the story and come to think of it, weren't some of the first teachers also story tellers? Teaching and story telling have always been two threads of the same string in my mind. They wind around each other and interact like wool does in felt making or gluten bonds in dough that has been kneaded. They become something new, something whole, something better than just one alone.

    I love reading and learning random little facts like how clothes irons used to work or that giraffes have valves in their neck arteries. This is one of the reasons I first started reading books when I was little. I wanted to be smart and world wise like my sisters and other ppl I looked up to. What better way to learn general knowledge than to pick them out of children's stories? It made it a lot more fun (and yes, I do remember consciously making that decision when I was in about grade 1).

    How to seamlessly weave lessons into our stories is what I think we should really be asking. Some try so hard that you can see the stuffing bursting out the seams or feel like someone is trying to lock your jaw in a vice and cram things down your throat. They may have been wholesome things, but I much prefer to chew my food with a little variety, thank you.

    In Chinese school (weekend school) they used to get us to write a variety of essay types. You had the informative, the persuasive, the evaluative and the imaginatory as the main types of essays you would be expected to be able to write in (for a second language, anyway). If you wrote an imaginative essay, you were expected to weave a moral into the story. If you didn't, your essay would be failed (at a high school education certificate level, anyway), hence we were strongly advised to avoid imaginative essays at all costs unless we had a very strong grasp of the language. Even the teachers admitted that even they had difficulty inserting morals and lessons into imaginative essays.

    What I think I'm trying to say is that writing and teaching can be paralleled (although not always) and that when properly joined together, just as good string (or yarn for the more pedantic) is evenly spun, it leads to a stronger, better story.

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    1. I love your comment, Jovanna. That seamless weaving of lessons into story, indeed, is an art, an acquired skill that takes practice and patience to attain. But that effort pays off handsomely when, as you so aptly note, "it leads to a stronger, better story."

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  2. Oops. I only meant to write 4 lines, but it just grew.
    Sorry about that!

    (why do I only notice mistakes after I've posted something and can't edit it anymore? Sigh.)

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    1. Please don't apologize, Jovanna. Your comment is both thought-provoking and beautiful. As writers, we write; it is quite appropriate that you did exactly that.

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  3. I have been a teacher (both in the university and in industry) for as long as I have been a writer. They go hand-in-hand. In writing, we are taught to favor showing over telling; the same applies in teaching. The best of each is more about provoking and raising questions than about making speeches or spelling out answers.

    I would say that all my fiction is "about" something, something more than mere entertainment. It is not about conveying lessons or providing pat answers, but it is about raising issues and stirring thoughts. I want my readers to ponder what they have read, not just fly through it and then forget it. Perhaps this is a tall order for a page-turning thriller, but that's the bar I set for my work.

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    1. Absolutely! We want to 'stir thoughts,' to give our readers something to chew on and slowly digest. Anything that hints of a soapbox will quickly lose any effectiveness it might have had if presented in a more subtle, palatable way. As for that bar you set for your work, you also set the example for the rest of us. :-)

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  4. If your story has a theme, then you have automatically imparted a lesson by bringing up the question and inspiring debate within the reader. I think a lot of what we do is subliminal. We turn our internal dialogue into a debate on the page. Is euthanasia wrong in the right cirumstance? What is beauty? What is power? With Mythikas I wanted girls to realize they could overcome adverse families and be their own heroes. That they could use their voices to become the next generation of competent leaders. In my opinion, great literature explores universal truths. That's not to say that schools have to continually teach "The Great White Males." They could expand the selection. The trick is to teach without preaching.

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    1. Yes, "teach without preaching." Sometimes this is a lot more difficult than it sounds, but it's essential to effectively teach the lessons within our stories.

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  5. Linda, in my little corner of the wood pile, it's all about entertainment ... call me shallow (you'd be right) ... I ain't tryin' to teach nobody nothin' ... I just want them to have fun.

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    1. "Have fun." Enjoy the read. Escape an unpleasant or uncomfortable reality by sharing someone else's world—even if it's a fictional one. These should always be among our intentions for the readers of our books. Nonetheless, when we present our characters in whatever scenarios we choose to put them, we offer little lessons about the human experience and explore the consequences of whatever actions those characters choose to take. Inherent in this lies perhaps more than one significant lesson about action and reaction. As Diana pointed out, our theme itself contains a lesson. :-)

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    2. I guess when you put it that way there is no escaping it. All right, listen up, class ...

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  6. This is a thought-provoking post, Linda, thank you.

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  7. You're welcome, Elspeth. The pen truly is mightier than the sword—for good or bad.

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  8. I try not to get onto a soap box when I write. I don't indulge in deliberate preaching because I know that the things I believe in my heart will be there in the fabric of whatever story I tell. And I often end up getting comments from readers who understood the message of the story even though I never consciously put one in there.

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    1. This is the way it works best. Thank you for sharing. :-)

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  9. I write to entertain, but "lessons" do definitely creep in. Some are inevitable--I write historical fiction, therefore I am teaching about history. Sometimes a historical happening drives the story. For instance, the mental and physical wounds of WWI, in Anthem for Doomed Youth, differ little from what veterans go through today; and Valley of the Shadow is "about" racial prejudice--not always or simply white prejudice against dark skins. The theme is always subordinate to the story, but I suspect it's more powerful for that.

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  10. Very interesting post, and I am sorry I am coming to the discussion so late, but I was out of town and away from computers for several days. I am so glad my FB post stimulated such a good reflection on the connection between teaching and writing. Granted, much of what we as writers do is aimed at just providing an entertaining read, we can't help but include something for the reader to ponder. My Seasons Mystery Series deals with issues of racism and even though that is part of the subplot of the stories, I do hope that readers will consider the two sides of the racism coin that I present through the characters. But like the previous commenter said, I do not get on a soap box. The characters are dealing with the effects of racism on their partnership, so the issue is presented via that struggle. Readers have said that they appreciate a balanced look at the problem instead of just one POV.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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