Read This: Linda Lowen On Why She Loves to Teach Writers

by Linda Lowen – Guest Blogger

“We’re outside. Door locked. Can’t get in.”

The cryptic text is from an unfamiliar number, but I know what’s up. I peck “Here I come!” on my phone while I walk down the basement hallway and head upstairs.

Two women are standing outside the glass doors, one a casual acquaintance, the other a stranger except for our connection on Facebook. One has a laptop tucked under her arm, the other a colorful notebook. I can almost see the thought balloon rising over them: I’m doing this. I’m ready to write.

And I’m here to hold their hands as they take their first steps.

Why Start Now?

At the start of my workshop I always ask, “Why start now?”

Most answers are similar. I’ve spent years focused on others, now it’s time to focus on myself. My kids are out of the house and I have the time. I want to  start before it’s too late.

Then there’s my favorite: “Writing is a gift I’m giving to myself.”

That’s why I teach writing. It’s like being the BFF of the birthday girl; I get to sit by her side, help tear away the wrapping paper, watch her excitement build as she discovers what’s underneath.

How often do we feel that excited as adults? Not often enough.

If you’d told me five years ago this is what I’d be doing, I would have said, No way. Not me. I was an impatient sort with little talent to explain things verbally. A writer, not an educator.

Then I signed up for a fiction class at a local writers center. The program administrator knew my background as a freelance writer. One day she approached me. She needed someone to teach non-fiction writing: memoir, essay, writing from life experience.

This was shortly after I’d turned 50. Once you pass the half-century threshold, you check worry and self-doubt at the door. What the hell? I thought. Sure.

I’m so grateful to have been given that opportunity. It was one of those things I’d never considered for myself, and now it’s a guiding force in my life.

I love to teach. I may love it more than the writing itself.

Why Have A Writing Coach?

After four years of teaching, I see the parallels between writing and hiking in the backcountry wilderness. When you’re heading into unknown terrain, it’s helpful to have a guide.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve been writing for years or are taking your very first steps. Every writer navigates the same dense woods of discovery, self-doubt, and disappointment. You head off confident you’re going in the right direction only to find the trail you’re on peters out. Or you encounter a number of dead ends and you have to backtrack.

As your guide, I look over the route you’ve mapped out and make suggestions as to which path might be easiest or most fruitful in terms of experience and outcome. I can warn you of likely pitfalls and reassure you when you fall and scrape your knees, because everyone does it and it’s heartening to know that.

My strength as an instructor is that I’m an avid reader and have amassed an embarrassingly large collection of books. Off the top of my head I can usually recommend 2-3 books you should read based on your interests, your intent as a writer, and what you want to accomplish.

After many workshops taught in classrooms and spaces owned by others, I began to see how much better I might serve my students if–right there on the spot–I could show them the work of others, not just tell them how they might edit or reconstruct something. We learn from example, and I wanted to be able to share those examples that come to mind when someone says something and their words remind me of this writer or that one. I wanted my library to be right there with me, so I could reference works, hand a book over to someone and say, “This will help.” I also wanted a place to write in community with others, not a coffee shop but a purposeful environment where writing was the primary objective.

I began to fantasize about having a writing studio, for myself and others, a place that felt welcoming and special–even a bit magical, because sharing our stories can be magical. Memoir is a process that turns fleeting moments into a permanent record. We have to stop thinking our stories aren’t worthy enough. Every story, told the right way, has an essential kernel of universal truth. But if you don’t commit your words to text, all that is lost.

“When you die, your stories die with you,” I’ve explained over the months and years of teaching. “When you write them down, they endure long after you’re gone.”

For the most part, the advice falls on deaf ears.

Why I Started Always Wanted to Write

Then last year at Women at Woodstock, Kathy stood up during a dinner gathering. “I’ve come here every year since the beginning and told my stories, and every year Linda says I need to write them down. This year, after I lost my job, that’s what I started doing.” Later, she read one of those stories, and I began crying.

This is the gift. Everyone I teach thinks they’re giving it to themselves, but they’re giving it to me.

I decided to accept that gift and put it towards something greater.

In mid-July of this year, I took a risk as the sole writer amidst dozens of visual artists in a big downtown arts complex long recognized in the area as a creative hub. I signed a lease on a 420 square foot basement studio with a crumbling stone foundation wall at one end, the door to the hallway in the other. A third wall was finished with drywall, the fourth unfinished with exposed steel studs. Overhead, dusty steel pipes and wooden beams provided ambience–if you could look past the decades of grime. Two small windows just below the ceiling opened to uninterrupted vistas of sky.

I spent a month fixing up the space. My husband, a structural engineer, built bookshelves. I tore apart rooms in my home, swiped furniture and brought it over, sorted through books and moved a good chunk of my collection to the studio. I decorated in the hopes that my aesthetic–a funky, casual library space with seating for writers–would appeal to others. Then I screwed up my courage and created my first workshop for beginning writers and listed it on the event website Eventbrite.

The two women whom I greet at the door–Andrea and Angela–are taking their first steps as I take mine. So I usher them into my studio–Studio 013–with some nervousness because their presence symbolizes the inauguration of my new venture, the christening of my new space. Though I am teaching no differently from how I did at the writers center, here the much smaller group enables me to focus on them, address their specific needs and give them a good foundation in a single 3-hour workshop.

And I do exactly what I’d hoped to do. I listen to what they say, identify authors and search for passages from books that may aid them as they open their own locked doors as emerging writers, start pulling books from the library wall behind me. Throughout the class, in front of each woman I place a series of books curated especially for her. The stack grows higher the longer we’re there.

For the first half hour they talk about their lives, their decision to focus on writing after years of saying, “I’ve always wanted to write” but never doing anything about it, and what prompted them to take this class. Then I ask them, “If you could hold that thing in your hands–the thing you’ve always wanted to write–what would it be?”

We do what I call “the straw exercise,” and I follow it up with a little gift I give all my students–a reminder to be sweet to themselves as they take up the challenging work of writing. They are given their first prompt, I set the timer to fifteen minutes… and three hours later, we are in disbelief over how quickly the time has gone.

They don’t want to leave–I can see that. “Will you be having other opportunities for people to come here and write?” Angela asks. Her voice is wistful.

I feel like that neighborhood kid whom every other kid envies, the one who drags the giant cardboard refrigerator box into the woods and builds the fort that only the popular kids get into. But we all should have our chance to play. Once you’re inside that fort, you feel like anything is possible. You feel safe and special and able to do anything you want.

Maybe even write.

I want to be your BFF for a handful of days if you’ll let me. I want to sit beside you as you tear away the wrapping paper that conceals the thing underneath–the thing you want to write about.

The Cardboard Fort – Lifebridge Sanctuary

That cardboard fort in the woods is Lifebridge Sanctuary in Rosendale, NY. That special feeling that anything is possible is what our two Women at Woodstock Writers Retreats are all about–helping you to realize the magic that is your story. And it’s better than my studio space at the art center, because the door is always unlocked; you’re automatically in without having to apply, or submit your writing, or prove yourself worthy in any way. You’re good enough the minute you complete your registration form. And instead of 3 hours, we’ll have 3-4 days to ease into your writer’s life.

I’ll bring straws for the straw exercise. I’ll bring that silly little gift to remind you to be sweet to yourself as you write. You just bring yourself–and your anxieties, your fears, your eagerness. There is no wrong feeling. There’s only the feeling that you need to write, and you need to write now.

I believe that so many of us have always wanted to write that I christened my writing studio and new business with that name. If you’ve Always Wanted To Write and you don’t live near Syracuse, NY, begin at Women at Woodstock.

Give yourself that gift. Isn’t it about time?

Note: Linda Lowen is our resident writing coach at both of the upcoming Women At Woodstock 2016 Writers’ Retreats

 

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