As a working artist who has always been a teacher--both music and writing--I've always struggled for balance between teaching students and creating my own work. I asked my good friend and colleague Alyx Dellamonica how she integrates teaching into her writing life. It's interesting to hear her perspective on some of the issues I worry about. Here are my questions, and Alyx's responses:
Louise: The old aphorism says "Those who can't do, teach," but it's so clearly not true! Some of the great writers are also magnificent teachers. Elizabeth George comes to mind, and Connie Willis, Paul Park, a host of others. You've demonstrated abundantly that you can both "do" and "teach". Would you teach writing if you couldn't also be publishing at the same time?
Alyx: At this point in my life, if I had to choose between writing or teaching, I’d pick writing … and I have trouble imagining that would ever change. I feel compelled to write, and have since I was about five. I’ve never made a serious attempt to quit. When I’m travelling or otherwise disrupted, I generally find I can only go a few days without writing before I get antsy.
Louise: Teaching writers means considering a great number of ideas and analyzing technique, structure, pace, character, all the elements of fiction. Does your teaching inform your own work?
Alyx: I began teaching classes at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program (https://www.uclaextension.edu/) in 2005, and I’ve found that it definitely makes me a better writer, just as reviewing did when I was writing a lot for LOCUS and Syfy. Analyzing the work of other writers made me more aware of the possibilities, both for brilliant success and for mistakes. The process of explaining why something does or doesn’t work in a manuscript really keeps the ‘how’ of storytelling firmly locked in my forebrain. When we grapple with our fiction it can often be a silent, intuitive process—we sit there puzzling over the individual sentences or chapters. When I have to be able to articulate—“Generally, in fiction, it works this way,” knowing that the next question I’ll have to answer is “Why?” it keeps you sharp. You can’t take anything for granted when someone’s demanding a reason. So I see a positive bleed-over into my own work, when I’m revising. It’s as if that teacher persona is some separate entity looking at my manuscript, noting down things I’d be pushing my students to improve.
Louise: Teaching also means reading an enormous amount of other writers' material, and responding to it. Do you worry about burn-out? Do you have some way you preserve your own creative energy?
Alyx: I haven’t found that teaching causes me to burn out as a writer--perhaps because I write first each day, and teach later. I’m very up-front with my classes that they’re getting the energy that comes after my fiction-writing day is over. I do this because I think it’s important that they see that writing doesn’t work out so well if it falls too far down your ladder of priorities.
Where I do burn out is as a reader. The number of books—especially novels—that I read drops to nothing when I have a course in workshop, and there’s little surprise in that. Reading fifteen stories or novel fragments and writing a useful, well-considered critique for each of them devours my reading energy… and if it happens that I have a class where a lot of the stories are thorny—they’re always interesting, but sometimes it’s tough to fully savor a student story in the way one does a polished work by one’s favourite author--it’s hard to start up again. It’s as if some part of my mind forgets that books are delicious, soul-nurturing and fun, and that part has to be pushed to take the first bite.
It is the one thing about the whole teaching cycle that I struggle with. This resistance to reading was intensified, unfortunately, by a chain of bad luck whereby a number of my courses over the past few years have gone into this workshop phase just as someone in my circle has died, so I’ve been reading stories and writing critiques while travelling to funerals. Not a recipe for creating a good state of mind! But now that I’m aware that it happens, I’m getting into the habit of finding the books that will tempt me back into reading.
Louise: My agent, at the beginning of our relationship, said that "voice" can't be taught, although plot and pace and other things can. What do you think can be taught? What can't?
Alyx: I think there are a couple categories of teaching. There’s the kind of thing you can teach directly: open-heart surgery, changing a bicycle tire, basic grammar. Then there are entire subjects where all an instructor can do is teach the student to figure it out themselves. Most of writing, I feel, falls into this latter category.
The analogy I sometimes use is that teaching writing is like taking a bunch of people to a wrecking yard and saying, “You’ve all been in cars. Now build one!” Instead of showing them piece by piece, I’m sending them to wander among the parts, banging things together, and then when they come back, I’ll say, “This doesn’t run. Here’s why. This one kinda moves, on the other hand, but the brakes seem to slam on rather abruptly just as you’re getting somewhere…”
Then I send them back out for more parts, hoping that they’ll get to the point where we can talk about putting in seats, so it’s comfortable for the passengers, and hopefully discussing the paint job.
Louise: What is the most important piece of advice you would offer a beginning writer?
Alyx: The most important advice I’d offer a writer is to make the actual writing of words--and learning to get better at same--as high a priority as you realistically can. I’m not saying don’t feed your baby or neglect your spouse; I’m not saying to risk your physical or mental health or even the job that keeps you fed and out of the rain. But if you’re serious about having a writing career, getting words onto the page can and should come before a lot of things… catching up on cat macros or visiting with the out of town friend you weren’t all that keen to see anyway or taking an extra fifty-hour contract for money you could do without, or rewatching all of Dark Shadows because it just came out in an even better format. Actually writing should also fall above ‘writerly’ activities like building a pretty web site or having an active Twitterlife or searching for an agent or sketching your perfect book cover.
Louise: I suspect you did watch Dark Shadows in the new format! Still, you've managed to build a real career despite a rather heavy teaching schedule. Indigo Springs has been such a success for you, winning critical and reader acclaim. What can we expect next?
Alyx: Indigo Springs will be followed by a sequel, Blue Magic, which will be out next spring. In it, Astrid Lethewood and a growing number of volunteers try to find ways to safely maintain the spread of magic into the real world, while law and order breaks down in the U.S. and a number of factions, including the Fyremen, vie for control over enchantment. I am also at work on a number of other novels, but I can’t tell you which will be next. However, I will have an urban fantasy story, “The Cage,” up at TOR.COM at the end of this month as part of their Urban Fantasy spotlight.
Louise: Thanks, Alyx!