What a happy thing to stumble upon! Christine Schutt–NOON editor, 2009 Pulitzer prize finalist, all-around badass–has written a short essay for the New York Foundation for the Arts website, about her work as a creative writing teacher at the Nightingale-Bamford school for girls. It’s a great piece about teaching, but there’s also a highly informative craft essay tucked inside it.
Another gift afforded the writer in teaching is the opportunity to read aloud to students and thus discover the flat places in stories—what material a writer might have profitably cut out. Reading aloud to a room full of students, who are often hungry and tired, has made me acutely aware of what holds a reader’s attention. I read my own work aloud to myself, of course, and pay attention to the moments I rush through and dream past, for these should be deleted.
I’m in complete agreement with Christine on this. I think reading one’s own work aloud is an essential part of the writing process. When something has been through enough drafts, I print it out and do an edit by ear, while listening to myself. The rule is: if I can’t say it in the world the way I’m hearing it said in my head, then it’s not done being written yet. And as a teaching tool, it’s incredibly useful for any kind of writing. Last semester, about mid-way through the course, I started encouraging my 101 students at Rutgers start reading their comp papers aloud to themselves, and the ones that did it improved measurably in areas like grammar, syntax, and overall coherence. What happened, I think, was that they heard with their ears what they couldn’t hear with their eyes. Once they saw the spread between what they thought they’d written and what they’d actually produced, they were in a position to start working on how to close the gap. Plus, that work to re-write sonorously forced them to do another whole revision. I think next semester everyone will be forced to do it from the get-go. But enough about me. Go read Christine’s essay.