Intersections: Reflections on Teaching and Writing by Taylor Marie Graham

Image: Taylor Marie Graham (https://taylormariegraham.com/)

Image: Taylor Marie Graham (https://taylormarie graham.com/)

By Prof. Taylor Marie Graham (English)

When I started an MFA program in creative writing a few years ago, I thought there was a possibility this could lead me down what had always felt like the inevitable trail to teaching, but what I didn’t expect was for this seemingly inevitable profession to materialize so quickly. And I, perhaps naively, didn’t anticipate how much teaching would entirely reschedule and remodel my life! When I try to objectively observe my place in the world at the moment – a college English professor – my life is so different than a few years ago when I was a meandering theatre artist. It’s all kind of hard to come to terms with at times, especially for me: a slow to change, slow to accept, entirely reflective and in her own head kind of girl.

What makes it all feel like I am on right path though, is that I know Small Taylor – my inner 12 year-old self whom I gauge all my life choices against – would mostly approve of the teaching trail I am on today. And just for the record, Small Taylor is the same 12 year-old me, who kept notebooks with titles like When I Am A Teacher full of insights on what my obviously incompetent elementary school teachers could do to improve their pedagogical practices, and thoughts on how I could revolutionize the world of teaching as we know it today. Needless to say, Small Taylor can be demanding.

This past summer, the opportunity to work with budding writers around the age of Small Taylor became available as part of Artscape Youngplace’s Community Fund. My job was to bring a group of writers 12 to 17 years old together to work on the art of monologue writing. I had the group for 3 hours and none of them had met previously, so I started by getting everyone to write introduction poems where they had the opportunity to give the group a little information about themselves, start to work those creative writing muscles, and begin to use the metaphor we would focus on for most of the day: the elements (earth, air, fire, and water).

After this exercise, we went on to talk about the elements’ characteristics. More specifically we found as many adjectives as possible for each element as a group on the board. I would like to mention that the elements exercise is inspired by a writing exercise to help create specific characters by Judith Rudakoff from York University’s Theatre Department. I then explained to the group that I always start my creative process with character over plot, so that’s what I focus on in this workshop. But, of course, many people start with plot instead, so this is only one way to start writing!

I used the elements to show the students that characters, like the elements, can have realistic and supernatural characteristics such as some of their favourite super heroes and characters from books like Roald Dahl’s Matilda. For example, air is invisible yet everywhere, and you could describe a character in the same way. We then found adjectives for popular characters we know from TV, books, and movies to show that each individual character has specific character traits. Using this information, the participants individually started creating their own characters by creating lists of traits based off questions I asked them such as: Does your character eat breakfast? What colour is their room? Do they like small spaces? Is your character more like fire or water? and Does your character have any supernatural abilities? Etc.

I then spent some time talking about conflict using our elements metaphor, and showed them examples of successful monologues with strong characters and conflict. And then they wrote! For me, in all English classes, especially creative writing classes, it’s important to have the students write as much as possible. So, the group went through a quick writing process with 3 drafts to develop a monologue expressing what this character wants most in the world. The workshop ended with all participants reading their creations to the group. In a feedback questionnaire emailed out after the workshop, participants responded with the following feedback: “It was an amazing experience!” “I liked the way that we learnt,” “I learned a lot about creative writing and how characters connect to the four elements,” and “The workshop was such a great experience and extremely useful!”

What happened to me after the workshop probably sounds so cliché, in that the group ended up inspiring me to remember what’s so great about the incredible, instinctual act of artistic creation. The group created work that was so personal and therefore entirely theirs, that they had that feeling I almost forgot about. That feeling somewhere between shyness of being so truthful, and the rush of realizing you have all the universal truths of humanity inside you and you’re just one creative piece of writing away to accessing all of them.

Now I know that sounds kind of spiritualist or magical even, but that feeling was one I immediately recognized in those writers. I knew it was real because when I saw it in them, I realized I had lost this feeling for myself which had been so crucial to my own writing process, or maybe I had just forgot about it on that inevitable teaching trail I got so caught up in after my MFA. And so looking at these young writers I remembered that it’s vital to stop worrying so much about structure or form or destination when I’m sitting down to write for myself sometimes, so that I can access that lost feeling of knowing everything is within us. It’s that feeling that drove me to write in the first place I think. So I guess the lesson learned here is maybe: teaching is just another way for me to eventually get back to writing? I don’t know. But what I do know is that Small Taylor, that demanding 12 year old inside me who wrote books about pedagogy, also wrote notebooks with titles like When I am a Famous Writer and The Truth About the World, so I think she’ll probably be on board with me pursuing that feeling through my writing again, and trying to align that bold teaching trail with that other, less straight, more confusing trail we reflective writers end up getting lost on from time to time.

*This piece was originally published in the Women’s Caucus newsletter for the Playwright’s Guild and is reproduced here with permission.

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