As a professional writer with twenty-five years experience, my approach to teaching is both simple and evolving: to provide an encouraging and challenging environment within which a students creative talents may be fostered. I tend not to dominate a class; rather, my approach is one of (mostly) quiet enthusiasm whilst keeping a close eye on possible negative or destructive influences.
I encourage and expect students to read broadly and write as often as possible both from a directed standpoint in terms of genre and form, as well as freely chosen creative explorations. I discourage self-censorship and promote individuality and originality. My aim is for a group that relishes intense and productive discussion which leads to fine individual writing. I do whatever is necessary to support an emerging talent. Yet I do not shirk from pointing out weakness in terms of derivative, mannered or insubstantial work: only the truth can help a young writer advance, both technically and emotionally.
The Writing Workshop
Workshops are arranged so that writers have ample time to read one anothers work beforehand, take notes on it, and prepare to offer thoughtful criticism; workshops are in fact excellent training for editors-to-be. Each member of the workshop should expect to contribute, and criticism should be of two distinct types, both enormously important for the writer to hear:
Sometimes I ask a writer to read part of her or his work aloud. Hearing the voice of the text can be enormously valuable to both writers and readers. I insist upon it in the poetry class.
Let us imagine that we are the editors of a first-rate literary magazine. We are all attempting to bring the best out of the material presented to us and we should take our responsibilities seriously. The writer is present (unlike real writers in real life) to hear the commentary. Sometimes we turn to the writer to ask questions, but not often; the most practical procedure is for the writer to sit quietly and listen, and at the end of the discussion speak or ask questions of the editors.
And criticism, though tough and honest, is always constructive. Negative criticism, the kind that wounds and demoralizes not only the object of criticism but others who witness it, has never seemed to me to be of any value at all.