Like a lot of teachers, one of the most rewarding aspects of being an educator is witnessing a lightbulb moment for my students. When we’ve labored together over the course of a semester to co-create an environment that is safe and trustworthy enough that students want to play and explore and suspend their disbelief just long enough for their imagination to pop on, we are able to create new tread in the familiar trenches of their minds. And mine too. Everyone’s a teacher, after all. My friend and colleague, the rhetorician Dr. Scott Whiddon, summed it up best for me ten years ago when he said, “Writing is a contact sport.”
The classroom dynamic and peer review is fine, but the a-ha moments usually occur during office hours when I’m working one-on-one with someone (novice or veteran) to punch through the stratosphere of their previous limiting beliefs with regard to writing.
All I really have to offer is the power of choice. Life is choose your own adventure no matter where you are. I bring backroads, detours, the scenic route. I like to think up generative exercises that create low-threshold entry risks so someone who’s stalled out isn’t greeting the page cold. Step by step they oblige with specific instructions and the prestige comes when they are looking at their own story with new eyes—like being introduced to themselves for the first time. So, they think they’re writing about a room in their house but they’re really writing about a formative experience they’d forgotten all about. They might think they’re writing about mythological creatures but they’re really examining the spectrum of how their unique story is influenced by and contributes to the collective narrative. And even better, you can change it. My favorite part of being a writing doula is being the gateway to All Of It.
I remember when I realized while working in women’s detention centers that imagination is a luxury. When a person is in survival mode, the very aspect of their brain that can help them change their perspective on their options, is the first thing to shut down. So, I had to modify some of those exercises because some of them had been incarcerated for so long, they just couldn’t make the connection between mermaids and the potential to shape-shift irl. So we built bridges between us and met one another halfway.
Too many of the women, when confronted with the sadder parts of their own stories, stopped. A lot of them expressed shame or regret that they didn’t have a happier ending or outcome to share in their work. After all, it was a poetry workshop, wasn’t it? And poems are supposed to soothe, right?
Poems can be therapeutic. Writing is certainly cheaper than therapy. But what I was really there to do was help them understand poetry as one tool among many to excavate one’s emotions and acknowledge emotion as a kind of intellect. In other words, the opinion of the brain in your gut matters as much if not more than the one in your noggin.
There is certainly an element of the trickster I bring to the classroom. My students don’t always believe me when I say they have more power than they think they do to affect change starting with their own stories, but they trust me. And that’s really all I need. Not unlike a vampire, you gotta invite me in if you want find out what it means to be supernatural for yourself. And the bonus is that their breakthroughs become just as satisfying as though they are my own. When my students are in a better frame of mind about reading and writing, they have more fun, they talk to their friends and family about what they’ve learned and managed to pull off. And since expansion is the name of the game the cosmos is playing with us, if I teach my students nothing else, it’s that there are infinite ways to win.