18 February 2012

Night Work

Some quick background info: For the past eleven years, I've taught six night courses every year in the Continuing Education department at Millsaps College here in Jackson, Mississippi. Each course is seven weeks long, and the subject is "Writing and Selling Short Stories." (Actually, there are two different courses. One's intro-level and the other's advanced. The second of my courses has the brilliant and original title "Writing and Selling Short Stories, Part 2.")

Class distinctions

Lest I misrepresent myself, I should explain that I have no formal training that would qualify me to be an instructor on these topics. I was, in earlier episodes of my life story, an Air Force captain and an IBM systems engineer. I am not an English major, I don't have an MFA, and my only journalism experience is that I drew cartoons for my high-school newspaper. What then, you might well ask, steered me to teach courses in writing and selling short stories? The answer is two things: (1) I simply love to talk to other writers about writing, and (2) I've sold a lot of short stories. An added bonus--one I never thought of before agreeing to this "job," long ago--is that it's brought me in contact with some of the most fascinating people I've ever met. At this point I'm three weeks away from finishing up the classes in our winter session, and--as usual--I've been blessed with a number of talented and interesting students.

How interesting? Well, I got to thinking the other day about the several hundred folks who have endured my courses, and what I came up with gives proof to the "from all walks of life" cliche. My students' ages have ranged from fifteen to eighty-six, and their regional and ethnic backgrounds are almost as varied. So are their occupations.

Odd Jobs?

On the remote chance that any of you are interested in this kind of thing, here are some of the day jobs of the writers who have subjected themselves to my instruction in the art (?) of creating and marketing short fiction:

Lawyers -- At least one per class, it seems.
Physicians -- Two dozen or so.
Accountants and engineers -- A LOT of these folks. I have no idea why.
A head chef
A nun
A limo driver
A cartoonist
TV newcasters -- Three of them, so far.
Artists and musicians
Full-time students -- Two in high school, several in college.
Stay-at-home mothers
Police officers -- Plenty of grist for the story mill, in that job.
English professors -- Enough of them to thoroughly intimidate me.
Computer programmers/analysts
Published novelists -- Maybe half a dozen.
Government employees -- Many, many of these. Why? Another mystery.

NOTE: I've never had a career politician as a student, which seems strange since fiction writers are liars by trade. (Not that I'm complaining.)

Things I didn't expect

One fact that's always surprised me is that of the 68 groups of students I've had so far, 66 of them included more women than men, and a few classes were made up entirely of women. Does that mean that there are more female writers, these days? Again, I have no idea. There are almost certainly more female readers.

I was also surprised to discover that the classes are usually equally divided in the following categories: (1) outliners vs. non-outliners and (2) literary writers vs. genre writers. The lit/genre proportions are a little puzzling because, as a nation, we obviously have more readers of genre fiction out there, than (so-called) literary fiction. Of those who are genre writers, though, I've noticed that many are fans of mystery/suspense, which is my first love as well.

Things I expected

Something that doesn't puzzle me is that these adult-education "enrichment" classes are so much fun for the instructor. I think there are two reasons for that. First, the subject taught is usually one that the teacher truly enjoys; second, adult-ed students actually want to be there. Attendance is voluntary, not mandatory. They're even paying to be there. Sometimes that makes a big difference.

I recognize that occasional seminars and workshops and conference sessions are fun to teach as well. But a regular, ongoing, classroom-environment course is especially good--at least for me--in that it always keeps me current and in-touch and busy with the kinds of things I like to do anyhow. It also makes me feel a certain responsibility to try to keep publishing regularly. Students in pilot training need the reassurance that their instructors still remember how to safely and effectively fly the planes, and I think that applies to other kinds of students as well. (Failure on my part, of course, only means rejection letters, not crash landings--but it's still failure.)

Another thing I sort of expected: Nonfiction writers don't seem to find it difficult to make the switch to short stories. Any writing experience helps, whether it's technical journals, legal briefs, self-help columns, or what--and writers who have previously done only nonfiction seem thrilled at the sudden freedom offered by fiction, in both content and style. Their imaginations can run wild. And even the English profs tend to welcome, rather than resist, the chance to occasionally splice commas, fragment sentences, and split infinitives.

Get out of there, Billy--your class is over HERE

The only drawback to this teaching gig is that my classroom happens to be down the hall from a class on belly dancing and another on French wines. Students who have to walk past those open doors (especially when the gyrating and tasting are in process--I'll leave it to you to figure out which group is doing which) are probably often tempted to stop in there rather than continue on to a place where we'll be talking about manuscript formatting and simultaneous submissions and kill fees and dangling modifiers. But continue they do, and I think many of them wind up enjoying this writing stuff as much as I do.

Question: Do any of you teach, or have any of you taught, these kinds of courses? Have you ever enrolled in them? Any insights you might want to offer?

By the way, it just occurred to me that terms like "added bonus" and "continue on" might be redundant. Maybe I should learn to practice what I preach . . .


  1. John, your students are lucky to have you as a teacher.

    I've never taught writing to adults, but I have to six-year-olds. This was in the days before Every Child Left Behind, when we had the time to encourage kids to think of themselves as authors, and allow them to write and edit and "publish" their books for other kids to read. I recently ran into one of my former students, now in college and working on a novel. You can imagine how delighted I was to hear that.

  2. John, yes, I've taught similar courses on the secondary and community college level as well as co-writing course outlines for Clemson University. I have no insights to offer as I think you've covered them.

    I've only attended one course related to writing. It was a post-graduate class in teaching writing one summer at Furman University. Great fun and some of the students have maintained friendships from that summer. Since my younger son graduated from Furman, I was familiar with Greenville and led the class on evening explorations of the town.

    "Lest I misrepresent myself, I should explain that I have no formal training"--Maybe not, but, John, you have the credentials and the ability. If I lived anywhere near you, I'd take your course myself!

    The advantages that you mention referring to adult education also apply to high school summer school students. Even after I switched to elementary education during the "school" months, I enjoyed teaching high school English summer school because the kids wanted to be there and had paid for the privilege. I generally taught senior English, which meant passing my class determined whether or not these students received high school diplomas.

    I tried to spice up senior English with having some of my drama friends come in and do parts from what we studied. Lady Macbeth was a big hit! I also had each student prepare a resume and we did role model job interviews.

    I've always thought teaching was great fun and it's still great to be out and be approached by adults who introduce me as "Ms. Rizer, my___________ teacher." I don't always recognize them, but I always hug'em.

  3. Thanks, Anita and Fran, for your thoughts--I'm not surprised that both of you have been "real" teachers in the past. And yes, it's always fun to run into former students.

    Isn't it great when some of them turn out to be really successful--whether it was due to our influence or not.

  4. teaching is the best job in the world when you have students who want to learn.

  5. I have never taught writing. Working at a university I occasionally teach courses on library research and frequently teach sessions of other people's courses when the professor wants them to know how to research a paper.

    John, do you wind up reading a lot of their stories, or is that not part of the curriculum?

  6. Rob, part of the course is that I always critique and edit a "class story" by each student. The goal is that at the end of the seven weeks each person has in hand a finished manuscript (with a cover letter) that's ready to submit to an editor. As you might imagine, some of those stories are outstanding and some are not, but both the writer and I try to make each one as perfect as it can be--and it's always a learning experience for future stories.

    In several cases the stars have lined up correctly and those stories have won major contests or wound up published in good markets. Those are happy times for all, but of course it doesn't happen often. Wish it did.

  7. John,

    Your comment about writers of non-fiction finding it easy or fun to write fiction is interesting. I don't think the reverse is true. How many of us have tried to write non-fiction? I have. Unsuccessfully. I didn't like it and it showed. I know there are those who do both. But I would be willing to bet that they started out writing non-fiction.

  8. Janice, I agree: teaching is the best job (or at least one of the most rewarding) a person could have.

    Herschel, I too have written nonfiction, and I don't enjoy it much. Maybe I just like making things up . . .

  9. John, what a wonderful thing you do! The first story I ever wrote was an assignment in a community college arts appreciation course. It went on to be published and I was off and running (sometime stumbling)! I'll never forget my debt to that very patient man who taught the class. I'm sure many of your students feel the same about you.

  10. Thanks, David. I can only hope I'll be remembered in such a way. I also hope you locate (or have located) that teacher and let him know about your successes in writing. I can assure you he'll be proud.

  11. Hello John: I attended one day of Amelia Island Book Festival last weekend. (wish I could have attended all three days)
    Mississippi is too far away for me....maybe you could make yourself known to the powers that be and spend a weekend here? They are on line. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. C.S.Poulsen


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