When the Classroom is a Public Space: Lessons from a New Writer in Residence –Stacy Murison

hipstamaticphoto-479148500.856242The sunlight streamed through the glass skylights at the downtown public library. It was a Saturday morning and I was sweating for two reasons; the first from running around and pulling chairs from other tables to accommodate an unexpected overflow of patrons. The second because this was not a classroom; it was a public table in a public space where everyone could see and hear me guiding students—community members—through a series of writing prompts.

Although I teach composition at a local university, I have had a second “classroom” at the Flagstaff City – Coconino County Public Library for the past few months. In exchange for a private office and research and writing time, the residency grant requires writers to develop community programming in addition to holding regular office hours for community members interested in writing.

In my previous career, I was part of conferences and webinars modeling best practices in our industry—essentially experts teaching experts. In my current career, I am used to smaller classrooms with writing classes capped at 24 students, where students are on similar writing levels with each other. The initial challenge for me was that there was no existing program to base my classes on; as the first writer in residence at our library, I had an open programming slate.

My second challenge was to imagine teaching writing to a diverse group of people. Fortunately, I have attended adult education writing classes in the communities I lived in: the Bethesda Writers Center, Writers & Books in Rochester, NY, and the Boston Center for Adult Education. Students in these classes varied in age, background, and experience, but we all shared a desire to learn more about writing and to practice our writing. I wanted to create a space at the library like these other adult education classrooms where we could gather weekly to write and talk about reading and writing. I developed creative nonfiction classes that I thought would meet the community needs indicated on all of our public surveys—a research class, specific prompts to help with memoir writing, publishing workshops, and a mix of daytime, night, and weekend classes.

Nothing went according to plan. Unlike traditional classrooms or adult education settings, our library classes are free and open to the public. It took me two classes to figure out that I was not going to have a consistent audience and that my experience of lesson planning and scaffolding information would not be helpful here. I did not have the luxury of a semester to teach concepts over the course of 16 weeks. I also learned in those first two classes that students wanted rules: they wanted to know immediately what the “right” and “wrong” ways were to write memoir and wondered how truthful they should be. I don’t like to be proscriptive, but I also knew I had to develop something easy to remember and transferable to each now-stand-alone class. There are three guidelines I remember from classes I took with Geeta Kothari, Rebecca McClanahan, and Dinty W. Moore at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop that I put on all of my handouts as guidelines for writing memoir:

  1. Never write with the intention to hurt;
  2. Be willing to implicate yourself; and
  3. Give yourself the gift of “perhaps.”

There is often push back from students on the first guideline—what if someone was truly awful? Didn’t they have the right to call them out on the page? After all, it was their story to tell however they saw fit. I explained that writing memoir requires compassion for ourselves and for others. At this point in my 50s I’m able to see all the ways I was not perfect or the hero in all of my own stories. I am also better able to understand struggles that my parents or former supervisors may have had—I know more now than I knew back then.

“You must have had a lot of therapy,” one of the students remarked.

I have definitely had to develop a better sense of humor about my teaching self working with this population, and also have had to let go of my ego more than a few times. One adult learner who has been to several of the workshops peppers me with questions when I introduce new concepts and writing prompts. At first, I was surprised and doubted myself, but then I realized this is how she learns. Another has read every book (and then some) on how to write memoir and can quote from each one, but has never attempted to write her own stories. Instead of worrying that I haven’t read the book she’s referencing, I give her the opportunity to “teach” what she has learned from her readings and then I tie it back to my lesson. Although I have moments of imposter syndrome, I remind myself that this is my wheelhouse. I’m learning to balance my self-doubt with the confidence of wanting to work with a community of adult learners interested in writing.

That’s not to say it’s been easy going. At my third workshop, one of the writers stopped everyone around the table to try to re-arrange the prompts I was delivering. I took a few minutes to explain why we were writing to the prompts in this particular order and what my goals for the exercise were. Dissatisfied, she pulled out the soul-crushing phrase that darkens the heart of this particular teacher:

“You know how you could teach this workshop better?” she asked. My heart stopped, but my mouth said, “I would love your feedback after workshop!”

It was a very public lesson that I had to re-learn: students need to know exactly why I’m doing what I’m doing and how purposeful my prompts are. I now provide more background information on the prompts and examples of directions they can go in with their writing as well.

I have always appreciated community writing, but I know it’s not for everyone. I want writers to feel comfortable talking and writing together even if we are only with each other for 90 minutes and may never see each other again. There’s a perfect “writer’s table” at the library that fits us comfortably; most of my classes don’t have more than 12 attendees. We spend the first few minutes of class introducing ourselves by first name and talking about what we are working on or what our writing intentions are for the class. I then go over our memoir guidelines and guide us through a series of prompts that accomplish different writing goals.

We work objects and photographs into our writing, play with time, imagine what others may have been thinking or doing, and write about ourselves in second and third person. Anyone can come to a class at any point and get a different set of prompts and learn new concepts without the restriction of taking classes at a regular day and time. Our most successful event was a Memoir Marathon that we scheduled for the last Saturday in March, but it was also one of my most nervous times teaching. I set up the class for writers who may have missed the specific memoir-focused classes during the month, and for anyone to walk in and write through prompts that would inspire them to write about different aspects of their lives. The residency (and my work) had been featured in the local paper the week before and the event was well-publicized. So much so we ran out of chairs in one area of the library and scrambled for more, and I was left standing in front of an artificial classroom, yelling out prompts into an otherwise quiet library. I played with the “marathon” theme of 26 prompts (each of which we wrote to for 2 minutes) and we took a break at “mile marker” 13. One of the librarians brought in clementines for us and we stretched our fingers, chugged water, and walked around the library for 10 minutes during the break. Afterward, I did feel as though I had at least quickly walked a 5k, elated the day had gone well and that people seemed engaged and excited about writing.

I saw two young gentleman afterward who had been on the periphery of the writing marathon. One shared that he was working on his own writing and was unsure about joining our group. He found himself leaning in more closely to write with us. The other confided in me that he had been looking for an apartment on Craig’s list. Writing wasn’t his thing, he assured me, but it had sounded like fun to him. “Do you have an extra set of those prompts?” I handed him the worksheet, encouraged him to come to our next session, and wished him luck finding his next apartment. He did come back this past Saturday and sat next to us again, but not at our table. I’m hopeful he’ll join our table by the last class, but am also encouraged that he just shows up.

In the very real world of adult education classes, I am cognizant that most of us will close our notebooks and go on with the grocery shopping and the laundry and the “day job” and not get back to our writing for a few weeks. This past weekend, I built in a few minutes for students to read over their work and consider the order of their paragraphs. We then considered some “glue” phrases (modeled after De Cleyre’s “Before that” and Miller’s “I’m sorry about”). They made notes on how they might re-arrange the essay and hold the paragraphs together when they had time to come back to it.

I have grown a lot as an educator these past few months. In the dream world, I go back to my previous fundraising career only briefly to write the perfect grant that enables me to stay at the public library forever, reading, writing, and teaching. In the imperfect world I live in, the residency ends April 30, but I know I’ll stay on as a volunteer as long as the librarians, and the writing students, will have me.

Works Cited

De Cleyre, E.V. “The Woods Are Going to Close.” Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. Issue 51. January 2016. Accessed 11 April 2019.

McClanahan, Rebecca. Word Painting Revised Edition: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively. Writer’s Digest Books. 2014.

Miller, Brenda. “Swerve.” Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. Issue 31. Fall 2009. Accessed 11 April 2019.

Miller, Brenda and Suzanne Paola. Tell it Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction. McGraw Hill. New York. 2012.

Stacy Murison is a contributing editor for Assay. She is also the Writer in Residence at the Flagstaff City – Coconino County Public Library. Her residency is funded through the generous support of the Arizona State Library, Archives & Public Records, a division of the Secretary of State, with federal funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

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