By Eric Witchey
I recently read a short story written by one of my former students.
The piece had all the hallmarks of a gift to humanity—what I call “a story that heals.” After reading it, I found myself wishing I had written a tale that simple, that powerful, and that clearly realized. Amazed at how she represented two characters’ lives in contrast to one another in a way that implied depth of experience, emotion, and momentary connection in both, I wiped the tears from my eyes and realized how full my heart was because I had been lucky enough to touch the heart and mind that created the piece.
I wrote to her and complimented the beauty and power of the story, but I fear I did not do my experience justice. Days later, I was still haunted by the tale and by the moment of insight that accompanied it.
She responded to my compliment with some embarrassment and a statement I’ve heard before from students who have published, “I couldn’t have done it without your excellent teaching.”
Perhaps my teaching saved her some time in learning, but I’ve been teaching writing in some form or another for over 30 years. Experience has shown me that I’m occasionally blessed to touch students who have the heart, the mind, and the discipline to succeed in creating stories that contribute to the healing of the world. However, experience has also shown me that the best I can claim is to have saved them a little time in their journey. They do, with or without me, find the skills they need in order to bring their hearts to words and their words to readers.
In this, nothing has changed since so long ago when I was thrashing about with pen and page trying to make sense of all the conflicting information found in the world of teachers and how-to articles. Looking back, I see that teachers I thought were wrong were only wrong for me in the moment. Teachers I thought were brilliant were only brilliant for me in the moment.
One teacher I knew believed I would be great. Another made a point of telling me how hopeless my dream was and that I should quit and save myself the pain of a life wasted. Both were wrong. Both were right. A life is a life. I make my choices and walk my path.
Stubborn or foolish or both or neither, my obsession to find and know my heart well enough to bring it to the page in a way that is useful to others pushed me on to the next teacher, the next, and the next—and eventually to teaching.
Now, I see writers like my student and perspective lets me see that they, too, move from teacher to teacher to teacher in search of the next piece of craft they need and the perspectives that let them look back and see the value of the pieces they couldn’t know they needed at the time.
The motivational drivers vary from writer to writer, but I like to think that no matter what drives them they share a commonality of heart, mind, and discipline combined.
Certainly, people can live rich, full lives without putting pen to page, but do writers have a choice?
The teacher who told me I should quit–I learned told all his students that. He actively tried to get them to quit. He believed he did the ones who quit a favor because they would have quit eventually anyway, so he thought he was giving them more life to live well. He believed the ones who did not quit were the ones who had no choice and would pursue writing in spite of any obstacles.
Looking back, I see his tactic as cruel, but I also see the tiny grain of truth in it for a subset of students.
However, his tactic did not admit to students whose sensitivity required nurturing, whose insight might, if nurtured, result in powerful tales that can heal. How many of his students were just one insult away from personal despair because they lived with sensitivity that would have brought power and insight to their stories had they been given reasons to continue? How many healing stories were lost to that personally righteous belief? While I cannot know the number, I can say it is high. Few things are as fragile as creativity in a culture that demands conformity to ideals of acquisitive success.
The piece of his truth I embrace is that writers who are driven by heart, mind, and desire to serve the reader often succeed both in spite of and because of their obstacles. The truth I infer from all the writers I have known and the teachers I have had is that cruel tactics have no place in the nurturing of creators who have probably grown through and out of their fair share of cruelty.
The heart and drive to learn the craft well enough to serve and heal readers doesn’t come from soft lives lived in isolation from pain. It comes from fear, from loss, from anger, and from abandonment. It comes from compassion that pushes the writer to create sense and growth from chaos and pain. A published tale like the one this essay began with is born of the need to create the compassion that saves others from the need for defenses that too many of us carry in our culture.
The teacher’s role is to touch, nurture, and provide useful, executable technique to the student who will–with or without that particular teacher–find their path to expression and healing others. The teacher’s best hope is to save the student time and unnecessary pain on that path.
So, with a great deal of pride and a fair amount of healthy jealousy of the students who have surpassed my skills, I thank all my students. You have all made me a better writer. You have all helped me in my healing. You have all challenged me to deeper understanding.
Here is the link to the story that sparked this essay. Thank you, Erin Popelka.
Originally published in 2021 as “Gifts to Humanity” on Shadow Spinners.
How do we abandon the concept of being good, or getting it right? How do we train ourselves to produce stories on command? Those are hard questions to answer, since no two writers are quite the same. But brains do have some common characteristics. Brains are all about recognizing patterns….
About Eric Witchey
Eric Witchey has sold stories under several names and in 12 genres. His tales have been translated into multiple languages, and his credits include over 170 stories, including 5 novels and two collections.
Eric has penned dozens of writing-related articles and essays and taught more than 200 conference seminars, as well as at universities and community colleges.
His work has received recognition from New Century Writers, Writers of the Future, Writer’s Digest, Independent Publisher Book Awards, International Book Awards, The Eric Hoffer Prose Award Program, Short Story America, the Irish Aeon Awards, and other organizations.
His how-to articles have appeared in The Writer Magazine, Writer’s Digest Magazine, and other print and online magazines.