Do Teachers learn from Their Students?
Last week end, one of my former students, Canadian playwright, Paul Ciufo, interviewed me at a book event in Bayfield, Ontario. We kicked off the evening with Santa Claus and the lighting of the Christmas lights in the town square, and then Paul and I went back to the Village Book Shop, which is run by its new owner Mary Brown. One of the first questions Paul asked was about a remark I’d made in a creative writing workshop at York University.
“You need to tell me something that only the peacock knows,” Paul said, quoting my feedback on his short story about a peacock.
He said my remark had haunted him as a playwright and what on earth did I mean? At first, I hemmed and hawed. Had I given Paul bad advice? Shouldn’t I have given him more information instead of making mysterious pronouncements about peacocks?
Flummoxed, I took a stab at what I had meant twenty years ago when he had been a promising and talented student in my class. “We need narrators who are like us and not like us so we have room to invent,” I replied. Paul looked at me blankly. I went on. “And students tend to offer a long and often cliched laundry list of descriptive details about a character instead of finding the specific, defining details that let us see who their character is. So I wanted you to tell me specific things about the peacock. Instead of using vague, general language to describe your peacock.”
Paul still looked puzzled, and I knew this wasn’t what I had meant at all. So what had I been going on about?
Reflecting on our conversation this morning, it strikes me that I was telling Paul what writers do. Our job is not only describing what our character knows but what is special about what our character knows. And in each case, it is up to the writer to find out that special knowledge and convey it. The writer can express this in a variety of ways, through an image or a metaphor, or an inner dialogue of some kind.
And that reminds me of something that Thornton Wilder once said, that an artist’s job is to reveal the truth and hide it at the same time. And what did Wilder mean by that? Only the peacock knows.