Let's Write Together

Lynne Barrett: The Net of Trust

Once upon a time, an English Department Chair interviewing me for a job asked, “What to you is the most important element in teaching creative writing?”

I paused. What an impossible question! So many things were important.

He looked like a skeptical old bird, head tilted, eyes sharp. I’d told myself to think of this visit to a distant university as a lucky chance to gain experience, nothing to count on, but once there, I wanted the job.

An answer filled my mouth, and I said, “Trust.”

He blinked. “Trust?”

I rushed into explanation. In my education I’d known when I trusted a teacher and when I hadn’t. In my (so far, temporary) chances to teach, I’d asked myself what I valued: knowledge, preparation, fairness, and clarity, certainly. But teaching this art involved contradictions, like patience and urgency, or encouraging experimentation and requiring comprehensibility. I said at least some of this.

I’m certain other parts of my visit, like the workshop I taught with faculty observing, mattered more to my reporting for work that August. Yes, Reader, I was hired. But, as happens when you surprise yourself, for years I’ve gone on thinking about my answer.

To be trustworthy meant I needed to keep learning and seeking. This brought me to my first IWWG Summer Conference, where I took classes in things I’d never tried and made lasting friends. I was struck then, as I’ve been ever since, by the bravery of women of all ages taking a risk to pursue their dreams among strangers and the joy of discovering how much we have to offer each other in classes, critique sessions, and open readings that take us from laughter to tears and back.

I returned to teach, discovering ways to use the brief, intense timespan of a conference to provide examples, concepts, and tools participants can use to sustain their writing. Sometimes aspects of the craft of storytelling, like scenic development, dialogue, handling time, and point of view, have been called the “nuts and bolts,” which can sound coldly mechanical, but nuts and bolts construct trust, holding together the bridges we cross and tunnels we pass through. Exploring options in supportive settings allows writers to feel our journeys are safe, even as we mark up and redo drafts, seeking to understand and form our stories so that readers will surrender to our characters and care about their fates.

With this in mind, I’ve titled my Advanced Fiction class this summer “A Path Through the Labyrinth.” Limited to ten participants, this manuscript-based workshop focuses on both what is on the page and what can be made of it, emphasizing revision as a process of discovery and development, a trajectory that may require doubling back to take a different turn to get where it needs to go.

Here, as in all the classes and activities at Muhlenberg, we’ll share the process of helping and being helped, creating confidence and connection, and weaving a net of trust that lets us say what we need to say.

About Lynne Barrett:

Lynne Barrett’s third story collection Magpies received the Florida Book Awards gold medal for Fiction, and her handbook What Editors Want guides writers through the submissions process. Her recent work appears or is forthcoming in The Hong Kong Review, New Flash Fiction Review, Necessary Fiction, Mystery Tribune, River Teeth, The Miami Rail, Flash! Writing the Very Short Story, and Just to Watch Them Die: Crime Stories Inspired by the Songs of Johnny Cash. A recipient of the Edgar Award for best mystery story and an NEA Fellowship, Barrett teaches in the MFA program at Florida International University and is editor of The Florida Book Review. You can learn more at: www.lynnebarrett.com

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Showing 3 comments
  • MaryAnn Myers

    Love this blog!!

  • Cathleen O'Connor

    Love this piece, Lynne. You’ve expressed the quality that allows for that safe space in which to create. By providing that to your students, you empower them to trust not only the unfolding of their creative process but also to build the self-trust that this path belongs to them and they to it.

  • Susan Tiberghien

    Lynne, this is terrific! I blinked also when you answered “trust”. You made me stop and think. Then I read on , trusting you. Yes, most important is trust. Thank you. So looking forward to seeing you you soon.

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