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April 27, 2009

Joshua Henkin's Book Club Adventures: The Latest Chapter, March 2009 Part II

Posted by carol
Yesterday Joshua Henkin, author of the novel Matrimony, answered one of the questions he's sometimes asked by reading group members: "How did you come up with the names of your characters?" Today he answers another question popular with the book clubs he has met with to talk about Matrimony.

Another Popular Book Group Question in March: Does Teaching Writing Help Your Own Writing?

The short answer is yes. I teach undergraduates and MFA students at Sarah Lawrence College and MFA students at Brooklyn College. Prior to that, I taught at Trinity College in Connecticut, and at the University of Michigan. I've also taught writing at the 92nd Street Y in New York. In one way or another, I've been teaching fiction writing since I was a graduate student, which is more than fifteen years ago now. Most writers can't make a living from their work alone, so we have day jobs. We're lawyers, doctors, secretaries, teachers, waiters, you name it.

Teaching writing isn't the most lucrative option, but it has its advantages. My schedule is such that I don't have to be at an office all day; in fact, the actual number of hours I teach a week is relatively few. There's certainly a lot of work; anyone who takes teaching writing seriously has to do a lot of preparation for class. But that preparation can come late at night, after the kids have gone to bed, or any other time, really. So there are ways to carve out time to write. Even on teaching days, I'm usually able to get some writing done, and certainly on days when I don't teach. And vacation, particularly summer vacation, gives me large chunks of time when I can focus exclusively on my writing. So it's a schedule that's relatively flexible, and this is important for a writer.

Then there's the question of the work itself. Different people feel differently about it. There's a certain kind of intuitive writer who, pedagogical gifts aside, wouldn't begin to know how to teach writing. You show them what they're doing right in their fiction, and they just shrug. Look, Ma, no hands, they seem to be saying. They're doing it right, but they don't know why they're doing it right; they don't even realize that they're doing it right in the first place. There's a kind of savantism at work here. That's not me. I needed to teach myself to become a more intuitive writer. That was one of the reasons I went to graduate school. And it's one of the reasons I teach writing now.

For me, the way you learn to be a better writer is by reading widely, deeply, endlessly. And part of the reading I do is the reading of student work. My students aren't Chekhov, even the best of them, but some of them are very good, and even the less good ones have something to teach you. For me, figuring out what's not working in someone else's story helps me figure out what's not working in my own story. What's more, teaching is interactive, it's social, and I'm a relatively social person. Writing, on the other hand, is solitary. I spent ten years writing Matrimony, and so I was living for ten years with this small set of characters. It was incentive to make them interesting. Still, it's good to have some real people in your life as well. I have my wife and children, and my friends, but my students, thankfully, are real people too, and what's more, I get to talk with them about writing.

---Joshua Henkin

Previous Posts by Joshua Henkin:
Book Club Adventures, March 2009
Book Club Adventures, February 2009
Book Club Adventures, February 2009 Part II
Book Club Adventures, January 2009
Book Club Adventures, January 2009 Part II