Choosing a writing instructor is a big decision. They are not all created equal. Here are some guidelines and suggestions that may help you in making your decision.
1) Qualifications: Does he have what you are seeking? One cannot teach what one does not possess. Has he accomplished himself in the area that you are seeking instruction? Don’t confuse a writing instructor with an English major. It’s one thing to quote Joyce, and another to identify with, support, and offer guidance to the daily struggle of the serious working writer.
2) Kindness: Honesty without kindness is cruelty. Of course we want our creative teachers to be straight with us, but if they cannot do it without positive reinforcement, they ought not to be teaching. Period.
3) Open-Minded: Watch out for gurus and authorities. This is common in creative instruction. Insecure teachers often overcompensate with an authoritarian tone. When our creative work is judged by someone who insists on having all the answers—RUN! Don’t walk to the exit! There are no answers. Any instructor who confuses principles with rules is a hack.
4) Setting a Tone: Is the class tone chaotic? Rigid? Are the other students supportive, encouraging, and friendly, or are they competitive and distancing? Part of the instructor’s job is to set the tone for the class. If the tone is not inclusive, it is difficult to do your best work. (Some MFA programs will disagree with this assessment, as if the writer must be tested and broken in order to triumph. Writing instruction need not be a Darwinian nightmare.)
5) Punctuality: When the instructor shows up late, it’s a bad sign. He does not respect himself, and he does not respect you.
6) Curiosity: There are many fundamentals to be learned, but there are no rules. If your instructor does not display a deep curiosity for what you are attempting to express, he is not serving your needs.
7) Respect: An instructor’s single most important job is to teach you to trust your instincts. Our stories live fully and completely within us. When a teacher treats you with basic respect, it has a powerful effect on allowing your creative self to emerge. When a teacher is rude or dismissive, it can block the creative channel. A teacher who encourages you to mimic the writing of another is disrespectful, and sadly all too common. Too many creative writing teachers want you to emulate the writer they most admire (usually themselves). Writing class is a place for you to find your own voice, not a breeding ground for sycophants.
8) Boundaries: If you choose to leave the class, the instructor does not bully or hound you to stay. She smiles, gives you a hug and says, “Keep writing. I’m here whenever you need me.”
9) Maturity: Your instructor is a grownup. He can take care of himself. In creative workshops the developing artist is going to run the gamut of emotions. It can be scary and even messy at times. The instructor is there to guide, nurture, encourage, support and cheerlead. Not the other way around! It is in the job description that the instructor does everything he or she can do to help the writer to find his voice.
Because when we truly find our voice, an instructor is someone who can . . .
10) Say Goodbye: A good instructor’s job is to make himself obsolete. You are not supposed to stay in class forever. You are supposed to find your voice and share it with the world—and if you so choose, to guide and mentor those that come after you.
A writing instructor is just that, one who instructs. She claims credit for nothing. Your work is your own. It belongs to you. Her only job is help you to become most fully the artist you were meant to be. Good luck with your search.