What’s the Story #63

"There's something about focusing on the basics that can inspire innovation and transformation"

I am writing this column from the Blue Spirit Resort in Costa Rica, where I am teaching at a yoga and creative nonfiction writing retreat. It’s a pretty terrific place, located on a hilltop overlooking the Pacific and a sparkling white sand beach, which is mostly free of tourists (except for us yogis) and clean. There is no trash—just driftwood, shells, a few surfers and swimmers, and an occasional motorbike zipping along the edge of the water at low tide.

There are twenty in our eclectic group, which includes a physician, two chemists, an attorney, a songwriter and performer, and a couple of elementary school teachers, from as far away as California and Norway. I teach two writing sessions a day; each is followed by yoga, taught by Sean Conley, a former NFL football player who owns four yoga studios in Pittsburgh. Most of my writing students are more or less beginners, while their familiarity with yoga varies.

When you teach, you try to respond to your group—pushing them a wee bit out of their comfort zones so they can learn new things, but not pushing them so far as to confuse or challenge them so much that they become discouraged and give up. I knew pretty much what I needed to do with this group of beginners: first, a bit of background about creative nonfiction, defining the genre, then talking about the combination of style and substance, scenes and stories, and how to embed information inside and between the scenes so readers are engaged and learning whatever you want to tell them, whether you are writing something very personal or profiling a person, place, or thing. I deconstruct sample scenes, demonstrate how they are put together, and then show how the scenes are connected in a narrative line or arc for an essay or a book chapter. All the basics.

Sean has had more of a teaching challenge because our familiarity and experiences with yoga are varied. There’s one or two folks who practice only once a week, and others, like me, who are “hard core”—who practice maybe four or five times a week, and sometimes more, especially during stress-filled periods. He knew a lot of us hard-core people—we practice with him in Pittsburgh—and because he did not want to disappoint us, his first two classes were pretty vigorous, and by the end of those classes, a few participants were not only worn out but perhaps a bit discouraged. Sean was perplexed. He wondered: should his classes seek a middle ground? But what if that was still too hard for some and not vigorous enough for others? No one would be pleased. So he did an about face.

At our next meeting, he conducted a “techniques” lesson, beginning with all of the basics: downward-facing dog, mountain pose, warrior one. He went around the yoga studio, helping us all, one by one, with technique and form. We hard-core students thought we knew all of this stuff—some of us have been practicing for decades—so we were somewhat apprehensive at first. But as the lesson progressed, we began to realize that going back to the basics and relearning what we thought we knew was quite helpful. Personally, I discovered that I had gotten into some bad habits over the years or had simply forgotten some of the subtle details of poses and movements I’d learned years ago. It was a terrific bonding experience. Sean then started giving classes again, gradually increasing the intensity so that, now, at the end of the week, the classes are just as vigorous, perhaps even more so, than the ones he taught at the beginning. And everyone is participating happily, going at their own pace and gaining confidence and skill as each day passes.

In yoga or writing—or in practicing any art or skill—it does not hurt to start over once in a while just to make sure you know what you think you know. In fact, it occurs to me this is also why teaching can be reinvigorating—I know many writers who make their primary living by teaching and who often find their inspiration in writing prompts given to their students. But maybe there’s also something about focusing on the basics that can inspire innovation and transformation.

In this issue, we take a broad view of “teaching”: there are stories from the classroom—including Margaret Downey’s prize-winning story, “The Month That I Taught English, We Had Prisoners Running through Our Backyards”—but there are also stories of parenting and piano lessons. They’re not all unqualified success stories; indeed, some are quite the opposite. But they all show how much teaching anything depends on making a connection, or at least trying to.


About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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