Last January, at an Italian restaurant on Whidbey Island, my friend Stephanie and I hatched a plan.
“I have an idea for a class,” she said, “about the public aspects of being a writer. Do you want to teach it with me?”
“Writers talking to people,” I said. “I’m in.”
The class would be for students of the Whidbey Writer’s Workshop, the low-residency MFA program we had both completed the previous August. At the nine-day residencies, held every January and August in Coupeville, students attend morning classes and afternoon seminars. The seminars are taught by guest faculty, and we proposed this as a pilot class involving the alumni. We received an enthusiastic response from our director, Wayne Ude, and assistant director Ana Maria Spagna, also a nonfiction faculty member and my former thesis advisor. Our discussions back in January felt a little like the conversations I had with my surgeons before my first operation – this is an experiment, we aren’t sure what we will discover. Like my doctors, Stephanie and I forged ahead enthusiastically, hoping at the very least to get a paper in a medical journal out of the deal.
Several months and planning sessions later, we arrived on Whidbey to teach two three-hour sessions of Writers Talking to People. I’ve been in a teaching role before, including as a teaching assistant in this very MFA program. But this felt different. I’d be teaching my writing peers, my friends. It would be my first team-teaching experience, with a friend who is a Professor at the University of California. Stephanie has a PhD in Comparative Literature. She is, as we say in Massachusetts, wicked smaht.
So, yes, I was nervous. But then I pulled into the parking lot at the Captain Whidbey Inn. After ten residencies its become my second home, the place where I became Writer Janet. Walking across the Inn’s grounds, I saw my teachers, my peers, my friends, all ensconced in their classes by the time I showed up on Day 4. Everyone greeted me like both a member of the family and an honored guest. My ID badge had a blue ribbon attached to the bottom, gold-embossed with the word faculty. My meals were free, a paycheck was on its way to my house, and there was a travel reimbursement form in my welcome packet. I had arrived.
The class involved many logistics – sessions at different locations, guest speakers, videotaping. Somehow, we pulled it off with very few hitches. In fact, the class exceeded my expectations. Stephanie was a wonderful co-teacher, and I learned a lot during our sessions by watching her. Everyone was engaged throughout the three hours, no easy feat by the 4th afternoon of the residency.
And then, just when we thought it couldn’t get better, we arrived at the local radio station, Whidbey Air (KWPA), where Stephanie had arranged for some students to read their work on the radio. Gwen Samelson, Whidbey Air radio guru, made the session a teaching/learning opportunity for everyone. She began by explaining how different kinds of microphones operate, the kind they had at this station as well as others.
“When you are interviewed for your published book,” she said, emphasizing when and published, “you’ll know how it works.” I sat in the back, proudly watching my friends read their work into the microphone. Then my big moment came, and I was totally unprepared. Gwen said that she would put a podcast together with all of the readings on it.
“Stephanie, come up and do an intro,” Gwen said. “Janet, you can do the closing.” My mind raced during Stephanie’s recording. What would I say? I’d just finished teaching a class about how to talk to people, and now it was my turn to speak, off-the-cuff, and I was going to bungle it.
It was my turn to sit in the chair. Gwen came around to help adjust my position.
“Scoot your tailbone all the way to the back of the chair,” she told me.
“I don’t have a tailbone,” I told her.
“I know what you mean,” she said, “my butt is numb too after sitting all day.”
“No,” I said. “I really don’t have one. It was surgically removed.” We were all laughing at this point, Gwen and my friends and me.
“I’ll bet you’ve written a story about that,” Gwen said. And then, once I stopped laughing, I was ready. I talked about the MFA, what it meant to me personally, the supportive writing community that has continued to welcome me beyond my graduation. I don’t know how my gushing will come across the airwaves when its broadcast, but I know how I felt while I was speaking: proud. Proud of the program, proud of my friends for the work they’d written and read for internet broadcast, proud of Stephanie for all that she did to create such a great class experience. Proud of myself, too, for being in a mentorship role. And full of gratitude for all of it.
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