Friday, May 8, 2009

HOW I BECAME A TEACHING AUTHOR

posted by April Halprin Wayland

I was wearing high heels and business suits, working in downtown Los Angeles in a well-paid job…and I was miserable. My life changed forever when I signed up for a class through the UCLA Extension’s Writer’s Program.

How can I describe how I felt when I began taking that class? I felt as if the sun were shining through me like it shines through these leaves on our persimmon tree:
I became addicted to writing classes. Each of my teachers gave me a part of herself. I studied with brilliant teachers: Ruth Lercher Bornstein, Susan Goldman Rubin, Sonia Levitin, Barbara Abercrombie and many more. But the teacher who really changed my life was poet Myra Cohn Livingston. I was her student for over ten years.

Myra gave me the discipline of poetry. She gave me the power of observation. She taught me that in poetry, less is more.

One of my cherished memories was when she read poetry to us for long stretches of time. We’d lean back, listen, luxuriate in each word.

http://daddyo.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/raptattention.jpg

Myra taught me to read every poem aloud twice: first to hear it, then to feel it.

While I studied with Myra, my first two picture books were published.
TO RABBITTOWN, illustrated by Robin Spowart, is a free-verse story poem

THE NIGHT HORSE, illustrated by Vera Rosenberry.
This book was based on an assignment in Myra’s class
to write a story in Shakespeare’s
iambic pentameter couplets.


It was as if I had been given a magic carpet--I became a visiting author, teaching poetry workshops across America and Europe.

Then UCLA Extension invited me to become an instructor. Me? What did I know? And besides, my life was too full. I had said "yes" to too many requests; I was learning to say "no."

Here was a perfect test! "So," I told my husband later, feeling quite proud of myself, "I recommended another author." My husband was astounded. “You did what?”

His reaction made me wonder: Oops. Did I just goof? And what makes a good teacher? Do you have to be the world's expert on a topic to teach?

I thought about all the wonderful teachers I’d had and all they’d given me. They gave me hundreds of resources. They showed me how to write…and rewrite and rewrite. They taught me how to submit manuscripts, how to pull myself up after rejection, and how to navigate the maze of publication.

Maybe I didn’t know much…but I could offer what I had been given.

Meanwhile, my next picture book came out. IT'S NOT MY TURN TO LOOK FOR GRANDMA!,
illustrated by
The New Yorker cartoonist,
George Booth, includes a song which I wrote
using all I had learned from Myra.


Myra encouraged me to gather my poems for teens into a book. She helped me to select and arrange them.
Take heart! GIRL COMING IN FOR A LANDING--
A Novel in Poems, illustrated by
Elaine Clayton,
took ten years to sell.


When UCLA Extension’s Writer’s Program called a few years later and asked me again if I wanted to teach a class, I took a deep breath and said, “Yes.”

And although I had taught workshops in grades K – 12 for years, the idea of teaching people my own height terrified me. I trembled for months as I prepared for that first class.My mantra—which helped—was: I am a snowflake. When they are in my class, they will learn my snowflakeness. When they take another class, they will learn that teacher’s snowflakeness.I practiced being a snowflake by teaching teens at my home. The most important thing I learned was not to throw every single solitary thing I’d ever learned at them (those poor overwhelmed kids!). John Holt wrote, “The biggest enemy to learning is the talking teacher.” I learned that in teaching, as in poetry, less is more.

I survived that first UCLA Extension class! The next time would be as easy as rolling down a hill, right? Wrong. The second year I was equally frightened. When I asked storyteller/teacher Katy Rydell why I was still scared, she said, “Oh, Honey—the fear doesn’t go away until you’ve taught the class for at least four years.”
My next picture book is NEW YEAR AT THE PIER--A Rosh Hashanah Story, illustrated by Stéphane Jorisch , who won the Canadian equivalent of the Caldicott Medal for Illustration twice! The illustrations are gorgeous.
It comes out June 2009.

So, it's been a process. I've become a TEACHING AUTHOR through the students I've worked with from kindergarten to AARP, through my colleagues, through my own teachers.

I’ve taught in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program for ten years now and this year
I. Finally. Understand:

Teaching is generosity.

I feel incredibly lucky to be part of TEACHING AUTHORS, and look forward to this great adventure in giving...and learning from you.

12 comments:

skytopper said...

How inspiring! Thank you for your lesson of giving and for the beauty you create and share. I look forward to getting your new book in June.

Congratulations,

Larry W.
Torrance, CA

janet s. said...

"The most important thing I learned was not to throw every single solitary thing I’d ever learned at them" -- April, how true...and what a welcome reminder! I think this is one of the biggest challenges for us as "visiting authors" who usually visit a school for just one day.

KathyV said...

April is just as articulate and generous and wise in her writing as she is in real life! I am proud to call her my friend.

Sarah Campbell said...

I would love to take a class from you, April. I try not to be fearful of poetry; I'm sure it has the power to transform my writing. You have given me another nudge toward trying it again. Thank you.
Sarah

gteamhj said...

Wonderful wonderful mixture of thoughtful words and terrific images. Great bloggin' kiddo!!

April Halprin Wayland said...

Thank you for taking the time to comment--wow! What a neat welcome to the wonderful world of blogging. Now, if I can just balance my fiction writing with this...
:-}

Alexis said...

April - Your ending quote nails it: "Teaching is generosity." How true! And how true of you. Now all kinds of folks will be experiencing your generosity through this new blog!

Rebecca Gold said...

I love your story, April. You're right-- teaching is generosity-- and so is writing! You are one of THE most generous authors and women I know. Thank you for generously sharing your writing and your friendship.

The Book Chook said...

Thank you for sharing your innermost fears and feelings.

Barney Saltzberg Author, Illustrator, Songwriter said...

April,
Not only did you start teaching and making a difference in your students life, but you encouraged me to teach and I think I just finished my fifth year at UCLA!!!!!! I don't think I would have jumped in without your encouragement. It's been a life changing experience! xo Barney

Candace Ryan said...

April's UCLA Extension class kickstarted my career as a picture book author. She's an amazing instructor!

Wendie O said...

April, your book isn't coming out in June -- it's already here, in my library and on display! -wendie old