Those who can’t do, teach: the cliche that misses the point

All cliches have a kernel of accuracy; they are like stereotypes, and can be just as damaging or disparaging. A dancer who’s too old for the stage; a writer who must supplement her income while she continues to chase publication. The belief, those who can’t do, teach, rests on the premise that an artist who is successful has neither time nor need to teach. But like many cliches, its counterpart holds true too: many of those who do, cannot teach. For each, doing and teaching well, demands an entirely different set of skills and level of generosity.

While I was studying towards my MFA, one of our professors asked whether we thought it desirable, or in fact possible, to teach the art of writing. Was literary achievement an organic process, somehow transmitted by osmosis to writers who were also avid readers? Or was it the result of disciplined genius, the purview of an illustrious brain that transcended the need to learn? Picasso recommended learning the rules like a pro in order to break them like an artist, and we know that craft can be taught. But can a teacher, editor or mentor ignite that spark of creativity that defies convention and formulae, that breaks new ground and emerges from a writer’s essence?

Mentor and protege by J.A. Skutelsky
Mentor and protege by J.A. Skutelsky

Teachers have been part of our lives since most of us could speak. Some of them came close to ruining us. If we survived, we were lucky to find that rare mentor who was able to change us, who touched us in ways we were not prepared for, made us think and search and become better people. Better writers, because of what they coaxed or yanked out of us.

The simple truth is that sometimes we don’t know how to get from A to B (and then, for heaven’s sake, we have the rest of the alphabet to get through). A genius may have no problem, but genius is often discovered after years of searching, paying acute attention to detail; after a nurturing, flowering and exchange of ideas that reach beyond the known and established. Perhaps genius also manifests after a bit of rough provocation. The best writers have done apprenticeships, either through reading or under a master, and while a student grapples with a destructive ego, (I’m not good enough, on the one hand, or I’m just so good, never has anyone written such prose, on the other) a good teacher or editor will recognize the demon and boot it out the door: allowing the best of that student’s tender creative spirit to flourish.

I’ve had dozens of teachers, and two mentors. I know that in both cases, I would not have had the courage to reach as far as I have, taken as many risks, without their stern and brilliant influence. I was already a teacher when I approached my ballet mentor and begged him to teach me, and when he said, come, I knew that a whole new world would open up for me.

I would have to start from scratch. He was a master technician, an ex-principal dancer in leading companies around the world, exacting and severe and often harsh. But he gave me the best he had to offer, and I stuck it out. He in turn made me the best teacher I could be.

Ballet is the most precise and punishing of all dance forms. Its aesthetic demands are relentless, it requires memory and artistry and mathematical precision, musicality and co-ordination that, when synthesized, produce some of the best athletes in the world. It’s not for ninnies. One day, as I was opening the door to my studio, a woman came up to me and touched my arm. I could see there was something odd about her, in the way she held her head, the shape of her face that seemed somehow warped, the slump of her shoulders, and the fact that her eyes wouldn’t meet mine.

The older woman who accompanied her said, “This is my daughter, Jane. She wants to learn ballet with you.”

Jane had to be in her late twenties, not an optimal age to begin ballet.

“Hello Jane,” I said. “Have you done any ballet before?”

Her mother told me she had.

Jane’s eyes filled with tears, her lips trembled; we were standing on the curb and I was getting a strange feeling about this encounter. So I invited them in.

Jane barely spoke that first time. It all had to come from her mother. That she’d been to many studios, had danced for many years, loved ballet more than life, and was the laughing stock of every class she attended. Her teachers had had enough and told her she was done. They may as well have handed her a rope.

A birth defect had left Jane mentally and physically compromised. She had trouble speaking, a difficulty exacerbated by the fact that Afrikaans was her first language.

“I need to hear from you, Jane,” I said, but all she could get out was, “I want you for my teacher.”

She would never pass an exam. She had no musicality and could barely count. She could, even with good training, injure herself, and she had not assimilated any good training.

But she’d asked me to teach her, and I did. I treated her the same way I treated every other student. I demanded things of her. I screamed at her to JUMP. I pushed her, I moaned, I yelled encouragement and applause and on many occasions thought my head would explode. I expected, and demanded more of her than anyone ever had.

In ten years she never missed a single class. Her shoulders straightened out of their slump. She got so good at stretching she was one of the most supple students in class. She had beautiful eyes that stopped engaging the floor. My most achingly sentimental moment came when a new student saw none of Jane’s challenges and only expressed how much she wanted to achieve her flexibility.

I set up a mock exam with a high profile dancer friend of mine, and we gave Jane the certificate she’d longed for all her life. We didn’t lie. We just looked for the best in her and advised her how to improve the areas in which she struggled.

We didn’t change the world. But Jane did become the best dancer she could be, only partly because I kicked her butt so hard. She had the will, the desire and the drive to put herself out there and take it on the chin, and who was I to tell her she had no right to do it?

A teacher’s guise may be deceptive, and may take the form of one or many books; stories told by writers through the ages from all over the world in every genre. I have a long standing relationship with Charles Dickens. And John le Carre. And Tana French. They’re all wonderful teachers. We might be lucky enough to stumble across an editor whose guidance transforms us and our work. Or we may have the good fortune to discover such a person in a writer’s workshop. Teachers are everywhere. We just have to be ready, and recognize them when they appear.

Do you have someone whose work or teaching has inspired you to reach further than you might have on your own? We’d love to hear from you.

Next Week from Jenn… Where the wind takes us…


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