Learners and Knowers: Developing as a Writer

by Jody Lisberger

Spalding MFA faculty, Fiction

For the thirty-five years I’ve been teaching, I’ve heard teachers often talk about the distinction between “the learners” and “the knowers”: “The knowers” think they know everything, so they don’t really listen or take in—or deign to take in—what we might teach or advise them. “The learners,” on the other hand, no matter their age, are keen to keep processing and growing in new ways.

One of the many joys of working with adult writers in the Spalding University Low Residency MFA Program is that they are learners. They can’t take in their learning fast enough.

Another joy of teaching in the Spalding Low Residency MFA Program is seeing how much I continue to learn from others with each residency. For example, this last May residency one of the Spalding grads, Graham Shelby, who made it onto the final Moth radio stage, came and taught all of us the key elements for successful Moth storytelling. His reminder of the key parts of storytelling—action that incites, rises, climaxes, and falls—and the need to sequence these moments (in five minutes) to show how the teller changes, grows, or matures, of course made me think about my ongoing third revision of my novel. Do I have these plot points expressed through action? Do they build well?

But it was having my name drawn out of the hat a few days later at the real Moth preliminary round in Louisville that pushed my learning further than I might have imagined. And I’m not talking about the terror of hearing the announcer say, “And now, from Exeter, Rhode Island, welcome to the stage [yours truly],” or the terror of standing in front of spotlights so bright I couldn’t see the audience or the watch I’d taken off, thinking I could actually time my five minutes. It was the sudden need to hit my five plot points in a story about adventure—or should I say, my misses—that brought the learning home.

The good news is, I had memorized a first line (thought of about 15 minutes before my name was called), which I hoped would launch some key qualities Graham advised: authenticity, rawness of language, precision of timing, and empathy. Keeping in mind the opening of Pam Houston’s “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had,” from which I often teach a lesson called “Have language will travel,” I began: “I grew up in Ithaca, NY, which means I shoveled a lot of snow, especially because my father died when I was eight, leaving my mother with five children under the age of twelve.” I knew vaguely where I was headed after that. Which is to say, my “plot points” loomed in the blinding light like mountain peaks, or maybe more like the backs of ferocious hippos that could turn at any moment as I leapt upon them to make it across the river.

My leaps were to go something like this: 1) Tomboy as a child; 2) Fifteen years later, rented crampons to climb an Alaskan glacier as the only woman with ten men and fearing the crampons would slip off (they did); 3) Managing to get to the top of the glacier, snow, ice, proud of my conquest, and sleeping in a tent with my boyfriend on a high skinny crag next to the puny lean-to where all the other guys slept; 4) Next morning, in the lean-to with all the men, holding the freeze-dried egg pan with a pot gripper while Mosha poured boiling hot water in and I stirred, forgetting about squeezing the grippers and managing to dump several cups of boiling hot scrambled eggs into his boots; 5) Silence, running to tent, crying my heart out (the five minute shaker shook here, which was nerve-wracking in itself); 6) Only weeks later did I know all my climbing buddies well enough that Mosha could finally tell me what he wanted to say that day: “That’s okay, Jody. I’ll keep them warm for lunch.”

The nice thing about the Moth audience was their laughter. And their applause. I came off the stage pleased that I managed to build up the contrast between 1) Tomboy in cold, icy Ithaca and supposed readiness for Alaska, and 2) the miracle (and terror) of walking on ice and feeling such incredible (and ridiculous) embarrassment as a solo woman among men. I also managed to explain the issue about boots in (3), before the climax—it’s very cold on a glacier at night and you don’t sleep in your boots or put them in your sleeping bag because you don’t want them to be wet….

Not bad for a beginner. But far more importantly, afterwards I realized how I missed some crucial plot points and didn’t leap fast enough. Graham had warned us about a few “Mothisms,” including “the hijacker.” That’s when you spend too much time talking about your wicked slap shot in ice hockey as a kid or the sound of the glacier melting while you ascend.

While “hijackers” sounds a bit severe to me (maybe black holes would be good?), I nonetheless let myself forget to build a few key elements of suspense: like needing to get quickly up the glacier because there’s a huge steep snowfield to climb at the end, a field that melts into avalanche danger the closer to noon and afternoon you get (nobody wants to slow progress by losing a crampon). Or having your boyfriend pitch your little tent so close to the edge of the crag you worry you might sleepwalk out the wrong end… I’m still thinking, in useful ways for my novel, how I could have shaped my story more tautly and precipitously. More than anything else I’m thinking about hitting plot points, because I didn’t hit them as directly as I needed to that day.

I often say to my students, thinking of Driver’s Ed, that we learn more from the driver who takes a left turn in front of ongoing traffic than we learn from the person who does it right. The good news is, we keep learning. The good news is also that writing, as opposed to, say, carving Mt. Rushmore, allows us to reshape easily.

Two months out, I’m still loving and laughing about my Moth experience, including the 141 “likes” my FB photo in a blaze of lights garnered. One of these days, maybe I’ll be on my way to fame (and fortune?). For now, the other good news is, I’m still learning.

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