Eckleburg: What is most rewarding about teaching the craft of writing?
Dawn S. Davies: I love lending an ear to people who have something to say and are learning how to say it. I am so happy to see progress, to watch a writer learn a concept, then practice it, then finally….nail it in a story or essay. I love re-gifting the writing treasures my mentors gave me, and watching my students insert these skills into their own work, their own ways, and take them with them on their own writing journeys. I remember the skills my favorite mentors taught me, and think of them when I use their teaching in my own writing today, and I hope my student will do the same with me. It’s like a long game of “Telephone” that takes years to play.
Eckleburg: What was/is the most rewarding experience as a student of writing?
Dawn S. Davies: I can remember the first time someone responded to my writing personally. I was in eighth grade, and Mrs. Whatserface passed out papers with a little doodle in the middle of it. We were to turn the doodle into a drawing and then write a story about it. I worked for several days on my story as if nothing else mattered. When I got it back, Mrs. Whatserface had written something like, “You should do this more often. I like what you had to say,” and this feedback both thrilled and changed something in me.
I become excited to see what comments my teachers would leave on my writing assignments. I wanted to move them. I wanted them to leave me better comments than they gave other students. I was competitive with my writing and I began to work hard at it. I love getting feedback from mentors. I loved marginal comments. I was happy for the criticism, even. I loved knowing that someone took the time to think about my writing, and that someone was invested enough in my work to tell me what was wrong with it, and what was working. I will never forget the thrill I felt turning to the last page of a paper or story or essay to see what my teacher had written, and I have been blessed by teachers who gave beneficial feedback that didn’t crush my soul.
I am still a student of writing, with far fewer opportunities to receive marginal comments in my work, but when I give feedback to my students, I remember what it feels like to get it, so I give very good, detailed feedback that never makes my students question their raison d’être.
Eckleburg: What is your favorite writing exercise or habit?
Dawn S. Davies: I am teaching “Funny Weird or Funny Ha Ha: the Right Comedic Angle for your Fiction” and “Awkward Turtle: Turning Life Experience into Comedic Creative Nonfiction.” Both focus on how to incorporate humor into your writing, whether you write short stories, novels, or various forms of essays. I like humor. I like thinking about why things are funny, and I love the truth that humor illuminates.
One of the promises I make in my own writing is a commitment to be squirmfully honest about whatever it is I am trying to illustrate. Often honesty delivered in an unexpected way is what makes people laugh, and I like that shocking, surprising angle. I want my readers to feel like they know something about me (or my characters) that no one else knows. I strive to bring them into the inner circle, the place where the lines get blurred between voyeur and participant and best friend. For me, finding this place means being “wide open ” with my writing, to where I get past worrying what people will think about something I reveal to them, and more important, what they will think about me. I have stopped caring and it is a lovely way to live and write.
I like to tell my students to open the faucets wide open when they write. If you think it, write it down, even if it is odd-bird whacko, even if it is tangential, even if you think it might hurt someone’s feelings or show yourself in a bad light, even if it seems to make no sense. Don’t edit that dark voice that we are all told to damper down in order to be socially acceptable. Get it down on paper without apology and see what connections you can make. You can always take it out later.
Dawn S. Davies (www.dawnsdavies.com) has an MFA from Florida International University. She was the 2013 recipient of the Kentucky Women Writers Gabehart Prize for nonfiction and her essay collection, Mothers of Sparta, received the 2015 FIU UGS Provost Award for Best Creative Project. She was recently featured in the Ploughshares column, “The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week.” She has been awarded residencies with the Vermont Studio Center and Can Serrat and was finalist in nonfiction for both the 2015 SLS Disquiet Contest and the Fourth Genre Steinberg Essay Contest. Her work can be found in The Missouri Review, Fourth Genre, Ninth Letter and many other places. She is a proud member of VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, and AWP. She currently teaches writing at USC Upstate.