Reading is an activity that most people enjoy and there are a large number of individuals who also like to write. Some authors are lucky enough to see their work published and a few even manage to win awards for their literary contributions. Recently, I contacted “The Writers Studio,” a New York based organization that helps writers hone their craft and I have since penned a couple of articles about the group and the people who teach their writing courses.
Gifted writer and teacher Therese Eiben is one of The Writers Studio teachers. Therese teaches the “Level I” course in the classroom setting in New York City which means that she works with writers who are completely new to The Writers Studio. Therese also teaches the “Online Level IV” course so she works with very experienced writers too. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Therese about her experiences as a writer and teacher:
Q: How did you get interested in writing and teaching writing?
As many of my WS colleagues and students would answer the first part of your question, I’ve always written. I think some children latch on to words, find a fascination with language, and never let go. I remember as a seven-year-old I had a favorite book called something like “The Giant Book of Tongue Twisters.” It completely pleased and entertained me, the word play and the surprised feeling in my brain when a word would appear where I expected a different word. I still remember my favorite tongue twister: “Old oily Otto oils old oily autos.” Around that same time I had a favorite word: Oblivion. I wrote “poems” about oblivion. Now and again I would pace through the house with my arms extended in front of me like a person in a hypnotic daze chanting: “I’m falling into oblivion.” I read practically non-stop as a kid. My family called me a house plant because they could never get me to go outside and play. I didn’t have any particular literary discernment then, I just read the next book on the library shelf. That changed dramatically, however, when I was 14. I picked up one of my older brother’s college English text books and read a short story by someone called Flannery O’Connor. I didn’t know who she was and I didn’t understand the story, which was “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” But here’s the thing: I knew there was something to understand. I knew that there was another layer of story that the author had provided…something underneath the words…and I was determined to figure out what that was. Suddenly I knew that there were books…and then there was literature. I jumped on the latter’s band wagon then and there and never looked back.
As for teaching, I’ve taught on and off throughout my adult life, in graduate school and then later at a state college in New Jersey. I like teaching, especially adults. I like meeting people who are interested in words and craft as much as I am. I like opening a student’s eyes to the power an author has over a reader when she deftly wields the tools of her craft. I especially enjoy teaching for the Writers Studio because it has a methodology that I think is unique, hugely helpful, and borne of a deep understanding of the creative process. Not surprisingly, that methodology was developed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz, who founded The Writers Studio.
I learned about the Writers Studio in an unexpected way. Early in the last decade I was the editor of Poets& Writers Magazine. We often featured different schools of writing. Of course we covered MFA programs and Writing Conferences, but one day I came across an article written on spec by Duncan Bock, who was then one of Phil’s Master Class students. Duncan described the school and the method and obviously we published it because the school offered something new and different. But what Duncan had to say about the WS stayed with me—it made so much sense to me. At that time a lot of writing schools promised to help a writer find “her voice.” The WS had a different approach. It makes an important distinction between the author and the narrator of the story or poem. Whether first person or third person, there is always a narrator, an other, that is crafted by the author to tell the tale. I thought that was smart. And, it was a new idea to me. I called up the school and a few weeks later, I enrolled as a student. Again, I never looked back. I went through the five levels of the school and began teaching for the Writers Studio in 2007.
Q: What have been the most interesting and/or rewarding parts of writing and teaching?
I touched on this a bit answering your first question: Opening a writer’s eyes to the power an author has over the reader through a deft use of the elements of craft. A writer can make a reader cry! Laugh! Moon around after finishing a book like a dream that has lingered on waking. Wondering what happened to the character after the story ends. And on and on. A reader in the midst of a great book never stops to think: Why am I turning these pages compulsively? Why is my heart in my throat? What is this tension I’m feeling? But a writer, if reading as a writer, asks precisely these questions because that is the way to understand craft. A writer needs to step back from the forward motion of the narrative drive and take a good long look under the hood. And that’s one of the principle aspects of the WS: Teaching students how to read as a writer.
Q: How did The Writers Studio influence your writing and career?
The WS knocked me off my perch. And I mean that in the best possible way. I read somewhere recently that people who can write with ease and felicity have a hard time setting aside their instinctive ability and actually crafting language that a story or a poem demands. The WS teaches us, crucially, that there is a separation between the author (me, for instance) and the narrator. I need to craft a particular narrator, an other, to tell a particular story. Otherwise I’m just putting down in words the voice that lives in my head. The voice that writes my emails. The voice that gives language to my thoughts. The voice I never think about. That voice is not a narrator—it’s me. Before I came to the WS, I was a felicitous writer with an unconsidered voice that sang prettily. Crafted the occasional impressive phrase…but had no business pretending to be a narrator. When I tried to use that voice in a piece of fiction, it failed miserably. It came off as inauthentic. That’s what happens if there’s no separation between author and narrator. One of my students called it, “Me in drag.” The reader can always tell the author is simply wearing a wig and falsies. I owe the WS a debt of gratitude for helping me learn that crucial lesson. I consider my responsibility as a teacher to pass that lesson along to my students.
Q: What are your goals over the next ten years?
I think the pursuit of writing is like chasing the horizon. Or one of those crazy staircases Escher drew, where the top step turns into the bottom step of a different staircase and on and on, ever unfolding. In ten years I intend to know even more about craft and to be able to articulate it more effectively to my students (and myself). I intend to wield my authorial power through the deft use of that craft to affect my readers in profound ways.
Q: Are you currently working on any projects that you would like to mention?
I’m in the middle of a manuscript that is narrated by a crafted character who is not me. Down here, off my perch, it’s an exciting place to be.
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To find out more about Therese Eiben and the classes she teaches visit: