in praise of teaching

mentors Dec 01, 2021

My dear storytellers, I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving.

I’ll be back with a new livestream next week. Today, I’d like to share some thoughts about one of the great teachers on my own path as writer: Stephen Sondheim.

Stephen died on Friday morning at his home in Connecticut. He was 91 years old and writing until the end.

On the Wednesday before he died, he saw two plays in New York, a matinee and an evening performance. On Thursday he shared Thanksgiving with friends, and Friday morning he left us.

He last appeared the Colbert show in mid-September, talking about what he was working on next, among other inspiring remarks. 

I was profoundly influenced and inspired by his work and supported by his personal encouragement, as so many writers were. (I tell the tale of how I came to meet and work with my idol when I was eighteen years old in this livestream.) 

As artists we must always ask: Am I living up to the bar that has been set? Am I using my gifts fully and well?

And, in time, we ask: Am I passing the torch? Am I sharing what I know, and helping other artists on their path to mastery? 

This was such a value of Steve’s, and he revered teachers and teaching above all. 

When I first started teaching writing I was terrified. The responsibility weighed on me, and I wasn’t sure yet what I had to offer. I very soon fell in love with teaching, though, and now consider it part of my own artistic practice, as my students and I engage in endless, joyful exploration of what makes great writing great. 

Yes, it takes a bit of time and energy away from my own creative output, but I think of Sondheim and am reminded that artists mentoring other artists is not something extra — it is part of the job.

We all owe a debt to artists who teach. It keeps the lineage going. It passes down practical wisdom, and it underscores the centrality of art-making to the human experience. 

Steve’s own great, life-changing teacher was Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote: “If you become a teacher, by your pupils you'll be taught.”  It’s so true. We pass the torch and trust our students will someday do the same, and hope the light never goes out.

Thank you for being part of the Path of the Storyteller community. There’s a torch of mentorship burning for you here, for whenever you need it.

And when the time comes, I know you’ll pass it on as well. 

Yours in storytelling,
Maryrose

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My live talks about story structure, writing craft, and the mindset of the working writer will resume next Wednesday at 1 PM Pacific. Please subscribe to the YouTube channel! It helps a lot when you do. 

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