On May 17, 2012, UCLA Extension honored 16 instructors for their commitment and consistent excellence in teaching. Among this extraordinary group included our very own Judith Prager and Harry Youtt, who have been co-teaching creative writing workshops for the Writers’ Program since 1989. Linda Venis, Director of the Writers’ Program, wrote this in her nomination of the duo:
“Harry and Judith are passionate about their work, and that passion translates to their students, who in turn do great work. So wrote one of the over 2,000 onsite and online Writers’ Program students guided, nurtured, and inspired by the powerhouse husband and wife teaching team of Harry Youtt and Judith Simon Prager… Harry and Judith’s methodology is unusual and requires a great deal of finesse, in that they allow only positive feedback in their classes. The results are striking: when students feel comfortable and supported, their self-critical and self-censoring shells fall away and their writing skills and confidence grows.”
Judith and Harry shared their thoughts on teaching and writing with us.
Wp’: What does winning this award mean to you?
J & H: As you probably know, we have always loved teaching in the Writers’ Program and don’t even consider it anything but a joy. Winning this award isn’t a destination, it’s a confirmation. As they say, “every step of the journey IS the journey.” Every day teaching writing is a reward in itself. But this is not to say we aren’t honored and humbled to be recognized for this award. We will proudly hold in our hearts this evidence that loving what you do gives it wings.
Wp’: What first prompted you to teach?
J: When my son was very young, under two I think, I told a pun and he “got it.” I watched his face as he realized what I’d just done and I think that there is hardly any social feeling as good as seeing the look in someone’s eyes when something clicks. Sometimes we even say to a writer who’s just read something to the class, “Do you realize what you just did?” and show them another meaning their subconscious mind put into their story. The surprise and delight they experience is golden.
H: I’ve always taught something. I don’t exactly know why. I was a law professor. I taught lawyers in continuing education programs. I taught trial lawyers courtroom techniques at the National Institute of Trial Advocacy. But teaching writing doesn’t seem like teaching at all. It isn’t simply training a craft or skill. It’s more like guru-ing people into new realms of creative flexibility. You teach simple techniques to enable students to relax into their own forms of creative discovery. You enable the discovery and comfort of inventing surrogates–called characters–for perceiving the world. Then you step aside and watch what happens. The real guru-ing comes from guiding students to the comfort of seeing the world in new ways and telling us about it. Is that teaching? I don’t know. Maybe there should be a different word for it.
Wp’: You have worked with literally thousands of students over the years. As writing teachers, what have you learned about your own craft?
J: I tend to be somewhat philosophical. I like to explain deep and esoteric thoughts to get my point across. So what I’ve had to learn, in reiterating this mantra to my students, is the value of “show it, don’t tell it.” When readers see a thought come alive in a scene it’s as if they’ve experienced it. As a naked idea, it doesn’t stick to the ribs as well. And encountering students who “show it” very well has always reminded me of that virtue.
H: Sometimes teaching writing can interfere with writing output. But I do KNOW that teaching—any subject—is usually the most effective way to learn. You have to know if you’re going to teach. You have to prepare. If you fail to do your “homework,” you can’t teach. So the discipline of teaching definitely influences my writing. It’s as if I am always my own student.
Wp’: Do you have a favorite piece of advice for students?
J: Fall in love with your characters or your theme or your story or the music of your words. When you do, you are carried on the waves of that excitement. You will, of course, have to edit your work after you’ve opened the faucet and it’s all poured out, but once it’s down on the page or the screen, you have a surprising body of work to play with.
H: Become so comfortable and natural at writing that it turns out to be a new form of breathing, so that you just do it. You don’t think about doing it. You just do it because your creative lungs demand the oxygen that comes from it.
Mae Respicio is the Program Representative for Onsite Creative Writing. Share your experiences with her at email@example.com.