I believe the most important quality a teacher of writing can possess is the ability to imaginatively inhabit a student's work, to read and consider and comment on it as if from the inside. I try to let each piece I read teach itself to me, show me its methods and aesthetic. Only then do I attempt to comprehend and articulate its potentials—realized and unrealized—and offer my comments. This sort of reading is especially time consuming and often requires the ability and willingness to set aside much of my own literary agenda and taste and adopt, at least partly, the agenda and taste of the student. I think of myself much less as an editor of students' writing then as a guide, taking them through their own words, helping them make discoveries and decisions. And as I see it, an ideal workshop environment is one in which the entire group is far less interested in making this or that piece better and far more interested in deep, careful and enlightening exploration of the work at hand. Thus, the ultimate goal of a writing workshop should not be however many pages of improved writing—which tends to happen anyway—but the fostering of each writers' long-term capacity to create and skillfully refine his or her own, wholly unique art.
The Inland Northwest Center for Writers is a wonderful place to teach because we've specifically designed every element of the program to contribute to the artistic development of the students. One of my personal favorites of these elements is our literature requirement, which consists of a series of three courses in each genre. These courses are a delight to teach because we read and study the literature not primarily as scholars or critics, but as fellow artists, looking for models, inspiration, and contexts for our own work. Then in the workshops our discussions and debates are informed by this reading, made more rich and intelligent and helpful by the coördinates and common artistic vernacular we've established. Spokane itself is lively and vibrant and our program is at the center of it's active literary scene. But it's the magnificent surrounding landscape in which I feel most at home. Several times a week I run through the sage and pine on the trails of Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge where I frequently see elk and coyotes. And the Silkirk Mountains, which extend north from just outside Spokane, is the only mountain range in the lower forty-eight states not to lose any animal to extinction in the last ten thousand years. Wolves, lynx, grizzlies, even caribou are all still there. Glimpsing that wild high country on the horizon, knowing it's always there, is like living day in and day out with the muse.