A Writing Teacher Writes—Big Time
Summary: Valerie Hobbs, well-known author of teen fiction—and one adult novel—had her start in a summer institute 25 years ago and went on to succeed as a writer while continuing to deepen her practice as a teacher.
Valerie Hobbs got her start as a writer in the summer institute.
"It was the first blush of knowing I was a writer." In a sentiment that has been echoed hundreds of times by NWP summer institute participants, Valerie Hobbs recalls her own institute experience at the South Coast Writing Project (California) in 1981.
Hobbs, now a respected author of teen fiction, became an institute fellow at the urging of South Coast Writing Project Director Sheridan Blau. "I had taught high school for three years in Hawaii before moving to Santa Barbara. I couldn't get a high school job, but I did manage to a get hired for a position in the writing program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I hadn't had experience as a writer and didn't know much about the teaching of writing, but in those days these weren't necessarily requisite."
Hobbs had heard about the writing project and sensed that her participation in the summer institute would help her do a more professional job. It did that, but it also catapulted her into a writing career. "We would have 20 minutes of freewriting each morning, and on one of those mornings I wrote a poem about my first bicycle. When I read it everyone was listening. They responded enthusiastically. `This is something I can do,' I said to myself."
Hobbs hadn't set out to be a writer. In fact, as a young girl she had dreams of being an ice skater. "Then, when I was 15, my family moved from New Jersey to California, and there went the ice."
Before I entered college, no teachers had taught me anything about writing.
But at age 19, Hobbs wrote a short story after a close friend of hers met with a tragic accident. At the summer institute, this is the story that Hobbs dusted off to work on with her writing group. ("Working with the group was a very intense experience. Two of our members fell in love and got married.")
After the institute, Hobbs continued to work on the story, which was eventually published. Other stories followed and then, in 1995, this first story became the basis of her well-received first novel How Far Would You Have Gotten If I Hadn't Called You Back? Since this breakthrough, Hobbs has gone on to write one young adult novel each year, often focusing on characters on the verge of adulthood forced to make serious decisions about the direction their lives will take. She takes particular interest in characters who must confront circumstances beyond their control—the death of a guardian or boyfriend, parental divorce, physical disability. Hobbs has recently extended her range to produce an adult novel, Call It a Gift (for more, see the review).
Hobbs's prolific output and established status as a writer have not deterred her from continuing her teaching at Santa Barbara. Currently, she is involved in a program that links the study of an academic discipline—her students are focusing on sociology—to appropriate academic writing. Although all the writing her students do is related to concepts of the discipline, Hobbs often adds a twist that reveals her writing project experience. "What I do," she says, "is ask students to read a short story in which a particular sociological concept is on display, summarize the idea, then connect this abstraction to their own lives. I do believe the most effective writing comes when a writer cares about the topic, when he or she is able to choose what to write about."
Hobbs's own experience as an academic writer got off to a rocky start. "Before I entered college, no teachers had taught me anything about writing. My first college paper earned a D. I was shocked. I went to the professor, who said `all you need is to learn a few things about organization.' She told me about topic sentences and supporting ideas and transitions. And I was on my way."
Hobbs hasn't forgotten this lesson and sees plenty of reason to make sure students understand this universal form. That's why she is not dismissive of the proficiencies demanded in the much-demeaned five-paragraph essay. "Of course, personal writing generates some of the strongest writing, but whatever students are writing, they need to know these basics."
As to her own writing, Hobbs sees herself as becoming more proficient. To someone not familiar with her young adult books, Hobbs recommends her most recent work, Defiance. "I hope it has all the passion I brought to my first work, but I know it is more technically proficient. I do more with less."
That's a significant accomplishment for someone who, even 25 years ago, chose to do her summer institute presentation on strategies for cutting fat from prose.