CLSC, photo by Marie Robinson

If you could spend a week studying anything, what would you study? Where would you go? What would you seek to learn? Who would you choose to be your teacher?

In Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, Reuven Malter’s father teaches, "The Talmud says that a person should do two things for himself. One is to acquire a teacher."

(The other is to choose a friend.)

"Acquire a teacher."
This is a wonderful idea, made even more wonderful when it is imperative, an obligation for each of us. It tells us that teachers are not only assigned to us when we are in school.

Teachers are people that we must seek, find and enlist throughout our lives. Determined, intentional, we don’t take the teacher for granted: we learn. Who is the teacher you’ve most recently acquired?

I Acquired Some Teachers
I’ve just returned from a week at the indescribable Chautauqua Institution where the faculty and other students of the Highlights Foundation taught me about writing for children.

Highly successful writers, editors and publishers — teachers to be acquired — shared how to conceive, compose and complete books and magazine articles that will be loved by children and young adults. Workshops taught plot development, characterization, setting, and the business of writing.

Above all else, I learned the importance of writing for children, and that I must start now. It was an inspiring week — there is no more important pursuit than to lead a child to read. It was a fascinating community of people — each writer is a gifted, natural storyteller.

And, to be sure, they are as kind as anyone you might meet — children’s writers are the very opposite of predators.

What was I doing there? I’ve never written for the children’s market. How did it happen that I was among this rare group of writers?

Three months ago, my teacher Kent Brown suggested that I "come see what the Foundation is doing at Chautauqua." Entering its 23rd year, the legendary writers’ conference could teach me how to write for children.

"But I don’t write for children," I said.

"That’s OK," Kent replied in his plain-spoken farmer’s voice. "Can you explain ethics to kids?"

"Yes," I said. "I’ve done this as a Sunday school teacher for years."

"Fine. Then you are a children’s writer," he declared. "Come to Chautauqua. And submit a draft manuscript by June 15th."

June 15th was only a month away. I worked on a manuscript for my long-time dream, a book on women, cookies and ethics. But I missed the deadline. A friend at Highlights smiled and said, "You missed your deadline? Well, then you are a writer. All our best writers miss their deadlines." Missing my deadline was the best sign yet that I was a writer.

So, now, the conference has come and gone. The trees, homes, culture and friendly conversations of Chautauqua are a fresh, powerful memory. On the drive home, I wondered, Am I a writer? Time will tell. So will effort. I have two book projects underway, kindly reviewed by my newest teacher, Peter Jacobi, a legendary expert. It was the first time a professor had assessed my writing since 1982. We sat on the porch of the Alumni Hall for the Chautauqua Literary & Scientific Circle (CLSC), the first book club. His assessment, beyond his fine, specific suggestions: "Terrific, potentially."

"Terrific" I understand. May this word fly from Peter’s lips to the hands of readers.

But what does "potentially" mean? Time will tell. So will effort.

O, how could I have let 25 years go by without a professorial critique of my writing? Now I know: I must always have a writing teacher on hand. If there isn’t one nearby, it’s time to acquire one.

What teacher will you acquire during the next month?