Teaching What You Know

It is said that those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. I’ve joked about that using my work as a writer as an example. Since I was only ever a paralegal, not an attorney, I was never licensed to practice law. However, one of my writing clients is an institution that prepares Continuing Legal Education courses for attorneys to take to maintain their law licenses. By “preparing”, I mean they reach out to me and ask me to write a script about a specific subject for one of their attorney presenters to read. The joke being that since I can’t legally practice law, I teach others how to do it. The joke shows how much respect I have for the statement. 

Obviously, what I do to the saying is beyond how it was meant. Having spent 15 years in Music City, I’ve seen what it means. It’s why some artists retire off of what they make from their art, while the rest retire by teaching art classes. It’s why someone who didn’t make it in Los Angeles moves home and teaches children’s drama courses at the community theater. It’s why licensed attorneys pick up part time gigs teaching paralegal courses at a community college. It’s why unsigned singers are teaching vocal lessons. 

“Those who can, do…” 

I think I’m not fond of the saying because of the inherent snobbery it feeds. “Can” is ultimately subjective. I can sing. It doesn’t sound great, as I have the voice of a South Park character, but I can hit the notes as they were originally intended. But, there are many famous singers who have unrecognizably weak voices making it while beautiful voices go unnoticed. We’ve all watched movies where a lead is such a poor performer that it is generally understood they were cast only for the body and face. 

When you have a particular skill that you desire to use, you’d be surprised what lengths you’ll go to just to get to use it. People who get an advanced degree in chemistry probably didn’t expect for the lab they worked in to be a sewer treatment plant, but those jobs are in demand. Kids who barely make it out of med school take county hospital jobs that barely pay an entry level wage simply because they didn’t go to school for eight years to sell real estate. Many finance majors take account clerk and bookkeeping jobs that you can get without a degree. And these are people who were gunning for “real” jobs; imagine those seeking creative ones! 

Some accountants are Steven King with these bad boys.

Let’s go back to those artists I mentioned earlier, like the ones teaching painting classes where bored housewives go for an excuse to day drink. Artists are often forced to live in a gig economy, meaning that each paycheck comes from a different job. Not many workplaces have a staff painter, or writer, or composer unless the business focuses on that line of work. This leaves creative types with very little available in the means of full-time jobs. Not many visual artists can be content painting porches and trim just because it’s painting any more than a Michelin Star chef could be content working in a chain fast food restaurant just because there’s “cooking.” 

Since moving back to my hometown, friends have been encouraging of my writing in as many ways as available. They know it’s tough for me to have left an environment where I was so nourished and appreciated. I always make a point to use that word – appreciated – because it’s a perspective that many miss. Much like how my sense of humor was tolerated by the other students in high school yet was appreciated by the college kids in my workplace, professional artistic skill sets are just lesser-appreciated in the rural midwest versus a large city known for its artistic scene. Once local sports teams have a designer for their uniforms and the lines on the roads have been painted, everything artists do is seen as frivolous hobbies. You’ll be thought of for every special event needing a flyer, but scoffed at for trying to make money doing the thing.

So, how do most artists in these positions get to make money doing the thing? Teaching the thing. Hence, why I hate that saying about those who “can” do. It’s put out there as though “can do” speaks to the skill and ability of the individual alone, as though anyone with the aptitude can make it in any given industry. Cold, hard truth time – that’s bullshit. Many things affect whether or not any one of us “can” do a particular thing, one of the most important being that the thing is an option. My art, writing, is only an option because the bulk of my work is done via the internet. I don’t physically have to be in a specific place to do this. Else, I would absolutely have to relocate because what I do can’t be done here. Or, I’d have to teach. Or, write a book on the subject.


Writer’s teaching courses in how to become a writer are all the rage. When I was breaking into doing copy and content writing from home, almost everything kept taking me to links where I could “learn” how to do this for only however much that person was charging. There are books on how to publish books, including how to self-publish. I’ve even been asked “Have you considered teaching a course on creative writing?”

I get nervous at the idea of teaching aptitudes. Naturally, all skills can be enhanced with practice. Unfortunately, many skills are innate. You’re born with a certain level of ability, which can be maxed, but you have no control over how little the max might be. If you don’t believe me, you must be a fan of math, because no general subject more clearly demonstrates natural limitations than that. With tutoring, someone who struggles with counting on their fingers might be able to do small numbers in their heads, but they’ll never excel in physics. Just as vocal exercises might be able to help me identify and hold a B note for a bit, but they’ll never get me onto The Voice. 

I’m also nervous about the idea of teaching aptitudes because people who excel at something naturally don’t always make great teachers. When you’re overfamiliar with a subject, communicating with someone new to the subject is challenging. It can be especially difficult to empathize with someone who struggles with something when you do not. Teaching is its own skill, and does not form in people just because they get good at a job. 

There are aspects of writing that I could teach, I’m sure. But, I’m not a creative fiction writer. I’m not used to creating fantasy scenarios and seeing what I can make people do within them (unless I’m trying to argue a point). I couldn’t teach world building. I’d also suck at symbolism, because unlike a lot of English teachers, I know that sometimes a writer just chose blue curtains because they’re the favorite color of the author versus the author having a hidden meaning behind every item.

Teacher: “Using blue, the author is working to signify the underlying depression in the scene.” 

Student: “But, it’s a newborn’s bedroom and nobody is depressed.” 

Teacher: “Well, new life always suggests the possibilities of mortality and loss.”

Not the first time these have made people feel like their lives were over.

“Neth chose the name Miranda for the character, which comes from the Latin word ‘worthy of admiration’, so you know the character is going to be big and bold.” No, Neth chose the name Miranda because he heard the TV on in the background and a character named Miranda was speaking. I’m a busy person, and I use shortcuts to come up with stuff such as names so that I don’t have to spend much energy on it. Radio is another great source for character names for the laz…I mean…for the busy. With that, I just taught you a writing hack!

As time goes on, perhaps I’ll create a course in how to do something. In the interim, I’ll just keep sharing how I personally cope with things based on my experiences of what works and what does not. Since I can’t do the practice of therapy, I might as well teach it, right? 😉

Related journaling prompts:
Are you doing or teaching? What is something you wish someone taught you about doing? Have you considered teaching anything along those lines? 

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