By Sara Alan
(Editor’s note: Sara was one of the many students who nominated a favorite Lighthouse instructor for our annual Beacon Award. Here’s why she recommended Victoria Hanley, this year’s recipient, who will be an honoree and featured presenter at our combo Holiday Party + Making the Mountain this Saturday.)
Kombucha…check. Timer…check. Wordplay joke for grammar nerds…check. And another Victoria Hanley workshop begins. I love her playful, organized, fermented-tea-fueled teaching style.
Victoria is a wholehearted person and a wholehearted teacher. Her passion for the craft is evident during all her classes, especially in those fiery teaching moments when she hones in on an example from a participant’s submission, reads an excerpt with emphasis and drops the mic of knowledge, expanding our brains each time. Her desire to get the best out of each writer and their story is evident in the meticulously edited pages she slides across the table to you, which are so marked up you wonder why you bothered to bring in starter-words. (Though sometimes you get a and the pursuit feels worth it again.)
It’s no surprise her eight-week Writing the YA or MG Novel workshop has something like a cult following. A mighty (maybe greedy?) band signs up for the limited spots as soon as enrollment opens. They take her workshop over and over, 60 pages at a time, through the entire process of the first draft, and often the second. These loyalties formed because, well, Victoria is the best. She never stops helping her students become better writers. Somehow she always finds more to offer, and is able to offer it with her signature humor, compassion, and clarity. You could take her workshop 100 times and still learn something new, and many of us are trying to hit that mark.
Dan Rather said, “The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called ‘truth.’” Victoria is this teacher for me.
As writers, we are pretty hard on ourselves. We tend to dismiss the skills that come most easily. So it is a gift when a teacher sees something in us and shows us how to see it in ourselves. Victoria telling me, in one of her impassioned moments, “This is your strength. This is special. Keep doing this,” planted the seeds of courage and hope within me. I’ve witnessed her give this gift to many others as well.
Curiously, plot was never mentioned among my strengths…so yes, the gentle poking with all truth sticks has helped, too. When I was starting my second book, I took Victoria’s class, Getting Your Book in Shape: A Plot Workout. This was my Miracle Worker moment in writing, where she was the Anne Sullivan to my Helen Keller and I finally learned that P-L- O-T has a name. In a few hours she clarified all those slippery concepts like THEMES and STAKES. Whereas my first novel took me seven years to finish, this time I found myself, 18 months later, with a completed manuscript, an agent and a book deal.
Victoria champions her students outside the workshop walls of the Virginia Woolf Room. When I got The Email that preempted The Call, I texted Victoria in an excited panic. She called me back immediately, and with her warmth and wisdom calmed me down and advised me how to navigate the call that summed up years of work and wishes. A dream come true I know I would not have achieved without her guidance. She has been my greatest teacher, and, yes, my beacon through this tumultuous journey.
I’m so happy Victoria has won the Beacon Award for teaching excellence. If Lighthouse also happens to offer an award for human excellence, let’s give her that on Saturday, too.
Sara Jade Alan writes young adult fiction and recently received a publishing contract for her first book, Spontaneous Combustion. She is also one half of The Novelistas, a comedy duo offering original shows, workshops, and coaching in performance skills for writers and others. The Novelistas will be teaching an Improv for Writers workshop at Lighthouse on March 11, 2017.