I stumbled across this old train-of-thought document a few weeks back, which I guess I’d written out… looks like sometime early in lockdown? Maybe in response to some social media discourse of the time? I don’t know. But parts of it struck with me and I’ve been flipping it over and over in my mind, so I thought I’d share it with you.
I’m kind of 50-50 on writing instruction, for lack of a better phrase. All those articles, lectures, books, and blog posts that tell you what/ when/ how/why to write. Which probably isn’t a great thing to confess here on the ranty writing blog. But really, I think if you look at most of that stuff with a critical eye, we’d find there’s a lot of good stuff you can get out of them, but also a lot of useless stuff, depending on our particular situation. Some might even be classified as harmful.
And it struck me that part of this is that “writing instruction” covers so much stuff. I mean, we all probably had a bunch of basic writing classes in grade school, right? Everybody had those. But maybe you also had creative writing classes in high school? Not the same thing. And I had a class in college that tried to teach writing, but also another one that tried to teach you how to be a writer.
Hopefully you can see the subtle nuances in all of these. I try to make it here a lot of the time. This blog is about writing (turning the idea in your head into a finished manuscript) but overall I tend not to talk as much about writing (the life, the career, the source of 83% of my stress and worry).
So let me tell you about a few writing classes I took. One in high school, two in college.
Also probably worth mentioning up front, I’d been writing for years before that first class. It was all garbage, sure, but I’d been writing and submitting and getting professional feedback. I’d already collected a good number of rejection letters from assorted editors at Marvel and a few different fiction magazines.
Class #1 was high school. In retrospect I’d call it harmless. It was approached more as a potential hobby than anything else. The teacher gave us writing prompts, would give us simple deadlines, taught us some bare bones stuff about character and imagery and critiques. But there wasn’t any in-depth discussion of anything, art-wise or career-wise. This would’ve been spring of ‘87– no public school was going to encourage a kid to go into the arts. Writing wasn’t a real career, after all.
I stumbled across one of the stories I wrote for this a few months back. It’s a kind of fun, fairly predictable story about two little kids (almost) being tricked into letting a monster loose. I remember the picture he showed us that inspired it, too
Class #2 was junior year of college. In theory, a general creative writing class. In reality just a bad experience overall. I liked a lot of my classmates, but the instructor had very literary aspirations. He talked a lot about ART and berated anyone in class who wasn’t trying to write the great American novel. I wrote a sci-fi/ horror short story for one assignment and was told (loudly) in front of the class that it was just mass-market garbage. If I was just writing to entertain—if I wasn’t trying to change people’s lives with my words—I was just wasting everyone’s time and should probably leave.
There wasn’t much instruction in this class of any sort. It was really just a critique group where the instructor encouraged people to be as harsh as they could with said critiques. All in the interest of “making them better writers,” of course. I ran into one of my classmates a year later and she told me she’d kind of given up on writing after that…
(fun fact—the story the instructor tore apart in front of the class was called “The Albuquerque Door,” about an experimental teleportation gateway gone wrong, and I always liked it even if he thought it was nonsense. It was (eventually) the inspiration for a book…)
Class #3 was my final semester of college. It was simply amazing. I was lucky enough to spend five months with John Edgar Wideman as a professor at UMass. Yeah, we’re naming people now that it’s a really positive experience. He made me look deeper at my writing and showed me how real life could still be the foundation of the strangest characters or situations. He was also the first person to point put that sometimes writing meant not sitting at your desk. It was good to shake things up now and then. Today… you know what, let’s just go down the hall to another classroom. I think 216 is empty. Today we’re going to have class under that tree out there. Today… everyone’s 21, yes? Let’s go get a drink at the bar in the campus hotel.
I have to add Professor Wideman was also the first person to ever tell me he thought I was going to be a successful writer. Direct, flat out, no qualifiers. My writing was very good, I could do this.
So… what’s the point of this stroll through my memories?
Every one of these classes was titled “Creative Writing,” even thought there was a huge range in what the instructors were offering. And what they delivered. Some were teaching about writing, others touched on being a writer, and really none of them were about writing as a paying career. Depending on what I was looking for—or needed—they could’ve been absolutely perfect or a complete waste of my time. Or even worse, the thing that makes me decide I hate writing.
I think, when we approach any kind of writing instruction, we should be really clear about what we need and what we’re hoping to get. And if it’s possible, maybe get a better sense of what this book/ class/ site/ conference is actually offering. If I’m really invested in the art and nuance of writing, a course about how to game the social media and Amazon algorithms to promote sales probably isn’t for me. If I want to work on going from my first draft to an edited second draft, a book of writing prompts and encouragements won’t be of much use to me. And if you just want a couple people to tell you your writing isn’t horrible and you should keep at it…
Well, you definitely didn’t want to be in that junior year writing class I was in. I should’ve dropped out. You could’ve too, and we could just go encourage each other at the Bluewall.
Anyway, next time I wanted to talk a little bit about Rashomon. I seem to recall you liked that movie, yes?
Until then, go write