Monday, August 21, 2006

Writing Classes

Over on her LiveJournal, writer Elizabeth Bear noted that she failed Creative Writing -- twice.

The thread sparked some discussion of creative writing classes. Like Bear, I took creative writing twice -- once in high school, once in college. I had very different classes from some of the people on the thread, though. For one thing, both times, my assignments were very open-ended: "write a story," not "write a story about X."

Probably the most appalling story on the thread was a woman who had sold several short stories before she ever took her high school creative writing class. (I followed her links back to her own LJ and checked out her webpage: she sold her first story to Marion Zimmer Bradley's "Sword and Sorceress" anthology when she was thirteen.) She had never mentioned this to any of her teachers, but when she took the creative writing class, someone ratted her out. Her teacher had submitted to the same anthology and been rejected, and took out her jealousy on her student by awarding her a C for one of her stories.

It's almost disappointing, after reading that thread, that I have no horror stories to tell. My high school experience was kind of odd in that the original English teacher got seriously ill in late September (and in fact died the following January). Our sub, who initially thought she'd just be teaching for a day or two, had us for the entire semester. She was licensed as an English teacher, but I don't think she'd ever taught creative writing before. She was a very nice lady (her name was Mrs. Graham or Mrs. Grahams; Hi there! if you should ever happen to stumble across this) and she thought I was brilliant. This was validating; I like being told I'm brilliant as much as the next writer. But it wasn't particularly useful.

In college, I signed up for a class called "Crafts of Writing: The Short Story." That teacher liked me a lot less than Mrs. Grahams; it would be an exaggeration to say that he hated me and my writing, but he certainly didn't like me very much. I'm not sure he liked any of us, honestly. I ran across my folder from the class a few years ago, and flipped through his comments; I was startled, in retrospect, by how snarkily useless they were.

One of my classmates, a woman named Kirsten, went to Professor Smith shortly before graduation and asked him for advice on becoming a writer. He told her that she should get the dullest, most mundane job she could find, because that way none of her creative energy would be wasted on anything but her art. This is pretty rich coming from a tenured professor of English at a liberal arts college. Maybe he thinks he'd have written more books if he were struggling to make ends meet while working at a job where he was on his feet all day? I mean, the thing about most dead-end jobs is, they're often a lot more exhausting than the cushy, higher-paying jobs that a BA qualifies you to get. I spent a summer in high school scooping frozen custard, and at the end of an eight-hour shift, all I wanted to do was take off my shoes and put my feet up.

Unfortunately, Kirsten took his advice. I don't remember what she ended up doing, but she spent a lot of energy struggling to make ends meet, wrote not at all, and wound up deeply depressed. Then she joined a cult.

The happy ending is that she got out, and went on to write a novel that drew on the experience (and is fascinating reading -- I got to read it a few years ago. Last I heard, she was still looking for an agent.) I think she's now working as a journalist in Boston.

(Let me just note -- I don't think there's anything wrong with being a custodian, grocery bagger, waitress, etc. It's just that "professional" jobs pay a lot better for easier work, and also typically come with health insurance and various other stress-reducing benefits.)

Getting back to my experience with the writing class -- I did get useful critique, mostly from other students. I also got some motivation to sit down and spend time on stories, which was the main thing I'd wanted from the class.

I should note at this point that some of the other Wyrdsmiths have actually taught writing classes. Lyda and Kelly have both taught at the Loft. Eleanor has taught at Clarion. I've led one-day workshops at cons (mostly Minicon, though also Wiscon), but I've never taught a full-fledged class. The classes at the Loft have the virtue of being ungraded, with no mandatory assignments at all, unlike a class for credit at school or college; you can't "fail," though you can waste your money by turning nothing in.


Anonymous said...

I have never regretted leaving a tenure track job as a college professor of writing. Never. It's a job that looks great from the outside, it looks like a writer's dream job. But once you are in it you discover just how bad it really can be.

It really is hard to write your own stuff when you are working 70+ hours a week and it still isn't enough.

Naomi said...

Yeah, but did you leave it to work as a waitress?