The hour before my first creative writing class started, I journaled furiously about how scared and worried I was to enter a setting where I was expected to showcase my most intimate hobby to a room full of strangers. I made a lot of valid points like: what if this is a waste of time and money, what if I can’t handle the criticism and competition, what if I realize I don’t actually like writing and have nothing to fall back on afterwards? Just any angle of apprehension I could find, exacerbated it.
Standing outside the room 10 minutes prior, there was already a line of students forming in front of the door. I tried to assess them by flicking my eyes back and forth (for the subtle effect that I now realize probably wasn’t so subtle at all). Any sign of pretentiousness, professionalism, advanced artistic taste, or even just a familiar face – I knew it would freak me out. Luckily, I didn’t see any of those (I don’t know what I was expecting by scanning their outfits and appearances) but I did note a girl with perfectly outlined berry lips and a guy who breathed really loudly as if he sprinted to get there on time and a pair of best friends with edgy haircuts who never stopped whispering and snickering to each other like everything they said was a juicy secret. There was also a guy on the ground, scrutinizing a tiny dilapidated notebook with sloppy-looking notes all over it, pausing every once in a while to scratch his head in frustration. He also had a sleeve of tattoos and surfer blonde hair – the kind that seems to defy gravity even in the windiest of days.
And yes, if you guessed it, you’re absolutely right. Scraggly surfer guy was our teacher. He started his emails with “Howdy,” and ended them with “Thrive,”. I should’ve known our instructor was a living breathing embodiment of all the strange characters pulled straight out from a young adult novel.
Anyway, he slid behind the podium and told us to arrange our desks in a circle. We did. He joined us soon after, fitting perfectly in his desk.
Now let me tell you, this circle thing. Sitting in a circle and facing the other 17 people you’re having discussions with – this circle formation is the best environment I’ve ever been in. I actually felt safe enough to have a voice, or rather to urge myself to go find my own voice so I could contribute in the most authentic way possible. I remember the only other class that made us sit in a circle like this was IB History of the Americas back in high school and that subject I dreaded, but that class with those students and my teacher (shoutout to Ms. Ellis) – they were my safe space. I don’t know what it is but the intimacy, the eye contact, the open ears and open minds make you feel like what you say – however stupid or irrelevant it may be – matters. And in writing, that validation is incredibly quintessential.
Goodness, I don’t even know where to start if you asked me what I learned in this class. There were so many quotable moments; if those ten weeks were transcribed into a book, I’d highlight every word of every line. In particular, some influential books we worked with: Ron Carlson Writes a Story (RCWS) and The Story and its Writer (we were assigned stories to read in here and it just gave me a better scope of how diverse storytelling can be – writers are weird dude…really weird.) RCWS specifically helped me a lot because I collected a bunch of tips on craft, small details and big ones alike, things like:
- sit in the room of your scene
- whatever you do, keep writing and survive until the next sentence
- if you don’t know where to start, start with what you know (aka a tangible memory you have) and go from there
and…I don’t know if this is directly from the book but for some reason, I have these statements in quotes but no name to credit it under, so it may be our teacher’s words or it may be Ron Carlson’s but either way, they are also helpful:
- “allow yourself to write/draft in that state of not knowing”
- “give yourself the opportunity to deviate”
- “follow the surprising moments”
- “if you get what you expect, it isn’t good enough”
- this one i specifically remember our teacher saying: “the goal is always just to be productive. forget about all the structural rules and plot diagrams you’ve been taught – find the motor in your story and go with it.”
- also from our teacher: “boredom is self-induced. there’s no such thing as a boring story”
I’m starting to see though that this is perfect advice catered more for “gardeners” (aka “pantsers”) rather than “architects” (aka “plotters”), so I’m hoping whichever your writing technique is, that you still find what I found insightful and motivating.
Most most MOST importantly though, I learned that reading is EXTREMELY important. Reading other stories, especially in the eyes of a critique partner, really forced me to put aside my personal tastes and hone in on what I can say to help the writer improve. So I find now that this technique is what I use when I can’t seem to get through a book that isn’t interesting to me. I have more patience when I put myself in the writer’s shoes (especially when I picture them as a classmate/peer) and think ‘maybe this is their style that they’re trying to improve’ instead of ‘this is such bad writing’.
I’m making this sound like a dream but of course, there were days of complete boredom and frustration. There’s a page in my notes where I write: “Somebody around me smells really bad. I get whiffs of the rancid body odor from time to time. I’ve looked to the ground and scanned everyone’s feet. Prime suspect is this boy to my right who is the only one wearing flip flops, except he isn’t really actually wearing them. His feet are half-on, toes free, clenching and unclenching, releasing noxious fumes into the air.” A couple minutes later: “Ah God at this point my nose is desensitized.” And towards the end of class: “I can’t swallow anymore. My throat and nose canals have denied any open access to this smell.”
And there are also days when I wrote: “I don’t even understand this class. wtf. how is everything just going over my head? creating writing is supposed to be fun to follow, but i rarely finish a story understanding what happened anymore.” I remember not having enough courage to ever share what I wrote during short writing exercises. Even to this day, I haven’t touched the pile of critique letters that I received from my workshop session – the fear man! It’s real!
Anyway, despite the boredom and the frustration, this was still a class I didn’t mind being stressed about. I spent hours and pulled all-nighters for my projects and I honestly did not mind. It was like tapping into a whole new definition of hard work for me. I remember I had a really intense cell bio class in the same quarter and I’d have enough will to get through my cell bio homework just so I could jump to my fiction writing homework, which sounds crazy reflecting on it now because I can’t even imagine having the same mindset. I enjoyed reading other people’s stories and writing in margins and curating lengthy letters and figuring out what my next sentence was going to be. Printing out my drafts while the birds chirped in the background was extremely satisfying and what – exhilarating? It was equivalent to the feeling of preparing super hard for a test and waking up the next morning knowing you were going to do well. I’m sure a huge part of it is the mask of a dream; if I did this for every single day of my life, I don’t think it’d be as romanticized but I can’t deny that this class was such a magical experience for me and I’m extremely grateful for it.
I didn’t get to take very many pictures but this is from our last couple days when we had a potluck party and watched the first 1.5 hours of Forrest Gump.
P.S. My teacher’s name was Mason. I figured he was a character on his own, without needing to pin him down with a name but in case you’re curious, there you go. I hope I don’t get in trouble for this.