Why I don’t think highly of creative writing courses
“You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do — and they don’t. They have prejudices.” — Ray Bradbury
I stumbled upon that quote today, and it made me realize that I had never written about my horrid experience in a creative writing class in college. I’ve mentioned it, but never really talked about it.
Let me say first that the short story I wrote for that class that’s where 99% of my hatred of it came from was, in quite a few ways, crap. I, as was terribly normal for me, put it off until the last possible minute. The first couple of pages had come easily, so I kept thinking “Oh, I’ll just write it in bits and pieces like that and . . .” Yeah, I, if I recall correctly, finished the night before it was due. Combine this with my normal issue of having images and beginnings and endings in mind but not middles, and, well, crap.
To be fair, some of the criticisms my classmates and my professor had might’ve been about the middle and it’s unconnectedness with the rest of the story. I know some of them were about my unique approach to comma use. (I’m much better than I was, believe it or not! Thanks to the diligent efforts of Elizabeth McCoy I can punctuate dialogue properly nine times out of ten now, for instance!) But those criticisms were lost on me at the time, because they were drowned out by some of the — and mind, even if these were said by students, they were backed up by the professor — dumbest criticisms I’ve ever heard about a fantasy short story:
- It’s unclear which culture is dominant.
- You mention a dwarven king and the elf is a baker, does that mean the humans and elves are lower-class than the dwarves? You should’ve explained that better. (This and the one above it were repeated in a lot of variations.)
- You don’t clearly establish that it’s a fantasy until partway into the story; you should’ve had her seeing a unicorn on her lawn or something right at the beginning to clue your reader in. (This one was from the professor. I described the female protagonist’s husband as having “elven features” in the second paragraph, but this wasn’t good enough, apparently.)
- You don’t describe what an elf, a dwarf, or a troll looks like. You can’t expect your reader to know these things. (I know I mentioned pointed ears for the elf and beards for the dwarf, for what it’s worth. Oh, and this was pre-Lord of the Rings‘ movies, so this one does possibly make a bit of sense. Maybe. There’s enough Christmas movies with elves that I’m having a real hard time seeing a case for someone not having the vaguest idea what they look like.)
- You mention elves being prejudiced against half-elves, but since you don’t give us a breakdown on who is on top in the society, we can’t understand why. (They really latched onto the assumption that it was a stratified society with dwarves at the top, then elves, then humans, or maybe then humans, then elves.)
- You don’t explain how this society came to be. Why is there a dwarf king?
- Your dialogue isn’t realistic. Real people don’t talk this way. (This was also the professor and was on a bit of dialogue that I’d copied verbatim from something Jaye had said. This had happened with an earlier writing assignment for the class too. I’ve since reminded her frequently that she’s apparently not real. )
And on and on along those lines until I finally, tears in my eyes, just wrote in my notebook something along the lines of “They’re bitching because I didn’t write the whole fucking Silmarrillion in the length of a goddamn short story” and gave up on saying anything, because I couldn’t trust myself to keep my temper any more. I don’t recall what I’d said up to that point. The only valid criticism I’d heard was that the (faded to black as soon as they were alone) sex scenes added nothing. I knew that, but needed the length so they’d stayed in. (Yes, this was a college course and the students were complaining about sex scenes that served no purpose. It was Arkansas, what can I say?) Oh, and that the ending had seemed really rushed. I now recall that I admitted that I’d done it very last minute and that’s why those two problems existed. I may have tried to explain that the society wasn’t hiearchical in the way they were thinking, but I might not have bothered. If I did, they immediately forgot and launched into another round of telling me that I should’ve made clearer who was on top in the society it was about.
And I know you’re all dying to know what in the world the story was about that those could’ve been their issues, especially the serious hang-up on societal stratification. Here’s the plot: Elf dude who has a human wife and a half-elven baby, in a society where human/elf relationships are frowned upon (because the author had been reading way too much Dragonlance, if you must know) is invited to cook the gondo bird that’s the main course at some special shindig the king of the dwarves has regularly. He’s the first elf to get this honor. En route, they’re attacked (and I demonstrated quite admirably my lack of skill in writing fight scenes.). En route they also have sex a lot because the baby is with its grandparents so they’re taking advantage of that.
Like I said, there were real issues with it. The fight and the sex are superfluous to the story. Looking at it now, I see the bones of a story that might be entertaining to write, a straight-forward fantasy travelogue kind of thing, and, oh dear gods, there my brain goes, off on a world-building tangent again . . . Brain, I have two or three fantasy settings with nothing but a dungeon or two in them, maybe use one of those, huh? I need to make a map now and . . . fuck. I think I’ll be adding yet another story to the sticky at the top of the blog if this train of thought doesn’t stop soon. I was reading something the other day about how authors need a “just for themselves” project at all times; maybe I’ll use this for that.
Sorry about that digression.
Back to my point, the story had problems, but they weren’t the problems the professor or the students noticed. So what I got from that experience, which was the main event of the course, was . . .
A crippling fear that I wasn’t a good writer because clearly if I had been, then they wouldn’t have had all those complaints about how things didn’t make sense.
Yeah. Thank you, professor I’ve forgotten the name of and classmates. I could be years ahead in my writing career if it weren’t for you. You see, after that class, I didn’t write fiction for several years. I still can’t write fantasy without a little voice telling me I need to explain things better, which pisses me the fuck off because I love fantasy. Universal Nexus is great fun, don’t get me wrong; I’m sure I’ll love playing in the space opera setting of someone else’s I’ve got a contract for a novel in (blogpost some time next month will tell you all you need to know about that, I promise); but since I read The Hobbit when I was eleven years old, fantasy is what I’ve wanted to write. And for over a decade now, it’s been a source of crippling anxiety to try to.
That story I was talking about above? The one that came from me summarizing that short story? I’ll be honest: I’ll be doing damned good if I get 3000 words in before the voice of self-doubt gets to me.
That pisses me off. I know their criticisms were ridiculous. I know that in a . . . five, maybe ten, I don’t know any more; certainly wasn’t more than fifteen . . . page, manuscript format story there’s no way in hell you can show much of the sort of detail they wanted. But that voice won’t shut the fuck up. And that pisses me the fuck off.
It also hurt that there were no positive comments at all, that I can remember. No one in the class had a single good thing to say about my story. That hurt. I’d recently quit being a pre-med major because I wanted to be a writer a lot more than I wanted to retake Organic Chemistry II. And my professor, someone who should’ve been someone who knew what he was talking about, had absolutely nothing positive to say about my story.
If it’d been just that one, maybe it wouldn’t have hurt so badly. But every assignment I’d turned in for the class, he’d had nothing but criticisms of. One exercise that stands out in my mind was one where we had to write one paragraph descriptions of what would be in various sorts of people’s rooms. I had the phrase “books of depressing poetry” in one. He said I should’ve named the books of depressing poetry. How the fuck could I do that?! I don’t read depressing poetry! I wasn’t yet in the habit of googling (was I even using Google in the fall of 2000? Fuck, I think I was still using metacrawler.com) things like that to add veracity to my writing. Hell, I’d only not had dialup AOL that it’d sometimes take two hours to connect to, only for me to get kicked off after half an hour, for a few months. The internet was a place to go read Highlander and Voltron slash, not a place for research!
I remember another one where we had to tell a story mostly in dialogue. As anyone who’s read anything by me knows, this is pretty damned easy for me to do. The hard part is getting me to write the bits that ground the dialogue in something so it’s not two floating heads jabbering at each other. My professor’s comments were about how often the characters said “Uhm”, which was a deliberate choice on my part because one was really fucking nervous and the other was really fucking clueless. He said it made them sound too clueless. The title was something like “The Most Clueless Person Ever.”
And then there were the in-class exercises, where we had to do things like identify what character/person a classmate was thinking about by the classmate answering things like what kind of cigarette the person/character’d be if they were a cigarette and what kind of alcohol they’d be if they were a bottle of alcohol and what kind of color they’d be if they were a color and . . . you get the idea. I still don’t understand how the fuck this is a useful exercise. Maybe the way some people’s brains work it is, but to me, it was something utterly pointless and confusing, a total waste of three hours — the length of the class — of my Thursday. (I have no idea why I can remember the day of the week the class met on but not the professor’s name. My brain is strange.) All I learned was that most of my classmates knew the names of lots more brands of cigarettes and kinds of alcohol than me. This did not, strangely enough, make me a better writer.
Many years later, I was rearranging some books and came across my textbook for that class. I flipped through it and suddenly a lot made sense. The section on genre fiction was absolutely insulting. All genre fiction, it said, is formulaic. It also talked about how it doesn’t matter how well you write when you write genre fiction because the reader wants it to be that particular formula and that’s all they care about. In my opinion, a professor who is going to use a book that dismisses everything that can be called genre fiction as formulaic and poorly written has no business teaching a creative writing course. Well, maybe if he at some point expressly states his prejudices. If he’d done that, then I would’ve thrown together some barely fictionalized account of college life like the rest of my classmates wrote instead of trying to write something I cared about.
I’ve since learned that this anti-genre fic prejudice is the norm, not the exception, in creative writing courses. So, every time I see some ad or something telling me that I’ll be a much better writer if I just take this course, I think they’re full of shit.
You know what’ll make you a better writer? Reading more and paying attention to what your favorite authors do. Writing more. I don’t believe in a strict “you must write 1,000,00o words before you write anything worth trying to sell” thing like I’ve known some people who cling to like it’s a fucking law, but I do very strongly believe that the odds are pretty good that the first thing you write, hell, the first ten or so things you write maybe, aren’t professional caliber. But that’s no excuse to not write them. You’ll learn something from the experience. Hmmm . . . maybe that’s a topic for another blogpost, “Things I’ve Learned From Failed Attempts At Stories”. My next one was going to be a defense of my characters swearing profusely, but maybe that’s better . . .
Anyway, anyone else have any creative writing class horror stories to share? Or, hell, even pleasant stories about them?
A classmate in a writing course I took years ago (early 1990s) asked “What’s a mage?” in response to a passing reference in a science fantasy story. At least the teacher for that course recognized that sometimes the only “problem” with a story is that the person reading it isn’t a member of its intended audience.
I hate typical writing exercises, especially the sort you described. I couldn’t even answer those questions about myself or real people I know.