The only creative writing class you’ll ever need

There has been some discussion recently about whether or not people who want to be writers should major in creative writing in college. It seems that the published writers (Justine Larbalestier, Maureen Johnson, etc.) feel overwhelmingly that the best thing to do, in college, if you want to be a writer, is to major in something else. Now, you know how I feel about MFA programs, but JIC you don’t want to read or reread an entire huge post, here’s the jist: I think they’re at best unnecessary, and at worst harmful to the creative process. I say this knowing full well that there are many, many successful writers who emerged from MFA programs, and that there are many, many people who attended an MFA program and believe that it had value and thus will angrily disagree with me (and I respect that), and also knowing that I did not attend an MFA program, which is something you should also know, so there’s a limit to what I can say without firsthand knowledge. So there’s that.

But I’m not going to talk about MFA programs here–I feel like I’ve done that enough. I’m going to talk about my undergraduate creative writing experience. I was an English major, and since I was double-degreeing, which at SCU meant that I had to take forty extra units, I opted not to try for the creative writing minor a lot of my classmates were doing. It didn’t break my heart too much, although at first I wondered if it would mean that nobody at SCU would take me seriously as a writer, which nobody did. But, looking backwards, I was working on a novel pretty much the entire time I was at that school, the novel I now have an agent for who will soon begin submitting to publishers, so whatever, I was writing independently.

Finally, when I was a junior, my schedule opened up and I decided to take a fiction writing class with the professor who advised the literary magazine I worked for in a Fiction Editor capacity. The next year, I again had an opening and I took an advanced fiction writing class (what a capricious, almost passive-aggressive denomination, by the way–“advanced”; like your classmates will be Jane Austen and William Faulkner or something) taught by National Book Award nominee Ron Hansen. I only mention his name because he’s kinda famous (he wrote The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which they made into that movie starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, and he was shortlisted for the NBA for Atticus, neither of which I’ve read, but I can highly recommend Mariette in Ecstasy, which I have read and which is lovely), and you’ll see why in a second.

All of which is to say, here is a list of Reasons People Take Creative Writing Classes and why they shouldn’t:

  • Reason #1: To study under someone famous. Okay, here’s the problem with this one–famous writers tend to do a couple of things to you, none of them good. Many people (myself included) have taken creative writing classes/aspire to take creative writing classes with someone famous because they would really like a famous writer to tell them they’re brilliant/have potential. Well, if that happens, more power to you. Honestly, great. BUT. More often than not, I feel like the disappointment of not being singled out in that way is worse than getting kudos from such an author is uplifting, you know? Like, if he/she doesn’t think I’m fabulous, I have no future as a writer. Blurgh, no good. Also, writers all have their specific approach, and if you are taking a class from a famous, successful, lauded writer who you admire, you might be tempted to jettison your own personal style and voice for something that more closely approximates their vision, which is dangerous. This is less likely to happen with a writer of no renown, but then there’s the insidious little voice inside of you asking, “If they’re not published/famous, what can I possibly learn from this person?” All around, the instructor issue IS an issue, and not one that’s likely to do you, as a student, as a writer, any favors.
  • Reason #2: To get feedback on a work in progress. This is a decent reason to take a writing class, but one that ends up not getting satisfactorily fulfilled, in my experience. The reason is this: young aspiring writers are rather boneheaded. They’re competitive for praise from the instructor/collective peer group, they’re SUPER sensitive about their work and (generally) don’t respond well to criticism, and they’re often uninterested in anyone else’s work. Because they’re young college kids, and that’s how young college kids are. This is not a fertile environment for creativity, expression, or constructive criticism, and the instructor, famous or not, is rarely very adept at controlling it. My rule in workshops was to disregard about 95% of what my peers said to me, negative and positive, because very often they would be talking about my work without having even read it–or having read very little of it, or merely skimmed–or one critical comment would turn into a clusterfuck of negativity that was at best unhelpful, at worst unnecessarily hurtful, or they would take their cues from the instructor in an effort to impress by agreeing with him/her, which is also useless. For example (and I know I’m talking about undergraduate writing classes, but bear with me, this is relevant because this was a class I took in graduate school that was comprised of mostly undergraduates), I took two creative writing classes in graduate school, both of them taught by Nic, my adviser; the first class was specifically a thesis writing class, so I only brought in my thesis, and the second one was not so I brought in a short story once and a bit of my thesis once. Most of the undergrads liked my thesis, and my adviser was very complimentary of it even though he’d read it a thousand times by that time and was probably really sick of it, but one senior just didn’t like it. He pelted me with negative comments and was on a crusade to change people’s minds about it, which is fine, a lot of what he said was valid and anyway it came down to a taste issue, which doesn’t fall under the category of “constructive”, but whatever. Then Nic started defending me and my characters and my work, and slowly this kid’s entire mission shifted to the point where he was complimenting me and telling me that he liked it by the end. UH. I liked it better when he hated it, because at least THAT is a reaction–this is just a capitulation. I guess my point is that in undergraduate writing classes, your fellow students are most likely unwilling or unable to be good, or even adequate, critique partners and you’re better off not putting yourself through all that. At best you’ll be bored, at worst you’ll be pissed off and disillusioned. Take an astronomy class or something instead.
  • Reason #3: To be told which contemporary writers they should be reading in order to “learn the craft.” I can help you out with this right now. If you write short stories, subscribe to or go to the library and read the New Yorker, Harper’s, and the fiction issue of Atlantic Monthly, any literary magazine of quality you can get your hands on, and books like this and this, which aren’t definitive but aren’t half bad either and are probably similar to the texts you’ll be reading in a writing class, if your writing classes are anything like mine. Also, read a LOT of Alice Munroe. A LOT. If you’re working on a novel, read everything you can get your hands on in your genre–and if you do take a class, DON’T let anybody look down on you for writing fantasy or sci-fi or YA or romance or what have you, that’s fiction, too (although do understand that many people will not read in that genre, so the critique will be even more wildly unreliable due to taste). Also, read Douglas Coupland, specifically Hey Nostradamus! and/or Microserfs. YOU WILL LEARN SO MUCH. And don’t limit yourself to contemporary writers, or to your own genre, or to fiction–read widely and voraciously. You don’t need an instructor to tell you what to read, you just need a couple of hours, a book store or library, and a voracious literary appetite. Go exploring–spelunking, even–in the depths of the stacks. You will be rewarded, and you will learn.
  • Reason #4: To be discovered. THIS (ALMOST) NEVER HAPPENS. Don’t count on it, and definitely don’t waste a class because of it.
  • Reason #5: To be “forced” to write. If you have to be forced, consider a new calling. Because forcing yourself to write when you don’t want to is the ongoing burden of a writer. It’s that simple. Don’t use the threat of failing a class as a crutch. Learn to discipline yourself. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary, so get to it! (This is loosely related to the “to have time to write” argument people use for getting an MFA. I mean, okay, if you want to spend $100,000 on time, go right ahead, but seriously? You can’t do it forever, and someday you’re going to have a house and kids and STUDENT LOANS and, if you’re a writer, you’re going to have to write around them. Get used to it.)
  • Reason #6: Because it’s an easy A. Well, I mean, that’s fair in most cases, but if you’re not serious about doing the work and you’re only in the class because you think you’re a good writer and this should be a breeze, then you’re not going to learn anything. Shape up, bucko! Do your best, regardless of how you think that’ll play out grade-wise. You’ll thank me later.
  • Reason #7: To fulfill an arts requirement. No argument against this one–have at it, but don’t get discouraged by any negativity in class, don’t show off, don’t be snotty, don’t be dismissive of other people’s work (even if you think it’s terrible), do be honest but in a kind way, do read other people’s stuff, do try to be helpful, don’t jump on your peers’ neg wagon, don’t suck up (especially if the professor is famous), pay attention, try to learn something, and put a lot of effort into producing your best work (as it pertains to the here and now–of course, if you keep writing, your work will improve).
  • Reason #8: Because you think you might want to be a writer, but you’ve never written before, you don’t know what this entails, and you’d like to try your hand at it in a classroom environment. There were a couple of people like this in every class of mine (okay, lie, not at U of C, but at SCU there were) and I love these people. They’re so guileless and approachable and ready to learn. If they really have no experience with literature or writing, they tend to like most everything that gets produced and to not be very discerning with critical commentary, but they’re so damn uplifting when they say, “I loved this,” about your short story that you can’t help but adore them. This is also a good reason to take a creative writing class, and Reasons #7 and 8 tend to go hand-in-hand for a lot of people (with a little bit of Reason #6 thrown in, in some cases). This is why I find “advanced” fiction writing classes sort of dumb. Classes should be safe spaces for encouraging beginners, not a death match arena for show-offs and artistes who get more pleasure out of ripping each other to shreds than they do out of producing good work. God, can you tell I’m totally scarred from creative writing workshops? Well, I don’t have a therapist, so the Internet is my therapist. Welcome to my mind.

So there you have it. Now that I’ve given you all this advice, you nameless, faceless collegians who aren’t actually reading this (but someday you might be! I’m nothing if not prepared for the possibilities of the future), be sure and write it off as bullshit and enroll in a creative writing class. It’s the only way you’ll learn what they can and can’t do for you, that’s for sure.

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