Monday, August 3, 2009

Killing the Muse: College Writing Classes

I'm half convinced that there's no quicker way to murder your muse than to take a college creative writing class.

Granted, not all of them are bad.

I had a great experience in one.

I suppose, you've got as much a chance of having a wonderful experience as you do one that makes you want to break your pen open and smear ink across the walls in a fit of pique.

The first writing class I ever took was "Manuscript Writing," during my freshman year at a local community college.

The professor was a wonderfully funny and flighty woman who insisted we call her by her first name. She was a writer, herself, as well as an aspiring fiction author, (and she had the stack of rejection letters to prove it).

The ages of people in the class ran from 17 to 65. We had full time students planning to go on to a university, part time students working toward AAs or just taking classes for the hell of it, and people who were only enrolled to take the writing course.

Our genres encompassed westerns, romance, literary fiction, fantasy, horror, action/adventure and some that don't really have a name.

In all, there were about 20 people in the class.

The atmosphere was open, laid back, creative.

We were in an out-of-the way-classroom that had no modern frills (no projector on the ceiling, no computers; I think we even had a regular old blackboard). The room was comfortably warm. Yellow florescent lights buzzed softly above us. We sat in individual desks, pulled haphazardly into a wide circle. Sometimes we sat on the floor or yoga style on top of tables.

We listened and discussed. During every class meeting, we each shared something we'd written to the larger group. (And we had small groups for the short stories we wrote at the end of the semester.)

We sure as hell didn't like everything we read (or what was read to us) but we were professional, even friendly. And we all managed to read each others' work and give good critiques).

We were all writers. All story-tellers. And all planning to seek, or already seeking, publication. We had common goals.

I came out of that class with a notebook full of exercises (some of which have lent themselves to two novels and several short stories) my professor's packet of rejection letters (which she gave us to ease the fear of trying to publish or, at least, share the misery), an idea of how to proceed with several of the pieces I'd written for the class, and a desire to keep my pen moving.

Fast forward to a few years later, I was working my way through university, and came across an opportunity to take a Fiction Workshop class. I thought it would kill two birds with one stone: count toward my writing minor and keep my creative writing muscles primed.

It did one of those things.

The professor was probably a writer as much as any English professor is. I don't know if fiction writing was a passion or even how much of it she wrote.

We students sat at a number of sturdy tables arranged in a circle in the center of the room. Around the room's perimeter were rows of computers. Above us a projector was mounted, set up to be run through the room's main PC. The overhead lights were harsh white. The room was always cool.

We were limited to 15 people. The age range varied some but not nearly as much as in my previous class. Most of the people were traditional students (even if not the "traditional age"), enrolled full time for their majors--many of which were English.

We were discouraged from being too genre oriented. Genres, it was claimed, made it too hard for others to critique your work.

On the first day of class the professor said, "you can plagiarize one another."

To which my immediate reaction was: "Hell no?"

I appreciate, as much as the next creative person, bouncing ideas off others of like minds. Of feeding, in a decidedly non-parasitic way, off one another's creative energy.

But outright saying "you can plagiarize one another?" At the least that denotes a basic disrespect of your peers' works. As though, since the ideas are not hard-bound and published in some anthology, they're just up for grabs.

Sure, it's not like you can stop someone from nabbing an idea or image or even a scene you had for a story.

We're not taking tangible objects with any proof of ownership.

But I'd rather a workshop encourage a sense of community, of an exchange of ideas and thoughts, of "I really enjoy that image or idea or quote, I may use it as a springboard to craft my own story." Not just a "Want. Take. Have." vibe.

Maybe that's what the instructor was trying for... Maybe.

The class met twice a week. Monday and Wednesday. We had review sessions every Wednesday, where we would review two completed short stories from our classmates. The classmates whose stories were being reviewed were required to remain silent until the end of the critique.

During my first session, I found myself under an onslaught of English majors who seemed to take great joy (no wonder some people I know cringe when they find out I was an English major) at pointing out my comma splices. My fragments. My disuse of the conjunction "and" at certain points. (I confess, that's a stylistic approach I picked up after reading Patricia McKillip, whose stories flow like poetry.)

My story, in and of itself, finally received a few comments to things such as plot, character development, imagery, and also one very sweet and encouraging critique from a woman eager to read more.

At the end, the session returned to the discussion of comma splices. And the Harvard comma.

Don't even get me started on that little piece of academia that even academics can't agree on slipping into creative space.

My second review session was little better; it still had a big focus on punctuation and sentence formation rather than discussion on characters, plot, description, overall story etc.

I came out of that workshop with a fistful of pages filled with images (and I still keep an image notebook), two short stories that I soon sent to the scrap heap, and a half-dead muse.

I don't think I wrote anything creative for a six month period.

I couldn't.

Every time I tried I'd see a group of people--twenty or thirty years down the road--sitting in a college classroom, noses pressed to book pages, dissecting one of my short stories. (I dream big...)

I'd start asking myself things like "how would an audience react to this?" or "what am I representing by using this color/object/name?" or "do I need a conjunction here so as not to throw the structure sticklers off?"

I got sick of analyzing my writing (before it was even on the page) the way I was taught to analyze in my literature classes.

So, I just stopped writing. For a while.

The summer after that fall semester, I finally returned to my local writers group. That helped me get back on the horse. Gave me interaction with other long-time writers with similar goals. Reminded me that there are, in fact, people who can give good critiques (of character formation as well as technical issues).

I was reminded, most importantly, that writers should write for themselves. (I return again and again to the quote from Cyril Connolly: "Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.")

That fiction workshop had me coming at my writing as an analyst and an English major. Someone writing for a particular audience rather than just writing.

I was reigning myself in, avoiding moving too far into what I really liked to write (genre) so that I could fit the group dynamic.

The stereotype of the English major also seemed to make an appearance one too many times for my stomach. The sticklers for sentence structures, punctuation, grammar--though many of those rules can be played with once you know them--more interested in deconstruction than in asking questions and discussing authorial concerns.

There was also a certain pretentiousness from some members of the class in the making of points or criticism... (I have a pretty thick skin, so I'd like to think it's not just me. Another writer friend of mine took the class the semester after I did and had similar complaints, so...whatever that's worth.)

After looking over what I've written, maybe it's not college writing classes, in themselves, that kill your muse.

Maybe it's college writing classes filled with pedantic English majors.

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