28
Jul 17

Writing Only Gets Harder

Paradoxically, writing only gets harder the more you do it.

Writing Only Gets Harder

Original photo by rawpixel.com

You can practice for years.

I’ve been actively writing since I was 8, and I can say conclusively that it’s harder to write now than it was then EVEN THOUGH NOW I CAN READ MULTI-SYLLABLE WORDS.

You can dedicate several years of your adult life and thousands of dollars to undergrad and graduate programs, but writing only gets harder.

Don’t believe me? Here’s why:

When you’re a kid, a story is any weird string of words. Have you ever listened to a kid tell a story? They start out telling you that their grandpa is coming over on Friday, and wind up at how much they love pudding. And while those things are probably true, the story itself, sucks.

(Sorry, kids.)

But that doesn’t diminish the kid’s ease at vomiting out words. It’s easy for them.

When I was in the first grade, I wrote books ALL THE TIME. I don’t think any of these tomes still exist to this day, as neither I nor my parents are particularly sentimental. But I sandwiched copy paper between sheets of construction paper, stapled those bad boys, and then went to town with a pencil and crayons. I wrote so many “books.” I was prolific.

It felt so easy.

(Probably because these stories were like 3 words to a page with a very intricate crayon drawing to illustrate the point.)

But then as I grew up, I started learning about story structure. I learned how to construct a sentence for maximum impact. I learned literary conventions and pacing and word choice all played a part in everything I wrote, and I made allowances.

Even so, this wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back. Writing was still pretty easy.

In middle school and high school creative writing classes, we had to turn in a short story once a week. That’s a helluva writing load, one that college classes wouldn’t inflict on their students. But I hit those deadlines. Sure, it was draining, but writing was easier then. I still have some of those stories (they managed to survive the great notebook throwing out of 2017) and they spanned topics like dystopian junkyards, a man going crazy in a grocery store, an unconscious father on life support mentally recounting life events as his family cries in his hospital room, a young girl posing as a squire so that she can become a knight someday…

I wrote all of that and so much more.

And it was really fucking easy compared to the writing I do now.

The ideas are all still there, disparate and diverse.

But writing only gets harder.

The ideas are all still there, disparate and diverse. But writing only gets harder. Click To Tweet

In college, I procrastinated. (In much the way I encourage my college students not to.) I waited until the day before a story was due for workshop, and then I’d bash one out. And, admittedly, it was never the best story in class. But it also wasn’t the worst.

And I could get away with that procrastination, because writing used to be easy.

Now, I can’t crank out a story in an evening. I can’t hear a song lyric and turn it into a plot line. I can’t watch a movie and use big chunks of it for my own craven purposes.

I don’t just sit down and dump my brain on the page the way I used to.

I have better taste now.

(Some of you who are more acquainted with some of my more colorful posts may disagree.)

I can’t write stories about dystopian junkyards, a man going crazy in a grocery store, an unconscious father on life support mentally recounting life events as his family cries in his hospital room, a young girl posing as a squire so that she can become a knight someday because these stories don’t align with what I want from my writing.

It’s not just writing anymore. It’s actually figuring out what I want to say, understanding the consequences and impact this will have, and how it will frame everything else I write from now until I die.

Writing only gets harder.

Sitting in a chair and bashing out words on a keyboard isn’t the hard part.

Sitting in a chair and bashing out words on a keyboard isn't the hard part. Click To Tweet

I’m saying that Writing, with a capital W, gets harder because it’s Writing with a capital W. It’s the bigger picture of what a writer does. It’s being aware of what writing actually means. It’s understanding who will take your words and how they will be used for years to come.

It’s not wanting your name associated with some garbage concept just because it’s popular at the moment or because it came to you or because it was easy to write.

(There are still things that are easy to write. Some things are so easy they’re out of my brain and on the page before I know it. But are they worth it? If you’ve been paying attention, you know they aren’t.)

Writing only gets harder because you know you’re capable of better prose, and pulling it out of yourself is like exorcising demons.

It’s looking back on the words that you put on the page, and making sure they mean exactly what you want.

This is why writing only gets harder.

The more you practice, the worse it gets. That’s what nobody tells you about practice. Sure, it makes it easier to complete the physical task of putting words on paper. But those words? They get harder and harder to bring to the page.

Writing only gets harder. Click To Tweet

21
Mar 17

The Pedestal in His Workshop

The Pedestal in His Workshop

This past weekend, I began writing about my experience with a specific writing instructor. After reading Bonnie Nadzam’s “Experts in the Field” essay in Tin House on Saturday, I’ve chosen to publish this. After reading Bonnie’s essay, I can’t help but feel like I had a really good experience, even though it was terrible. Our experiences aren’t the same, but neither of our experiences are unique. For further reading that explains just how prevalent this sort of thing is in the writing world, check out this piece on Literary Hub.

Ten years ago when I didn’t have the words for what was going on, I took a writing class with a local author. In fact, I took several. It was during the year between undergrad and grad school, and I wanted to stay sharp and relevant and if I’m being really honest, I wanted the praise that comes from a teacher.

I needed someone to tell me I was special because that year I spent waiting tables at a professional wrestling-themed barbecue restaurant in the parking lot of a Walmart made me feel really worthless.

(I’ve always been susceptible to the bigger and better, especially when I was younger. And when I couldn’t attain it, I crumbled a lot inside.)

So, on my first day of class, I showed up early. I didn’t know anyone, but I didn’t care. This was a class. This was where I excelled. This was what I was meant to do.

I had read one of the instructor’s books, and thought it was decent enough. It wasn’t a life changing read, but not many books are.

The class was an interesting mix. There were young and old, new and seasoned writers, published and unpublished.

Among the mix of people was my friend, Katie. That’s how we met. Even though I look back on this class with a mix of rage and regret, I’m glad I met Katie. She was a bright spot in a dark place.

Though this was my first time to take the class, it wasn’t the first time for a lot of the students. Many of them were long-time disciples, flocking like moths to a flame of this teacher. I couldn’t figure out why anyone would take the same class several times then. I mean, I was waiting tables and dead broke all the time. I couldn’t fathom paying for this $190 6-week class more than once.

As class began, it felt manic and frenetic. The energy felt good. That’s mostly how writing workshops have always felt to me, like the first time you try speed.

In the first session, we outlined a novel together. He’d call out for suggestions of protagonists and antagonists, for conflicts, for setting. We’d shout back as he wrote the different elements on a large easel-sized Post-It pad. Once we’d complete one element, he’d stick it to the wall and start over with another sheet on the big pad.

By the end of class, we had a novel. Sure, it wasn’t good. But most books aren’t. And that was how he convinced all of us that it was super easy to write a novel. After all, it’s just a game of filling in the blanks, right?

Then, for the rest of the class sessions, different people would bring their novel outlines and we would all critique each other’s. It went well. I excelled, in a way. Insofar as excelling is receiving praise.

I took many classes from this instructor that year. There were different class options that he taught, always a different component of the writing process, but taught in his signature madcap style. Katie was always there, and it was nice to have a friend who was into the same thing I was into, because up until that point, I had literally never had that.

Even now, I can count on one hand the number of friends I have who are into the same things as I am.

As I got to know that instructor better, and as Katie and I got to know each other more, a weird dynamic emerged. We were under a figurative microscope. Anything we did — writing, clothing choices, vending machine drinks — were under scrutiny. The instructor picked at us constantly. Sure, he did it in fun, or at least that’s what his tone said. The older, unkempt men in the class picked up the game quick. They would make similar comments, or let us know that they’d love to take care of us, if only we’d marry them.

The younger men in the class followed suit.

The Pedestal in His Workshop Click To Tweet

It’s also worth noting here there were a fair amount of women in the class that were older than me and Katie. It would be hard to be younger than us, as we were the 21-year-olds in an adult education courses. And those women, while they weren’t outwardly cold to us, it was obvious that they were tired of us. Like they thought we were asking for the attention.

At the time, I didn’t realize what was happening. I had never been in a class like this. I had never interacted with older men, except for maybe my dad and his friends. And they didn’t act like this.

I found myself behaving in odd ways in that class. I would specifically wear boring sweaters and jeans — anything to make it harder for that instructor to call me out. And when he did call me out for any number of things, I found myself answering untruthfully, just because I wanted to placate him. I wanted to tell him something that would please him. I needed that validation that I was attending those closes to get. So he’d ask me pointed questions, trying to trap me, to make me look like an idiot, trying to have that little moment where he could point out to the whole class how stupid 21-year-old women were so we could all laugh together, and I’d say anything to get him to just fuck off.

(I didn’t realize that was what I was doing, though. And I didn’t realize that I was doing that until I ran into that teacher a writer’s conference a few years ago. He started in on me as soon as he said hello, and I found myself saying bullshit to get him to go away.)

I can’t speak for Katie. I don’t know if that’s how she felt. But it’s how I felt.

And I didn’t even realize I was doing it. I was trying to play the game I played in classes. Say the right thing, receive validation. I was grasping at straws every time I attended that class.

I feel it’s important here to note that I don’t, nor have I ever specifically sought validation from older men. In fact, I have spent a lot of my life trying to piss them off. This was different though. He was a teacher. That’s who I wanted validation from.

It’s only now, with that 10 years of hindsight that I realize we were placed on a pedestal in that workshop. We were there for the entertainment and delight of a group of old degenerates. These were men, who over the course of several classes, would open up about their distain for their wives or for women in general. They would eloquently express how terrible women were, but they would gladly take up with us in a heartbeat.

And they felt they were allowed to do this because the classroom environment enabled it.

Only I couldn’t see it then. In fact, I joined a writer’s group with a few of those men, and met with them for years after the classes had ended. I think I was still young enough to seek that validation. Even though the teacher wasn’t there anymore, those old men had become his proxies. And I just wanted to hear them tell me I was a good writer.

But what I got was more picking.

While I’m not happy that was my experience, I’m happy to have processed it all, to understand what was happening. It has, perhaps irrevocably, changed my writing process. There’s always a sneering middle-aged man in the back of my head. He picks at words and story ideas. He reminds me that since what I’m writing about is something he hasn’t experienced, it’s somehow invalid.

And then I remind myself that this middle-aged man in the back of my head is just as disgusting as the men in those classes. All ear hair and paunch. Body odor and artificially inflated ego.

For a long time I thought my teaching style was forged by my love of writing. I thought if I just conveyed to my students that if you did the research or knew what you wanted to say, then it became easy to say it.

And while maybe that’s true, it’s not where my teaching style comes from at all. I am a product of that classroom, of those bad experiences from that teacher.

In my classroom, everyone has space to say what they want to say. Click To Tweet

In my classroom, everyone has space to say what they want to say. And no one will ever play those stupid mind games with my students on my watch.


22
Jul 14

10 people you meet in creative writing class

I’ve been thinking a lot about creative writing classes lately. Some of my favorite classes in college were the creative writing workshops. Whether it was in a fiction or poetry class, it was always interesting to write something and see how it plays in the minds of readers. Some of my classmates would give me great critiques–in some cases more helpful than the professor’s. And some of my classmates would write something so amazing that I couldn’t believe I was in the same class.

typewriter

As I took more and more workshop-style classes, I started to notice a pattern. There were always certain personality types in the class, without fail. And so it is with great pleasure that I bring you the 10 people you meet in creative writing class.

1. Person in it for therapy

Art can be therapeutic, but that doesn’t mean the whole class wants to watch you go through the stages of grieving or emotional catharsis every class. And even though all the kids in class will get to know you through your writing, it’s always weird to read about super personal things that you just had to get out during workshop. Also, no one likes your emo poetry. No one.

That being said, it’s always nearly impossible for you to give this person a negative critique because you really want them to get over the tough time they’re going through.

2. The clueless blowhard

Critiques are for people who don’t know what they’re doing. Seriously. Why would this person even need to take your advice when you clearly didn’t understand what they were trying to convey at all? They will not change that poorly written scene with the crows descending upon the city, or take out all the references to Doors lyrics. There has never been a more self-assured writer, nor has there ever been someone who deserved less to be self-assured.

3. Pretentious asshole

“I’m not sure what you were trying to do there, but it doesn’t look like you achieved it. Let me focus on this one element that I noticed, and then harp on it for a good, long time. Then, I’ll have to lecture on something that I’m going to pretend is way more esoteric than it actually is. You’ll think me. I’m really nice to spend so much time educating you.” -every critique this asshole gives you during workshop

4. Teacher’s pet

Every critique this person gives during workshop will closely resemble those of the professor. Also, they read EVERYTHING the teacher references, and occasionally bring up the published works of the professor during class discussion. This person is incapable of writing anything without the approval of the professor, which is why they have a really hard time doing any writing after graduation.

5. Druggie

Even if you’ve never done drugs, you will sincerely enjoy this kid’s psilocybin-induced poetry. It’s like The Jabberwocky, only with way more Taco Bell references.

6. The artist

I guess having your soul tortured by the art that dwells within is hard. That’s why this kid is so weird and incapable of communicating any ideas they have with the class in a way that is recognizable as human. But don’t worry. This person just exists on another plane. That’s why they will never turn in anything on time, if at all. And any critique you get from this person will be indecipherable.

7. Commercial fiction entrepreneur

You know that overachiever in the class that does really well? Well, this person is an overachiever, but they never achieve teacher’s pet status. Your professor will quickly tire of hearing the anecdotes they have about writing those past 12 NaNoWriMo novels, as well as all about how they made $13 last month on Amazon with their YA septuplogy. Everything they submit for workshop is basically Twilight, but sub vampires for the paranormal creature du jour. You like this person, but you hate everything they write.

8. Your new best friend

Every once in a while, you get lucky and you find a person in your creative writing class that is not only a good writer, but has a style and tone that you really respect. Unlike the teacher’s pets or robot parrots, they never get hung up on little elements that don’t 100% follow the rules of grammar. Instead, they see your writing for what it is, and they enjoy it as well as your company. And if you get really lucky, you’ll enjoy the same type of alcoholic beverages.

Start a writing critique group with this person immediately.

9. The easy A

“I thought creative writing was supposed to be easy? I’m just here for the A, man. I can’t let my GPA drop anymore or I’m getting kicked out. What do you mean, my piece that is just a bunch of text messages I copied and pasted into a Word Doc doesn’t count as a story?”

This argument with the professor will happen about 75% of the way through the semester, and it will be supremely uncomfortable for the rest of the class. But, after having to read the crap this person turned in, you’ll be really glad this person doesn’t get the grade that you actually worked for.

10. The pervert

No one wants to read about someone having sex with a pig. No one. This goes double for your Lolita-wannabe short stories. Actually read Lolita and tell me it’s sexy and not creepy. If you can, you should probably go ahead and register as a sex offender.