Monday, August 2, 2010

Creative Writing

"We don't write what we know. We write what we wonder about."

- Richard Peck

When I attended college, I was required to take English 101 and an English elective. I chose Creative Writing. I had taken a Creative Writing class in high school, which I remembered enjoying. Well, except one day when a football player student wrote an essay on how all people who were gay should be shipped to their own island to prevent the spread of AIDS.

When I pointed that not only gay people had AIDS he said, “What are you, a lesbian?”

Although the comment was mortifying to a high school junior, I replied, “Yeah, defending gay people makes me a lesbian.


Anyway, before my college class wrote our first piece, the professor lectured us on the proper way to give feedback to our fellow writers. Constructive critique.

Our first assignment was to describe a place that had meaning to us. I have no idea what I wrote about. But I do remember in the sea of typical essays, one person’s piece stood out. She wrote something to the effective of, “I gnawed on my couch and felt the fibers between my teeth.” I knew she possessed talent the rest of us didn’t, but wished we did. The teacher was obviously pleased.

I also remember the woman who volunteered to first read her essay. So brave. What she wrote about, I have no idea. But I do remember the response.

One man, older than the rest of us, chortled when she was done.

The professor turned to him. “Do you have a problem with the essay?”

Arrogant in expression and tone, he replied, “Yes.”

“Which part?”

“All of it.”

Scowling, the professor reminded him, “This is a place for constructive criticism. It doesn’t improve her writing if you’re not specific.”

Then he rattled off a list of problems. So harsh.

Not that day, but during another class it was his turn to read. Rather than appearing nervous, he looked like he was doing us a favor by blessing us with his prose. I don’t recall what he wrote about, but I still have a copy of his essay tucked in a box in my basement. It was awful. The worst. He wrote flowery sentences that didn’t propel the story.

The room was quiet. I don’t think any of us wanted to talk to him directly. But it was bad. So bad. One brave soul critiqued it. Then another. And another.

He was flummoxed. Argumentative. Then silent.

The second project was to write about a person we knew whom we admired. Just months from getting engaged (though I didn’t know it at the time) I wrote about my boyfriend. I told the story about how he’d struggled in elementary school, didn’t think he was smart, and planned to drop out of school to start a traveling carnival with a friend. His parents got him to agree to try, really try to do well in school for one year. His guidance counselor believed in him. He took atypical classes, one being a psychology course. He realized school could be interesting. When I met him in Early Morning Gym, he was considering college. Then I wrote that he excelled in college, and actually broke the curve on some of his tests. I admired him for where he started, and how much he’d accomplished when he decided to believe in himself.

My arrogant classmate wrote about his boss. Again, there was an attempt at depth. Again, he wrote in circles. One sentence stood out, and I’ve never forgotten it:

“He is what he is and what he appears to be is what he is.”

That should give you some idea of the rest of the piece.

By then, the class was tired of him. People tore into his essay with relish. Even so, nobody was as mean to him as he was to us. We never got personal. We never told him he was a bad writer. We never told him to give up. He’d done that to many of my classmates.

The man stormed out. He never returned.

Based on the critique I received, I polished up all of my pieces. Then I had to choose one of the five or six works we wrote during the semester, and read it in front of my classmates. I chose the one about my boyfriend, who, by then had become my fiancé. I was proud of my sappy essay.

I enjoyed the class. My feedback was never devastating. Nobody ever told me I couldn’t write. I knew I wasn’t as bad as the arrogant man. But I knew I wasn’t as good as the woman who gnawed on her couch. That, to me, was proof I wasn’t meant to write.

After college, there were a several times I secretly wrote snippets of stories hidden notebooks and let documents languish in computer files.

When my son was in preschool, I attempted a picture book about a boy in kindergarten who has to reconcile being Jewish during all of the emphasis on Christmas in his classroom. I didn’t know how to format the piece or write a query letter. I sent it out to handful of Jewish presses. I received form rejections.

It took two more years before I decided to write. Really write.

I can look back and wish that I’d done things differently. I can ask, “What if?” But we are the sum of our experiences. That one creative writing class in college taught me much about writing and critiquing. Do I wish I’d taken more classes like that? Yes. But it wasn’t who I was. It wasn’t where I was in my journey.

I believe if I’d decided to write seriously then, I might not have been ready. And I wouldn’t have accumulated the varied experiences that have broadened my perspective.

But I wouldn't have spent so much time brushing up on grammar.

Do you look back and wonder, “What if?”?

If so, what would you change? What would you keep?

P.S. I posted my Aura query on my 2nd blog:


  1. Great post.

    I remember a grand total of 2 creative writing assigments while I was in school - both in grade 7. Nothing in high school and certainly no instruction about any writing along the way.

    I would love to go back and have some more practice filled into my life. I'd always written - but always kept it private. I'd add some confidence to myself too :)

  2. I think we, and our students, mainly learn in spite of what we were taught and especially in spite of some of the negative experiences we may have had.

    I really like the Peck quote which talks about wonder. That is what propels us through life.

  3. I have often read about creative writing courses... And wondered what they could possibly be like. Shrug.

    Not sure there is anything one can say that can reach people like that "football player student". But it's great that you tried.

    Hmm... What ifs. Graduating from high school I had qualified to get a sports scholarship in New-Mexico. But right about when I should have been getting travel papers visas and whatnot together, I went through a difficult breakup, and basically forgot to do so (too busy being melodramatic and picking up the gory pieces of exploded heart from the ceiling), so instead I went and snored my way through my local uni. I would have led a rather different life had I been paying more attention to paperwork and less to personal drama.
    That said, I wouldn't change anything from my past: I'm happy now. : j

  4. We had lots of creative writing sessions. I enjoyed all of them. Anything with writing was worth a try for me.
    People like that man are never an encouragement. There was a girl in seventh grade who always pointed out mistakes. And that just decreases one's confidence.
    Great post Theresa...:)

  5. I wonder "what if" all the time when I think about how much I've always loved to write, but how I'd never attempted to write for an audience. My journals and diaries are full of writing, but it was unstructured, for my eyes only. What if I'd majored in Creative Writing instead of Rhetorical Communications (what??). I try to live life without regrets, but not considering myself a writer until my late thirties will forever be a quiet, private regret.

    Your words strike a chord, though. Maybe I just wasn't ready before. Maybe, living life without regrets is all about living in the now, being present, and

  6. I try not to live in the land of What Ifs, but with this whole writing thing it can be hard to not pay a visit or two. You know my story - started out in finance and consulting before turning to writing just a couple of years ago. Sometimes, usually during a bad life or writing streak, I wonder how my life might be different if I had pursued my interests sooner. But... then I wouldn't have so many things that I have now. I wouldn't be who I am now. And I would never want to change that.

    So, while I am know to contemplate the What Ifs, I try to stay in the here and now.

  7. @ Jemi, we sound like had a similar writing path. I could've used some confidence too.

    @ Paul, I agree, wonder probably does propel us in life.

    And we often remember the negative things people say instead of the positive. Some classes and critiques may do more harm than good.

    @ Alesa, a few times I've tried to reach people like the football player. I don't think I ever get anywhere either.

    Back at that age it's often about the personal drama. Which sport(s) did you like to play? You may have had a whole different life.

    @ Mr. Stupid, it's terrible when one person wrecks an entire class. When that man left our group, it was a much better class.

    @ Nicole, I was going to say, "What??" to the Rhetorical Writing!

    I agree, it's important to live in the present. How can we move forward NOW?

    @ Rebecca, what a great title: The Land of What Ifs. I think most of the members on one side of my family live there.

    All we can do is write, live, work the best we can now.

  8. Terrific post Theresa. I for one am always asking what if. What if I had actually allowed anyone read my writing when I was young etc. But like you, I believe I wasn't ready. Well, I guess for me I chose to believe that. I have a lot more years dithering than you have. A Lot!!! Ann
    Inkpots n' Quills

  9. One of my proudest moments was in high school, when my Sr English teacher read ~my~ story to the class!

    Even then and always I've had the worms in my head, and this story was no different, though I didn't realize it at the time.

    It was about a worm. Of course.

    A bird ate the worm and flew into a tree. A panther in the tree ate the bird. Lightning struck the tree and the worm crawled out of the dead panther and back into his hole.

    She stopped during one part where I was describing the bird hopping and swiveling around the worm-hole and she looked up over those reading glasses and with her best frown-smile said, "Can you all ~see~ that! Isn't that wonderful. I can just see that little bird hopping around tugging that worm out of his hole."

    She laughed and read on and she wasn't the type to laugh and read on, if you get me.

    I wrote a little in college. Mostly I wrote in my head, and I pecked out a few stories on my Brother word processor, but I didn't submit, and I took engineering and pre-medical courses rather than writing courses.

    I've never taken creative writing. Everyone says I should, just to see what happens. Maybe I will...

    It wasn't until I was married that I started writing for-realsies.

    And I look back and think: I didn't have enough real-life experience to even write! I mean, what would I write about? What did I know?

    Personally, I think 30 is a good number to begin writing. Write earlier if you want, but it's not like singing songs when you're 16. Writing requires a bit of maturity, and that comes with age.

    I'm 39, now, and feel my stories are only getting deeper and richer.

    Which may or may not be a good thing, because quaint might have been just the thing!

    - Eric

  10. Interesting post. That must have been quite a class for the instructor to handle.

    I should have taken a creative writing class in my too many hours of college credit and that is a regret. After college, I stopped writing a journal for many years thereafter--if I could do it all over again, I would have written during that period.

  11. Indirectly, track and field. That's what they wanted me for at any rate. They didn't have anything more targeted at my specific skills.

    Yes, different surely, but not necessarily better. I find that there are other more entertaining fantasies to dwell on in life. : j

  12. @ Ann, I just checked your blog, and it looks like you wrote a bit of a "What if?" post too.

    @ Eric, now I know how you got the name of your blog. How awesome you got encouragement like that.

    For writing, it seems to happen soon after college or closer to 40 or beyond. Malcolm Gladwell has a theory for that.

    @ Slamdunk, once that student left, the class got so much better.

    @ Alesa, different isn't necessarily better. Those who want to change assume that they'd be go back as the person they are now.

    There are more entertaining fantasies. I've read a few on your blog.

  13. This is such a great post. I wonder that all the time since I decided to seriously pursue writing just one year ago. I completely agree with you about taking those extra creative writing classes but them not fitting in your journey at the time. That thought really gave me a lot of peace! Thanks!

  14. Great post. I always wonder about the "what if." Over time I've come to realise everything I've done has led me to where I am now.
    I've always been artistic, wrote and done something creative. I guess it just took me a while to figure out my path. Or it took me a while to meet the writing part of the road. lol.

  15. Wow! That was a great post. What an arrogant guy. Well, at least he taught everyone what NOT to do in a creative writing class when it comes to feedback.

    I wonder what would have happened if I started writing 10 years ago the way I do now. I'm not sure I'd still be writing. I might not have the maturity (and the online blogging community support) to get me through the hard times.
    Who knows? I wouldn't change anything.

  16. What a jerk! And a blind one at that. When I took drama in high school, we had constructive criticism given to us for our performances, but I had never heard a harsh critique.

    It'll be another year or so before I can actually start taking college classes geared toward a writing career, but I'm glad I've already finished a book. Wouldn't that look nice on my dream school recommendation!

  17. Your college creative writing course was so much better than mine. But I guess it was the right one for me at the time.

  18. Gosh what an intense creative writing course! Wow. Sounds quite lively and involved and the most important thing is that it worked for you at that time. And it had the bonus of showing you the type of writing to aspire to - the woman and her couch writing rather than that combative guy's.

    One thing I learnt about creative writing critiquing is always, always, always emphathise the positives and if there is something you think doesn't work to say why and/or to offer an alternative. It's an artform in itself and not one I can really do properly.

    I think for me I am in a creative writing course to learn and to improve and to listen.

    Do I look back and wonder what if? If you mean in my creative writing life so far? The answer would be a no. I'm glad for all the writing pitfalls and experiences and courses I've attended and chosen to attend because the experience as a whole has been very positive for me personally.

    All I need now is some more ooomph!


    Good luck with your writing journey and choices you make!
    Take care

  19. A very lovely story. I was a government major and to fulfill my Latin honors requirements, I took a writing for theatre course. It really changed my life. I remember a my professor saying, you can change an entire play with one word. Now that's powerful.

  20. I took a course in college with a teacher who was so incredibly tough. She rarely smiled, many students disliked her, and it seemed impossible to make her happy. She had very high standards for sure. But she knew what she was doing and she had great ways to teach us how to write with more focus. I remember the day she handed out our previous assignments at the end of class. She didn't smile at me at all, and almost looked like she was pursing her lips. I was prepared for the worst. Then she told me (still without looking happy) that it takes a lot to impress her, and she handed me my paper. I got an A+! Not just an A, which was a very rare treat for anyone in her class, but an A+!!! I was ecstatic. I felt like I had finally scaled Everest after trying hundreds of times and failing each and every time. I practically flew home that day. She kept the paper. It was one I had to write during class, so I don't even have a copy. I wish I did so I could read it and remember what I wrote.

  21. @ Saumya, you're still early on in your journey. I wish you the best finding your own way.

    @ Lindsay, I was going to pursue art/fashion design first so you sound a bit like me. It took me awhile to figure out I loved and had the right to write.

    @ Liz, it was a pretty good course. I don't have any other college writing courses with which to compare it.

    @ Old Kitty, I know you've taken several writing courses. Your second paragraph would make a helpful post for writers. You should consider writing one.

    It's good your comfortable with where you are in your writing journey. Hope you find that ooomph!

    @ Katie, what great advice. I recently heard from someone that Maurice Sendack had to fight with his editor to leave the line, "And it was still hot." The editor wanted to change "hot" to "warm". Would've changed the whole thing, don't you think?

    @ Surfie, what a wonderful story. You should turn this into a post. I wish you saved the paper too.

  22. Got to love the arrogance of some people. I guess he was finally knocked down a few pegs, and when they are they can't take the heat, sad really, since he could have eventually been a good writer, but if you already think you're great then you already lost!

    I don't look back and wonder what if, at least if I do it doesn't last very long since I can't recall a moment. I think I've always known I wanted to write I just never put it into play until this year, and so far I've learned a lot. :)

  23. When I write I do not put in swear words just to make the conversation sound realistic, because I know that my eventually my friends, neighbors, family, and local newspaper may read my books, and who wants to cringe in embarassment about unnecesessary four letter words. Besides, Science Fiction isn't real, anyway.

    So, all swear words are artistically driven, absolutely needed, and / or add substantually to the plot.

    I have met authors on these blogs who are afraid to show what they have written. My advice to write what you can be proud of. If you are proud of your writing, then it does not matter if some do not like it. Some will always not like it. Hopefully, most will like your work.

    And then there is my human / alien sex scene, not graphic, but artfully written and plot related.

  24. A creative writing class is the one thing that I want to take after I get my degree. It's the only reason I'd stay in college at this point. My junior year, I had an English teacher who didn't believe in giving A's. Our class was a GT class and she decided to do a semester on Hemingway. I can still see her sitting in front of the class, hands shaking and speechless. Every one of us got an A on a particularly difficult assignment and she read each of them aloud. At the end of the year, she cried....which brings me to my 'what if's' ... I'd have to say mine are really recent in that I wonder what if I actually believed I could do it? What if I applied myself? I'd like to make that teacher proud...

    I read your query letter and it sounds fantastic!!! What a unique and deep struggle! Good luck!

  25. @ Jen, I couldn't tell if he was delusional about his writing or really insecure.

    It's been a big year for you.

    @ Walter, I'll put in sex scenes or curse words if it's right for the characters. I stand by my writing.

    I haven't tackled aliens yet.

    @ The Words Crafter, that sounds like an intense teacher. I hear you, what if you believed in yourself. I had a problem with that. Still do sometimes. I hope you believe in yourself now.

    Thanks for the nice words about the query.

  26. Oh, I suffered through some jerks in my creative writing classes too. Jeez. What really bugged me was when some of the jerks really had talent. That was a hard pill to swallow.

  27. @ Bossy Betty, that must've been a hard pill to swallow. My guy (obviously) did not. I never understand the people who have to put down others to make themselves feel better.

  28. Oh boy! Another blog of yours to follow! I'll be going over after I finish this comment.

    If I could change something, I'd have started writing earlier. I took a bunch of English classes in college, and then did nothing with them for years. But oh well. I don't think I was ready to write until I'd had enough of flute.

    Too bad that guy in your class was so immature. Maybe he'll grow up later?

  29. I wish I had kept my early writings. I wrote novellas in high school, but I don't have any of them because friends would take a page as soon as I finished it and pass it around. They never got back to me. I'm sure they were sappy and awful, but I rather wish I could read them.

  30. I cringe when I think about the first thing I wrote when I decided (as an adult) to really give writing a try. It was a rhyming picture book and it was so, so bad.

    I do wish I'd allowed myself to be serious about writing in college, but I thought I'd never make a living at it so I studied engineering instead.

  31. I love this post, Theresa, because I think you're so right. It's all part of the process. Do I wish I'd known more when I wrote my first novel? Yes. My second YES! And on and on. But I learned by doing and actually, I'm not sure I'd change that.

  32. @ Aubrie, I sometimes wonder what happened to that guy.

    As far as the other blog goes, it's only for queries and beginnings of manuscripts, so I won't be putting much up there.

    @ Helen, I'm making sure to save some of my kids' stuff so they don't have the same regrets about our missing writings and us writers.

    @ Susan, if we don't cringe at our first attempts, we haven't learned anything, right?

    @ Talli, great way to put it. We learn by doing. Otherwise, what would we write about? And you're doing so well. It's awesome!

  33. I try really hard to avoid "what if's" (but I'm not very good at it - ha ha). The man in your class is exactly what I try to prevent in my writing classes. I know I'm going to end up with a student like that one of these days, but so far I've been lucky. :-)

  34. It was told by my college professor I should write. Although I got really good grades in English and grammar I didn't like implementing it in my writing. It was overlooked by many of my college professors because they said they really liked my writing. I was told my style was much like the author, Tim Robbins.
    I guess it's more an earthy charm.
    I always wondered what it would have been like to be published.
    I tend to write letters to people rather than talk....I have always felt more confident writing.

  35. @ Shannon, hopefully there aren't too many people like my fellow student out there.

    We probably all try to avoid What if's but aren't too successful!

    @ Barbra, it's nice you got such positive feedback.

    You can still try to get published.

  36. oh I really enjoyed this post - that man was on my last course! There must be a link between pompous flowery prose and arrogance! And everyone was so reluctant to challange him, no matter how rude he was. I still don't understand it! My what if is what if I started writing for publication earlier, I feel I've come late enough in life (late thirties when i started). And I would change that, why not, I'd be a little further along now... or maybe thats a myth, life doesnt always progress in a linear fashion, maybe I'd be burnt out with a nice whiskey nose! I would keep the workshops I've done, the writers I've met...the whole lot! I'd take back the self doubt though. Great post! You always get me thinking!

  37. How amusing about that classmate of yours. Just your descriptions of him made him sound irritating. I bet he was worse in real life.

    I think there are always "What ifs". Though I've been writing stories since I was a little kid, I wasn't really serious about pursuing writing until a few years ago, in my early 20s. That's fairly young, but then I hear about teenagers who are published these days, and I wonder if I could have spent my high school years learning the craft and gotten published before I was 20. But I suppose if I ever get published, it will be at the right time in my life.

  38. @ Words A Day, I'm sorry nobody in your class challenged your arrogant guy. We got hard on our guy when he read his pieces because they needed a lot of work.

    I think a few of us could've used more self confidence back then.

    @ Shelley, he was worse in real life. I couldn't convey the tone, facial expressions, and stance in a short post. Shortish post.

    I couldn't have written in my teens because I didn't have the knowledge yet. Maybe if I'd been driven and knew I wanted to write, it might have been different.

    Malcolm Gladwell calls us "Late Bloomers". Teens are the "Prodigies". That's not us.

  39. I DO wonder about what if? But I know I wouldn't change anything. I love all three careers I've chosen and wish I was Superwoman to do it all, be it all.

    I had a jerk like that guy in an online writing class. He lasted exactly one critique before he disappeared. And that was a constructive critique from a group of peers and one published author.

  40. I look back to when I started writing at about 12. I wish I had kept all of my diaries. I had so much going on in my life and I know that my entries were full of emotion that I could use now in my writing. I also wish I hadn't thrown away essays I wrote in college...There was one I wrote based on my husband's grandmother's life during the depression...I could kick myself for tossing it!

  41. @ Jackee, mothers do plenty. You are superwoman!

    Your story about the jerk who disappeared from your writing class strengthens my assertion these guys are insecure, projecting a false bravado.

    @ Sharon, I didn't save any assignments but I have a diary from junior high and when I was 19 floating around. The junior high one was illuminating.

    In college, I wrote about my husband's grandmother who was a WWII refugee. I still have it, but I wish I still had the tape from when I recorded her.

  42. This is such a great post!

    I have taken a creative writing course last term as well, after much deliberation, because I want the experience. Luckily, nobody in the class was as bad as the guy you've described.

    I "found" my fledging love for writing the first year of high school. However, I never tried and stopped writing for years until last year. I wish I had kept up writing, even if badly. I wouldn't have been ready, but I think my writing now would be more ready if I had continued writing. :)

  43. @ Sandy, I'm also glad you didn't get a guy like that!

    You get to the heart of it. If we'd believed in our writing abilities back then, and made time to just write, where would we be now?

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