Recently I began a book written by a former creative writing teacher. I am close to finishing the novel and it makes me fondly remember that class that I took during my undergraduate years.
There were many really good students in that class. I didn’t even consider myself one of the good ones. But it was a great experience because it taught me how to harness my talent. It also instilled in me the routine of writing in spurts.
We would begin every class with a quick writing prompt. The point of this exercise was to write about a topic or in a writing style for about 10 – 15 minutes without taking our pens off the paper. Editing also wasn’t allowed. Doing this twice a week got our creative juices flowing which we could later use for our major papers for the class or we could scrap it and develop it at some other point in time.
We had to produce 2 longer works for the class which would be part of a class workshop. We could write a short story or a piece of a novel. We would create enough copies for all the other students in the class. They would then go home and read those pieces for homework and provide feedback in the class. Students could give their input during class or not. But we were all expected to give constructive criticism of the piece that the instructor would collect and read and grade as part of our participation grade.
One piece that I wrote created a bit of a buzz. I had no intention of causing a controversy; I was trying simply to work in humor. The workshop wasn’t too painful. Most everyone gave good ideas or pointed out things that I could work on more.
The next session the professor had read everyone’s critiques. Before she gave me the other students’ papers on my work, she took a moment to tell people what it meant to give constructive criticism. She had mentioned that we wouldn’t always love everything we read. But that didn’t mean we should use that as a moment to take down the other writer. We had to look at some piece of that writing that worked for us and what didn’t. But we weren’t supposed to be nasty about it. We had to be professional in our criticism.
That moment along with a number of others made that one of my favorite and most successful classes. So when I saw her name on a novel, I had to pick it up. As I’ve been reading it, I recall a couple of the writing lessons that she gave me. One of them was try to find a different way to say a cliché. Another tidbit was to trust your voice (if you had one) and to let that voice lead your story. In her book of short stories I have seen those important lessons appear on the pages of her short stories. I will always remember and thank her for those great pointers she gave me in that creative writing class so many years ago.