I took five “creative writing: fiction” courses at Penn State. I had five different instructors. Today I thought I’d talk a little about my experiences as a novice writer and the things I liked/disliked about those classes. None of the five classes was remotely similar so we can examine each as a type and talk about the human side of reading/writing. All names, except mine, are changed to protect the innocent.
Instructor 1 – “Fiona”:
I took this class, Introduction to Fiction Writing, my second semester. I’d guess the class had about 20 students. We each wrote and workshopped 2 short stories. Cleaning out the attic the other week, I came across one of the stories I wrote for this class. Painful, painful reading. I just shake my head.
Fiona was one of those nebulous “adjunct” or “associate” professors who help fill in the freshman/sophomore level classes at big schools. To be honest, what I remember most about her is that my stories would smell of patchouli when she handed them back. Overall, I’d say she played the part of advocate. We were 18/19 years old and pouring our souls onto the page. She did her best to help us see the quiet moments of honesty in the midst of our (my) pretentiousness, pointed out our major construction problems, and generally encouraged us to keep expressing ourselves. Pretty much what a non-tenured, introductory fiction instructor should do. I guess.
My classmates were less kind. And rightly so. I got hammered in that class like never before, mostly for a medieval gothic story involving a Humpty-Dumptyish boy and an insane chef. (the horror, the horror). It was the awakening my writing needed and from that wondrous instant I, a burgeoning artist soul alight, cast off the shackles of self-importance and devoted myself in staid humility to a writing void of affectation and artifice. It’s worked out well.
BTW: this was also the class I learned that it’s not “for all intensive purposes” but rather “for all intents and purposes.”
Instructor 2 – “Charles”:
Junior year, fall semester. Advance Fiction Writing. 15-18 students. Again, 2 short stories.
Charles was the guy who broke through to me. A graduate of the Iowa workshop, he and I just had similar visions for what short fiction should do. I loved attending the class and I still remember a number of things he told us.
One thing was that we should stop trying to recreate scenes from our life in our stories. Rather we should try to take the emotion from the scene—the joy, the sorrow, whatever—and transfer it into a new setting, to fuel a new experience. I liked that. Charles also tried to get us to see that we needed to be writing for our characters—letting them dictate our story rather than control it ourselves. Good, solid instruction.
The interesting thing is that I never read a single thing the guy wrote. He was about as close as I’ve come to a writing mentor and yet I never tracked anything down. Didn’t seem to matter at the time.
One story from this class, “The Art of Packing Boxes” ended up taking the top fiction prize for the university that year. It was about a middle-aged man confronted by the belongings of his deceased estranged father and his sudden awareness of how he’s partitioned off portions of his life. My classmates were bored by it.
Instructor 3 – “Sylvia”:
Junior year, spring semester. Honors Fiction writing. 12 students. Two short stories.
Lovely woman was Sylvia, and a talented author. Mediocre teacher at best. In this class, there were four or five other students with impressive talent and I valued their feedback far more than my instructors. I don’t know what the problem was. It always seemed like she found fault with minor issues that were too easily fixed whereas my classmates got to the meat of the story. This goes to show that writing talent does not translate into reading prowess. Overall, a disappointing experience.
At this time of school I was simply steeped in the literary arts. I was an editor for our literary journal and was hosting literary readings at coffee houses. Like I’ve mentioned before it’s always easier to pass your own work through committee when your el Presidente
. My best friends typically weren’t part of the literary scene and always taken a bit aback when they attended these things. I soon won them over with my readings of a story whose first scene ends with an ailing basset hound retching all over the porch.
Instructor 4 – “Gavin”:
Senior year, spring semester. This class had some fancy name which basically meant it met once a week for three hours straight. 20 students, two short stories.
Gavin published one piece of experimental fiction in his career. I tried to read it, but it was beyond me. He was actually a Ph.D. rather than an M.F.A. though and got by with the department by writing a number of papers and monographs. Gavin was eccentric and either vaguely lycanthropic or vampiric, tearing into your stories with a pen that seemed to drip blood with its red ink. Gavin taught me two things: 1) I wasn’t nearly as good as I thought I was. and 2) Hard work could make me better.
We all need a Gavin in our writing lives, because to be frank, we’re simply not that good. He was honest and clinical in his assessment of our writing. But, he was treating us as writers
. We weren’t students any longer. That felt both empowering and like ice-cold water at the same time. Probably the most important class I took at Penn State, though.
One of my stories, which I’m still tempted to revisit, tries to use the gathering spots of animals (monarch butterflies, spawning frogs) as a metaphor. I’m still not sure for what, though.
Instructor 5 – “Ken”:
Senior year. Spring semester. Senior Honors thesis advisor.
This was a debacle on the grandest scale. We had 3 fiction creative writing professors at one time at Penn State. I needed to find a thesis advisor before I signed up for the class. Gavin wouldn’t take me because I hadn’t yet been his student. Charles, who I truly wanted, was on sabbatical. I couldn’t imagine having Sylvia and so I went to the newly hired Ken. Scrambling to find his place and get grounded in the department, he agreed.
The one nice thing about the experience was that I proved to myself that I could do this writing thing on my own. Ken and I just didn’t talk much. And when we did, it was mostly with odd expressions on our faces as though the other person were speaking, say, Swahili. I didn’t get him. He didn’t get me. He left my writing alone (except to suggest a change in title to one of my stories) and the whole package ended up winning the Honors award for creative thesis.
This was the experience that showed me that short fiction probably wasn’t going to cut it. Most stories students turned in were 8-12 pages. The two stories I turned in for my thesis were 25 and 60 pages respectively. And thus was born a novelist.
I think what Ken proves is that, in the end, there are going to be people who just don’t get what you’re doing. They’re not bad people (though I’ve never managed to pick up one of Ken’s books); they’re just missing you. And that’s fine. Just try not to have them be responsible for the culmination of your college career. It’ll go better for you.