Back to School: Reflections on Taking a Continuing-Ed Writing Class

Absolute Blank

By Mark Paxson

I hated English classes in high school. There was nothing worse than having to read a story or a poem and then talk about what we thought the author meant or what the point of the story was. To me, I thought most stories were simply that, stories, and that there didn’t have to be symbolism in every word and turn of phrase. I just wanted to be able to read a story and enjoy it and not have to think about it afterwards. From high school, I went to college and promised myself I would never take an English class again.

Mission accomplished.

When I started writing fiction almost twenty years later, I just started writing. After a lifetime of wanting to write but never getting past a great first line, I came up with an idea and outlined it in my head on my way home from work one day. A year later, I had written a novel. A year after that, I had completely rewritten it, converting the story from first person to third person. That story opened the door to short stories and more novels. Although I was rarely published, I kept writing.

With one major exception, I have written pieces that are, to me, just stories. I don’t fill them with symbolism or hidden meanings that the reader has to work through to know what I really meant. In my stories, if the sky is blue, it’s because, well, the sky is blue.

After five or six years of this, my writing stagnated. Those few first stories that were published in Toasted Cheese and The First Line were followed by a couple of years of… nothing. Part of the reason is that I don’t submit a lot of what I write, but what I did submit was met with the same response. Not interested. Not good enough.

It was time for a change. I felt like I was writing the same story over and over again. If I wanted to keep doing this and moving forward, it was time to learn more about this thing I have stuck with longer than most any other type of hobby or interest I’ve picked up along the way.

Background Image: tormol/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

I signed up for a creative writing class, Tools of the Writer’s Craft, offered by the University of California, Davis, Extension program. At the beginning of the first class, we were told the class was not a workshop, so we shouldn’t expect to bring stories to the class for significant feedback. For eight Wednesday evenings I spent three hours with about fifteen other budding writers and Greg Glazner, a published poet who is also about to publish what he refers to as a multi-genre novel. I still haven’t figured out what that is, but it sounds intriguing.

Here’s what I didn’t like about the class: for about two-thirds of the class time, I was back in high school English, discussing stories. If I had been asked to write an essay—one introductory paragraph, a body composed of three more, and a concluding paragraph—my flashback would have been complete. I signed up for a class to learn about the tools that writers use. Instead, I found myself in a classroom-sized version of Oprah’s Short Story Club.

One of the books we used for the class was The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction, selected by Joyce Carol Oates. Each week, we read two stories from the collection. We talked about whether we liked characters. The instructor read portions from the stories and expressed his amazement at the quality of the writing. And then we’d talk more about whether we liked the characters. I wanted to scream during these discussions, but I didn’t. It’s not that the stories, most of them anyway, weren’t good. “Bullet to the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, “On the Rainy River” by Tim O’Brien, “Stitches” by Antonya Nelson—were incredible. Stories that showed the art form at its best. Other stories struck me because of their connection to my own personal situation. Even some of the discussions were interesting, but I didn’t sign up for this class to discuss the why of other authors. Very little of the discussion about these stories was ever brought back to the particular tools we discussed each week.

Then, there was the nature of the discussions themselves. Fifteen aspiring writers, half of whom hardly said a word for eight weeks. The other half? Dominated by one particular student who had a comment about everything, who never hesitated to interrupt the instructor, and who seemed remarkably out of touch with the real world.

I was also disappointed that the instructor’s comments on every assignment I turned in were all positive. That can’t be. There is no way I wrote seven gleaming, two- or three-page pieces and didn’t write anything worth a constructive piece of criticism. I have lost my patience with people who read my work and cannot provide me with real feedback. It does me no good to hear nothing other than “great!”

I waited patiently for the glimmer of a discussion about the tools we were supposed to be discussing. Each night, those discussions would eventually come, as well as five- or ten-minute in-class exercises. The first couple of weeks, these exercises were read in class but there was little discussion during the readings and even less reading as the weeks went by. At the end of class there was also an assignment to complete for the next week: two pages using that week’s tool. For the most part, the tools came from Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern. The following week, the instructor would read a couple of the assignments that had been turned in the week before and provide analysis that wasn’t much more in-depth than his “great” comments on my efforts.

The mechanisms to create a more dynamic story from Stern’s book were what provided me with the benefit I was looking for. Snapshot: how to create a scene with words. Iceberg: where the characters talk at each other, but not to each other, creating a scene where their lack of communication reveals that there is something lurking below the surface. Juggling: building tension with a character engaged in a physical activity, while mentally focused elsewhere. Façade: where a character’s thoughts and words are betrayed by his or her actions. Equally important were the conversations we had about pacing, dialogue, setting and distance, and the detailed looks at the different points of view from where a story could be told. I learned for the first time that there is more than one way to tell a story from the third person. Third-person objective, third-person omniscient, and third-person limited.

I used the first few writing exercises to take a different look at the characters I’m developing for K Street Stories—my interconnected series of pieces about some of the people I’ve seen while working in downtown Sacramento. I created some new characters and new stories with other exercises that I’ll eventually do more with.

It’s been a couple of months since I finished the class. I look back at it and wonder whether I’ll take another writing class. The answer? Yes. Without a doubt. Even with the frustrating aspects, there was value to the course. The class motivated me to write more than anything else since I first started writing. Just the few tools we covered provided me with a deeper way to look at writing. The boredom I felt writing the same story over and over has lifted. Since the class ended, I’ve started contributing to two different local blogs. I’ve had four essays published on those blogs. As well, I’ve re-dedicated myself to my own blog, writing for it several times a week.

I completed a short story with which I focused on how I told the story just as much as how I could get from the beginning to the end. Up until now, my writing efforts are about how get from point A to point B, and eventually to the finale of the story, following a fairly logical progression of event and character development. The different ways to add depth to a story have been a mystery to me. Before the class, I just wrote. Now, I think about it a little more. How can I make the interaction between the characters more dynamic? Are there subtle ways to create an undercurrent of tension that isn’t so obvious it slaps the reader in the face? Is there a better way to tell a story than to go from A to B to C? The short story I completed used two of the tools from the class to create a more subtle conflict while also giving the characters more depth than my usual story.

At the end of the eight weeks, I had some issues with how the class was taught. However, there was enough benefit that I would recommend a writing class to a budding writer looking for a little direction or some new approaches to the writing craft. If nothing else, talking about writing and trying some new approaches motivated me to write more in the past few months than I have in a long time. A writing class is a great way to learn, to expand how you look at your writing, and most importantly, to get yourself moving if you’ve stalled.

Mark Paxson is an attorney in Sacramento, California, who is still trying to figure out how to write a best seller. He currently blogs occasionally at Elk Grove Patch and has his own blog at King Midget’s Ramblings.

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