Creative Writing Blog

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Blogging Thoughts

Websites are a funny thing.  I started 1-2-Writing after a few less-than-positive experiences with writing workshops - both online and in-person.  The biggest problem I ran into was price - I was paying money for workshops (some rather serious money - $500 for one of the online courses I took) and getting some really bad service.  It wasn't that I disagreed with the feedback or that the instructors were people I didn't like - it just seemed like they didn't know how to teach.  They were good writers, great people, but not very well organized.  I wouldn't have minded if the workshops were free, but they weren't.  It didn't help that I was barely employed at the time - I had just gotten out of the Army, I was paying rent for the first time in my life, and the only jobs I had were these part-time spots that barely covered rent, let alone food and health insurance and car insurance and my internet cable and...but who's counting?  When you get to the point that you're buying generic dried beans from Harris Teeter so you can make a batch of chili that's even cheaper than the last batch, you get a bit irate after dropping a few hundred dollars for a writing course that doesn't pay off.

Like I said, though, it wasn't that I disagreed with the feedback.  The real problem was the relative lack of feedback.  The course for which I paid $500 was a 15 week novel writing course - I received no feedback from the instructor until after I submitted my third assignment some nine weeks into the course (and trust me, two months is a long time to wait for feedback worth $500).  We were told the problem was instructor illness, and then the course was extended, and a new instructor brought in, but it was very hard to get back in the swing of things.  The web administrator offered us all $250 refunds, but there was no reply back when I e-mailed in.

You can imagine that this experience turned me off to online workshops.  Unfortunately, I think I was one of the lucky ones.  After this experience, I made it into an MFA program, so I don't pay money for writing courses now.  But I have friends who do.  I've seen one friend pay a very, very large amount of money (thousands of dollars) for writing help with turned out to be little more than line edits.  And it galls me because there isn't a lot I can do about it.  I'm not exactly famous, I can't exactly say I've written enough to argue with these instructors who've published several books each.  All I have out there is a short story and the fact that I'm earning in MFA.  But I do have some knowledge.  Maybe I haven't published much yet, but I've written a lot, especially compared to where I was when I first dropped engineering to pursue creative writing.  It's not so much that I know enough to teach everything, but I can teach more than some of my teachers have.  They may have known more, but they didn't have the time or - in my opinion - the knowledge of teaching necessary to convey their experience.

That, however, was two years ago - before I'd even finished applying to MFA programs.  Since then, I've taught three semesters of undergraduate writing as part of our MFA program.  What amazes me the most about teaching is not how much I know about writing, but how much I still have to learn about teaching.  I've had to reconsider what I thought about the $500 instructor who disappeared.  Sometimes, I wonder what I would really do if I became so sick that I couldn't teach - I'm not sure I would want my students to know just how sick I really was, and it's possible that she really couldn't continue with the course.  And although I feel that I am a better teacher than some instructors I've met, I realize now that I am not the best teacher out there, not by far.  Over the years, I've learned how to provide good feedback and good encouragement, but I've taken workshops from teachers who can literally light up a room.  Two teachers I highly recommend for anyone who has a chance - Zelda Lockhart and Pat Schneider - changed the way I write.  Another writer who I've only met through an online workshop - Karlyn Thayer - really kept me going when I was first learning to tighten my short stories.  I wish I had space here to list all the teachers who've helped me - there's no way I would have made it even this far without the help of many, many people, most of whom I've only known for brief periods between moving.  I have more than enough proof that writing workshops do work - maybe not always, and maybe not perfectly, but they do help your writing.

And something else to consider is what I've learned from the writing instructors who weren't as helpful.  Sometimes, the books that best show you how to write well are the ones where you can see where the writing failed - I think the same is true for writing workshops.  The great workshops gave me the experience and the desire necessary to take up writing - it was the bad ones that pushed me to take charge of my writing, to stop waiting for my writing to "improve enough" for me just just start publishing.  What I've found is that it doesn't happen that way - some days you write well, some days you write through setback, and some days are so bad that you want to write but can't.  Regardless of the situation, regardless of where you're at or the resources you have, you have to keep faith in your writing and push onward.  If you read a book that's terrible, you sit down to write another one - if you take a workshop that's not worth the money, you start a website and do better.

With this thought, I encourage each of you to keep up the faith and know that, whatever your publications or lack of publications, you're a writer.  And something I've learned over the years is very simple, but many people forget either one side of it or the other: every writer has something to learn, and every writer has something to teach us.

Happy Writing,
Ryan


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