Can you learn it?


Mrs. Axe is having a slight infestation of ants back at the ole’ homestead, and to use her own words, they are biting the crap out of her.  Fortunately, they aren’t fire ants or she would be in even more pain than she already is.  Because of the way my warped mind worked, the whole situ gave me a delightful idea for a story, but that wasn’t tonight’s topic of conversation.

No, this topic came to me as I deleted yet another random invite from a writing magazine, to come join a writing seminar (for a hefty fee, of course).  As with most unsolicited advertisements, this one promised sharper imagery, better characterization, instant sales, longer orgasms, and all for the low, low price of $19.99.  I pretty much ashcan these as soon as they hit the inbox, ’cause I don’t believe the secrets to being a better writer are something you can merely pay to learn.  But the longer I think about it….

I took a creative writing course during my last year in college.  This would be getting on twenty years ago, so those manuscripts have since vanished into the antiquity of memory.  (Actually, they might have survived until two years ago, when a flood destroyed all my school texts.)  I remember the basic plots but the writing was, no doubt, absolutely atrocious.  I remember some of the critiques I got and they were quite caustic.  The point is, I wonder if I took anything away from that class.  I remember more about my own crappy writing than anything they taught me.

I’ve read a handful of books about writing, I have a subscription to The Writer, which is a decent mag.  But I honestly think I have learned more by reading other fiction (not stuff on how to write fiction) and getting a wide swath of critiques, than from all the academic and scholarly direction I’ve covered.  I think that exposure has been more constructive and made my writing better.

(Muse:  Better than what?)

Anyone else have that experience?  Has anyone benefited greatly from a structured class or academic-type environment, that improved their writing?  How so?  Please explain – maybe I’m missing something.

In the meantime, anyone know a surefire method of getting rid of ants?  I’m this close to flying home and exterminating the little fuckers, one stomp at a time.  As I do, Mrs. Axe can fold her hands next to her head and sigh in dreamy admiration … hero to the rescue, and all that. 


5 thoughts on “Can you learn it?

  1. I wouldn’t say that you’re “missing something” in the sense that writing classes/programs will provide something you couldn’t conceivably piece together yourself through other means. You absolutely can. If you’re getting better mileage out of independent study/discovery, that’s splendid and you should keep doing it.

    Since you asked, though, I can tell you why I chose the academic route and what I feel I got out of it. (And if you don’t care, I’m going to type it out anyway.)

    Item 1 — I like in-person critique groups. Free exchange of ideas in a group is wonderful. Hearing the dissent and consensus evolve is wonderful. Having people talk and get excited about your work over your head is wonderful. All that stuff is very difficult to replicate in online critique. Workshop classes provide me easy access to this without having to come up with one myself. It’s also pretty cool to turn something in and know within a week you’ll get back 15 thorough critiques, one of them from an author with books published (the prof/workshop leader).

    Can you find these outside of a school, absolutely. But not everywhere, and not always ones with a strong or suitable membership. (I admit I can be kind of a snob about this. I appreciate the gateway that an application process provides.) I think they’re easier to find if you’re only interested in writing one genre. The only ones I’ve found in my city have been very genre-focused, which doesn’t appeal to me because I write in a variety of them, and the ones I’ve attended in the past have been very insular about their genre. The “oh my god, everything that’s not category whodunnit is so boring why would anyone want to read it” kind. Yuck.

    Item 2 — I like deadlines. You can also get these outside a classroom (contests, buddy system, self-imposed, whatever), but I personally find those less effective than a grade and fifteen people with tight schedules depending on you getting your shizz in on time.

    Item 3 — I like having the prof in the room. I’ve only done workshop-style classes, not lectures, so they’re mostly just there to gently moderate the discussion and offer somewhat more expert/experienced guidance if warranted. Academic professorships have a publication requirement, even (or perhaps especially) in fine arts… so you’re guaranteed someone on-hand who’s been there/done that with the book publication scheme and who’s being paid to answer your questions about it and whatever else you want to ask about.

    You can always access published authors outside classes by emailing them or attending panels/striking up conversations at conventions, but I am way too afraid of bothering people to do this.


    1. CON’T…

      Item 4 — I like the community of the thing. Online camaraderie is nice and all, but there’s something special about being able to leave after workshop and go out to have a beer with a dozen people and still talk about writing. Particularly if you have emotional/psychological hang-ups with the process, as I often do, it’s nice to make in-person friends with people who know exactly what you’re talking about and may have other ways of approaching it or developed strategies to deal with it.

      Also, in a workshop of any length, people are there to focus exclusively on writing. Of course you can take this too far, lock yourself up in the cloister and do literally nothing but write, which would be inadvisable and make your work stale or inauthentic. But to have people there who are serious enough to take three weeks or six weeks or two years to more or less make writing their day job is pretty neat.

      Item 5 — This is more of an individual thing, but as a learning style, I prefer having things pointed out to me rather than to dig them up myself. Saves time. And my experience has been that I usually end up agreeing anyway. Does this mean accept all aphorisms without critical thought, of course not. (I despise the adverb witch-hunt, for example.) But I generally don’t like re-treading discovery someone else has already made and written down somewhere. This is why I ditched the biology major in college… too much repeating rote lab work where the outcome was already known/obvious.

      Other people prefer to explore and come to their own conclusions, which is of course fine. And probably ultimately better for total brain engagement. But, eh. I don’t think I write like a drone. I could be wrong.


    2. Hmmm

      By your two posts, it almost sounds like you enjoy the in-person touch of the classroom environment, versus that it *taught* you more as a writer. Or maybe it did because you paid more attention to the feedback, since it was up in your grill and couldn’t be easily dismissed or avoided.

      I’m not sure I’d take away anything more in that environment, than I do from reading written critiques.


      1. Re: Hmmm

        I think I personally definitely learned more in my two years of MFA than I did in several years of self-study before that, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t have learned it all elsewhere on my own as you have done. It’s just been my delivery system.

        Or maybe it did because you paid more attention to the feedback, since it was up in your grill and couldn’t be easily dismissed or avoided.

        I don’t know if it’s this so much. (If anything it’s easier to pay attention to online reviews because they’re written down.) I would say the nature of the feedback is different in a big group. Instead of each individual posting their reaction and leaving, a conversation develops that can leap into broader issues of craft and narrative problem-solving. Sometimes I’ve launched into one-on-one conversations in the same vein with people who have left me reviews on the internet, but usually only with those I’ve developed friendships with outside of the review setting.

        On that subject… I’ve met some stellar critiquers on the internet, no question, and I’m grateful for those relationships and value them highly. But the feedback was more consistently good in the academic setting, as was the quality of the work I was reviewing myself. As with anything, though, I’ve heard this is not necessarily the case everywhere.


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