I have taught a lot of creative writing classes. I have taught them to undergraduates, to graduates, to high school students, to hobbyists, and to published writers. Some of my students have fallen completely off the map once class ended, and others now have books in print.
Almost all of these classes have one thing in common: many students don’t know what to expect. Of course any class, especially an advanced class, has veterans, and those students are extremely helpful to any professor in establishing a workshop atmosphere, but there are inevitably plenty of students who don’t quite know what they’re getting into. Many of them think they know, but they don’t. And that’s fine, I certainly don’t mean to criticize people who don’t know what they’re doing before they do it — that would be ridiculous. Instead, I’m starting a bit of a list of things students can expect in creative writing class, at least based on my experiences both as a student and a teacher. I might use a version of this on my syllabus in the future.
- You’re not as good as you think you are. This could sound really condescending, and I understand that, but any experienced writer will tell you that the first thing you have to do is get over yourself. It isn’t that you’re talentless, it’s just that your talents haven’t been developed yet. You are probably the best writer you know before you step into that room, but once you do step into that room you may very well be the worst. This does not mean you are a bad writer, it just means that you have arrived in a new environment where everyone is, in the scope of the world, good at writing. So, expect your ego to be taken down a notch in your class. Not because everyone else will be harshly critical of you, in fact probably the opposite will be the case. But because you are going to realize just how far you have to go, as do we all at some point.
- We’re not going over the basics. If you walk into a creative writing class, even an introductory one, and you don’t know what comma splices are, or how to properly indent your paragraphs, or to put a title on your story or essay or poem, then stop and don’t come back until you do. Discussions of fundamental grammar take away from discussions about craft, and any good class should be focused on the latter.
- You will have your feelings hurt. Not because anyone is trying to do this, but because we pour so much of ourselves into our writing and feel very strongly about it. Criticism is tough to take sometimes, and taking it can be a learned skill. You might naturally have skin like old leather, but if you don’t you’re going to build it up very quickly or quit.
- Writing doesn’t come naturally. Sure, anyone who takes the step of enrolling in a creative writing class probably has a natural sensitivity to language. But that doesn’t make you a good writer. The process of becoming a good writer and producing good writing is often counterintuitive. The muse plays far less of a role than discipline and grinding out words day after day. It is not a romantic process, and very few writers I know think it is fun. But we still choose to do it, and there is something about that.
5. You need to buy in. I don’t say this because I think I know everything about writing. I absolutely do not. But I know a lot, and I know that the most successful students I have had have all said that their success came largely because they bought into the course. The students who resisted, who thought they knew better — well, I haven’t heard from them, or any word that they’ve achieved their goals. Whomever your teacher is, at least for the duration of the course, buy in to what they say. Later experience may show that they were wrong, after all there are bad teachers in the world. But most of us have something to give, and part of the student’s job is to actively receive it. I certainly wish that I had been more open through my undergraduate and graduate days. I looked back on much of what my teachers said and realized that they were right, but only after the fact. Which brings me back to the beginning: I wasn’t as good as I thought I was.
Probably I’ll add more to this as I go along, but if you’re going to take a summer class and dip into the creative writing world, or you’re a student and have registered for a creative writing class this fall, it’s important to know what you’re in for.