Kate Flora: It’s January, the time of resolutions, resolves, soul-searching, and some impatience to start forming new habits, like writing that novel or story that’s been lingering in the imagination, and to break those bad habits that keep us from the writing desk. Right? So for years, before full-time writing swallowed me up, I used to teach a class called “I’ve Always Wanted to Write, But . . .” The idea for the class came from my own experience with college writing classes, plus the stories of many people who told me about their own horrible and discouraging experiences writing in graded classes with unkind, unsupportive, or downright cruel instructors. (I encountered another one of these in my MFA program. Sadly, they are everywhere.)
My goal, in teaching the class, was to stick bandages on aspiring writers’ wounds and encourage them again to follow their writing dreams and to begin to develop a writing practice. I’ve had several students who have taken so many writing classes filling their heads with do’s and don’ts that they can’t sit down and write at all. They’ve never been encouraged to first spend some time discovering themselves as writers—what works, what doesn’t, what their own ideas are, what their writing practice might be.
Part of the class is simply getting writers to focus on their process. If there is a weekly writing assignment, how do they approach it? Are they cookers, who carry the work around in their heads, working it until they’re ready to write it down? Are they revisers who like to write a draft and then tinker with it over the course of several days? Have they carried the habit from their school years of putting things off until the last minute?
Another thing we focus on is encouraging writers to believe that they have the right to write, that if they want to be writers, they have to take that passion for writing seriously and give it, wherever possible, dedicated time. For an unpublished writer, learning to honor the desire to write can be hard. Hard to defend that time against family, against daily chores, against friends who want them to come out and play. One important question here is where they write. Do they have a designated space for writing, preferably one that has a door that can be closed? One of my handouts during the class is a sign which reads: Not Now, I’m Writing. I tell them that only they will know whether the sign goes on the outside of the door to keep people away or on the inside of the door to keep them at their desks.
Another thing I work on with my students is tuning up their sense of observation. I ask them to carry a small notebook or index cards and write down things they see to share with the class. If a student comes into class and says the notebook is empty because nothing happened, I ask if they use earbuds or headphones as they travel through the world. This is important, because as writers, we should be constantly collecting material. Sometimes that material may be shadows or the weather, or a fragment of conversation, or someone wearing something unusual that can be used in a story.
Those found bits can be stored in a file and may only become useful a long time from now, but they have been seen, and that seeing encourages more seeing. Another thing I tell my students in that while their mothers may have told them to mind their own business, being a writer is a license to be nosy. We have to observe our world and wonder about it. “What’s that about?” is a fundamental writerly question.
Years ago, I was teaching at a writer’s seminar down on Cape Cod, and during a nightly stroll, in an otherwise dark area, I passed a lighted phone booth. The door was open and the person on the phone was saying, “You don’t have to cry about it.”
I’m still waiting for the right moment to use it in a story, but it is stored away, along with “the church where nobody prays anymore.”
The world is out there, full of stories, waiting for us to notice them and use them. And if we want to be writers, if we want to realize that dream, we have to believe in our right to write, make space for our writing, and tune up our awareness.
Excellent post! Thank you!
Thank you, John
Two things hit me while reading this. The idea of cooking so9mething, then dumping it on paper. That’s why the heated therapy pool is so conducive to my creative flow these days. I can’t tell you how many ideas appear, then jell while I’m exercising in 90+ degree water. The other is how certain ideas/vignettes like that phone booth get stuck in my head and wait patiently for the story to begin.
I am very jealous of your warm swimming pool. My ideas seem to be floating just out of reach.
Wonderful post, Kate. I still carry a paper pad in my handbag, but these days, rarely use it though. The notes app on the phone is a godsend!
I know. I consider the notes app my new memory. But then sometimes it is so cryptic I don’t know what I meant.
Love reading this – as a reminder to just move forward, that the story is “yours” and no one else’s…
You bet…because there’s book two, and then book three…and so it goes.
I suspect my creative writing was derailed for some years by taking the Famous Writers School course while still in college (one that offered no creative writing courses). The course’s focus was on short stories, critiqued by snail mail. The instructors (none of them famous enough for me to have heard of them) weren’t mean, but I wouldn’t say any were all that helpful or encouraging either.Kinda wish I still had the set of how to books that came with the course, and the critiques. They’d probably make a good blog.
I wish I’d taken notes during my unfinished stint in an MFA program. That would be many blog posts.
Such wonderful observations and suggestions, Kate. I can’t count the number of times I’ve taken notes in a waiting room or airport, notes that resulted in story characters or descriptions.
Character shopping. One of my students described going out walking just when everyone is coming home and turning on their lights, and she called it life shopping. Such a great term.
Terrific idea for a class. I think the world is full of people who say they want to write but can’t. They can, but they just have to be shown how. Thanks too for making me think about my own process.
I loved teaching that class. It was always different and always wonderful.
Sounds like a great class! Wish I could attend