Last semester I got to teach the first-ever class on writing YA fiction at my western Massachusetts university, and I learned a lot from it. It wasn’t technically a “creative writing” class but a “special topics in English” class, which made it sort of a weird hybrid lit/writing class more than the traditional fiction workshop class. It also meant that most of the students were not writers or dreaming of becoming writers. But by the end of the semester, some of them decided they just might be writers after all and promised to keep at it, promised that I couldn’t stop them from writing even if I wanted to. And I don’t. So
One of the things I like most about teaching is that I’m always learning new things, and this class was no exception. In fact, I learned more from this course, probably, than any other I’ve taught in the past few years and here is
THE CURMUDGEONLY VERSION OF WHAT I LEARNED:
I said above that most of the students were not “writers” in the sense that they would not identify themselves as such. Most of them were not readers, either, even the creative writing majors. I knew that since the class was specialized by “genre” (YA), not everyone would be well read in that genre, but I was a little disheartened to learn how many of them did not read anything at all. I had them read excerpts from a variety of YA texts, focusing on different aspects to examine within them, such as narration, dialogue, establishing time and place, etc. and most of them really got into what I had them read. At the end of the course, though, someone’s evaluation still indicated that I had only assigned these excerpts “just to make [them] read.” I’m just mean like that, I guess.
I don’t really understand why anyone who doesn’t love to read would want to become a writer, and I’ve noticed this before among some of my school’s undergraduate creative writing majors. I’ll just say here and now that I think that reading is at least 85% of a writer’s job. At least. And I’ll stop there because I’ve talked about that elsewhere on this blog.
I will say, however, that one benefit of reading things other people have written is that you can see how text is supposed to be formatted. It goes in chunks called “paragraphs” and dialogue is marked usually by quotation marks. These rules were not just set by some creativity-hating overlord to mess with budding young geniuses. These rules help your ideas to be understood by other people. And if you want to be understood by other readers, you’ll have to learn the basic rules. Editors won’t do it for you.
And now, the SHINY HAPPY AFFIRMING STUFF I LEARNED:
It was absolutely inspiring and invigorating to see people who never thought they could do a thing – let alone like doing a thing – find themselves freed by it. I can say without hesitation that everyone in that room had at least one very, very good idea for a scene or a story that could turn into something great. The self-identified creative writers were forced to write in a different way or on a different topic than what they usually wrote and though some of them balked at it, they came up with some stuff that they admitted they didn’t know they had in them. And the “science” people discovered a whole new dimension to themselves and a whole new outlet of expression. At least twice this semester I considered learning how to become an agent to take on some of these kids as my clients. One student even got a short story published in an upcoming anthology that I suggested she submit to. The punctuation, the paragraphs, the formatting – anyone can learn all of that (and they’ll have to if they ever want anyone outside of a classroom to read their work). As long as the passion and the ideas are there, there’s hope. And there’s nothing wrong with feeling like Kanye every now and then
Sometimes you don’t know what you have until you say it. And having these students share with me what they’re discovering they have to say – that was a gift.
What I’m reading
What I’m listening to