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September 2009

Back to School: Are Writing Classes a Waste of Time?

    
     Years after my formal education ended (we won't say how many years), September still feels like the beginning of the year to me. The shortening of days, the change in the air, the beginning of the leaves turning all say one thing to me: back to school.
 
     This month I had the chance to live a writer's dream, teaching at the Hawaii Writers' Conference, one of the nation's best programs for aspiring writers. I was on the program with an extraordinary group of authors, including Ann Hood, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Powers, William Bernhardt, William Martin, Karen Slaughter, and on and on - three days in paradise, talking about writing. And hanging out on the beach, and swimming in the perfect water. Heaven wouldn't be much better than that.
 
     It's hard to beat Hawaii, but I've been part of some other terrific writing conferences this year - the Pacific Northwest Writers Association's Annual Summer Conference, last month, and the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers' Colorado Gold Writers' Conference, which just ended. Later this year I'll be at the New England Crime Bake, a mystery-oriented conference that targets its programming specifically to aspiring writers.
 
     It's been a great return for me. I used to teach a writing class, and I miss the energy of the classroom; my current schedule wouldn't allow me to commit to a semester (much less a school year), so these workshops have been an ideal way to get my teaching fix.
 
     If you're an aspiring writer, it's a question that's bound to come up: should you be taking a class? Should you go back to school? Do you need an MFA to be a serious writer?
 
     I come at this from both sides of the question. I taught myself to write, over a period of years, and then used what I learned to teach others. My honest answer is this: you don't NEED a writing class to learn how to write a novel. You certainly don't need a graduate degree; in fact, you don't need any degree to be a serious writer. But a workshop or a class can help you, if you approach it in the right way, with specific goals in mind.
 
     I thought I'd use this month's writing tips newsletter to offer some of my thoughts on writing classes and writing workshops.
 
     I have writer friends - good ones, too - who disparage writing classes and writing workshops, saying that no class can make someone a good writer if they're not. I'm not sure I agree with that. It's true that a music class can't cure tone deafness, and a writing class can't turn someone without a poetic sensibility into a lyric poet; but a good writing class or workshop can improve almost anyone's writing, if you go into it with the right attitude.
 
     Writing is a solitary occupation, but don't we all write to be read? Finding readers can be one of the biggest hurdles an aspiring writer faces - or at least, finding a reader who's going to take the work seriously, and read your work the way you want it to be read. Your mother's opinion doesn't count. Your co-workers all have their own agendas, and might not tell you the truth for reasons of their own. A good writers' workshop or a writing class is a unique, safe place that offers writers a chance to be read. That alone makes them worthwhile, as far as I'm concerned.
 
     Beyond that, I think that writers can learn, and improve their work, from workshops and classes - if they follow a few basic "must do's":
 

  • First, be prepared to accept criticism. That sounds so obvious, but it needs to be said. I've been in writers' workshops with people who came in not to learn from feedback, but to impress the other members with their work. If you're not prepared to listen to criticism, or consider other people's ideas about how your work could be better, my friends are right: the class is a waste of your time. The learning process requires that you be willing to change not only the words on the page, but your whole approach toward your writing. If you know it all already, what's the point of the class?
     
    I've written before about the challenge of processing feedback, but learning how to accept and use feedback is one of the major benefits of a writing class. It's a fundamental truth all successful companies understand, from Apple to Proctor & Gamble to Paramount: the second version is almost always better. The third version will probably be better still. Hollywood does test screenings; corporations spend millions on product testing and focus groups. It's not "selling out" to try to please your readers. What are you writing for, if not to be read? Presumably you want to sell your work, and be read by a wider audience; therefore, your classmates' opinions are important.
     
    Will the writing class teach you how to fix the problems your classmates identify? Probably not. Your classmates may have suggestions, but you can't expect them to solve your plot issues or give you explicit instructions for character development. Taking a writing class doesn't eliminate the need to figure these issues out for yourself.
     
  • Don't respond to feedback while you're getting it. It's too easy for a writing workshop to degenerate into an extended defense of a writer's choices; that's not a good use of anyone's time. Listen to what your classmates and instructor have to say about your work, write it down, and think about it later. Some of it will make sense and be useful, and some of it won't; in the heat of the moment, you can't tell. (See my earlier newsletter on the Fine Art of Feedback for more on this.)
     
  • See your instructor as more of a coach than a teacher. In the strictest sense, it's true that writing can't be taught. It's not like a music lesson, where the instructor shows you the notes and the technique, and then you play it just the way she does. A good writing instructor will identify your strengths and weaknesses, and can offer you suggestions and advice for improvement, but you shouldn't expect your instructor to be able to tell you specifically how to write.
     
  • Do the writing. It's so hard to find the time to write if you're working a day job. Lots of people sign up for a writing class as a way to force themselves to write, because they can't show up to class without having done the work. But invariably, I've been in those classes (I've taught those classes) where students come in and say, "I just couldn't do it this week." Do it. Use the class as an excuse to make the time; you've made that investment, you need to follow through. Do every assignment, and then do more.
     
  • Understand that you'll learn as much from reading as from writing. As important as it is to do the writing, it's equally important to read your classmates' work. You'll learn new approaches, new ways of looking at the world and your writing. Your fellow students will give you ideas for new topics, and will inspire you to write more and write better. They'll also serve as bad examples, which can be just as valuable.
     
  • See your classmates as colleagues, not competitors. The cutthroat writing class has become a cliché of literature and movies, but it's not productive. Think about how you receive feedback; do you respond well to criticism from people you see as hostile? Most people don't. A good instructor will create an environment that allows everyone to participate, where success is not a zero-sum game; one writer's improvement should boost everyone else's game, too. If your workshop or writers' group gets too competitive, find another one - unless that's the environment you prefer (some people do).
     
  • Set a concrete goal before you start the class or workshop. You'll get more out of any class or workshop if you go into it with a measurable objective: "I want to complete the outline of a novel," "I want to have a short story ready for submission," "I want to solve my novel's third-act plot issues." A squishy goal, like "I just want to be a better writer," isn't good enough - it gives you too much wiggle room to slack off, skip classes, not do the work. If you can, share your goal with your instructors or workshop facilitators early on, so they know how to shape their feedback.
     
         Whether you go back to school or not, take the autumn as a chance to go back to your desk, and back to work. Set yourself some goals, and try something new. And pick up a few sharpened pencils, too. They still use pencils in classrooms, don't they? OK, it's been a while . . .
     
         The Writing Tips newsletter will go on indefinite hiatus after this issue, while I finish writing Nick Heller's next adventure. I really appreciate the feedback I've received about this newsletter, and hope it's been helpful.