My Education As a Writer
Issue #44, June 1999
The first time I realized my writing had the ability to affect others was in high school. I was the typical teenager with a slight obsession with darkness and an enjoyment of smearing ink across the page in the form of free verse. 'Smear' is definitely the term for that stage of my writing. One day, a very close friend of mine let me look through her diary. In it I found her brief contemplation and then rejection of suicide. I was relieved to see that it hadn't been much more than a passing thought. But she'd written that she wished death were as easy as I made it sound in my poetry. I was shocked. I knew I romanticized death, but I never realized my writing could affect others, much less be a part of their thinking about killing themselves. Up to then, writing had always been just that, writing, with no morality or consequences involved. I may be over-emphasizing my role in her thoughts, but it made me forcefully aware that nothing is without its consequences, especially writing.
This may have been a morbid place to start, but it was at this time that I became serious about writing, or rather, began to take writing seriously. I started to work at writing about more than just an overly romanticized version of death by commencing to try on as many subjects as I could. I was on my way to becoming that which even now I only dare call myself with hesitant breath, a real writer.
Later in high school I discovered, in my first ever Creative Writing class, that there was another forum for creative literary expression besides just my friends' and my private musings. It was a fabulous experience. But that one initial class was the only one offered by my high school. I was so impatient -- or determined, I'm not sure which -- that while still a senior in high school I decided to take an evening writing class through the local Junior College. The J.C. class turned out to be a minor set-back in my education, and an introduction to another factor in the writing community -- clashing ego's -- which since that time I've noticed are as common among writers as fleas among rats.
The professor of my class liked my poetry. She thought it had a nice natural rhythm, or something, but she was not very enthusiastic about my prose. It was over one of these small pieces of prose that the class and professor disputed.
As a class, we were reviewing a short fable that I had written, and about which the teacher and the class had differing opinions. It had already been established earlier in the term that my writing style was vastly different from my professor's, and that she tended to favor, whether she realized it or not, those that wrote the way she did. The discussion over my work rapidly degenerated into a war between the class, defending my tale, and the professor, criticizing it. My work hung rather thinly in no-mans-land. Feeling attacked because the class as a whole was disagreeing with her, the professor quickly became defensive. Her criticism became more pointed, until eventually she resorted to aiming her attack at me as a writer. She effectively strung me up like an over-stretched piece of cloth in the place of my work, and proceeded to fire. It ended in a draw, neither the professor nor the class giving up their view points. I, on the other hand, was shredded.
While my friends assured me the assault wasn't meant personally, I found afterward that I had absolutely no inclination to share my prose again. Ahh, how the fledgling ego suffers the slings and arrows of others' opinions.
I kept writing, though not as much, and more in secret. Shortly after, I went away to a four year college where I submitted work to get into a prose fiction workshop. What, might you ask, had caused me to attempt going into a workshop when I just stated how I didn't want to share my prose? Well, I'm a stubborn person. I still wanted to be a writing major, specifically concentrating on prose fiction with a minor in poetry. Plain and simple, I still wanted to write. I knew there was no way I could improve without sharing my work with others and receiving outside help. Otherwise, what would be the point? Without outside input, I might grow as a writer, but slowly and narcissistically, and that seemed too much like a dog chasing its own tail to me. So I gave myself a thorough verbal berating for hiding; bit the inside of my cheek and handed in a sample of my writing to get into the class. Once I was accepted, I couldn't say no, and the acceptance itself was a kind of balm for my wounds.
I went to work under the tutelage of Elizabeth (Betsy) Cox, an author. The whole class was remarkably supportive and helpful. It felt wonderful to write and show it to people again. I remembered why I had taken that J.C. class in the first place, why Creative Writing is worth while and enjoyable. I took a poetry workshop at the same time, and together it made for a healthy and wonderful return to sharing my work.
Workshops, I've found, are an effective way of learning from not only your own, but others, mistakes. By editing and watching their developments you can learn what does and does not work in a general sense, and hopefully avoid making some of their mistakes. My largest problem in prose was the flatness of my characters. Most of the people I invented tended to be two-dimensional when they needed to be three. I tried studying how others created three-dimensional characters. I could see it had to do with details, but I just couldn't seem to duplicate the feat in my own writing. I had a plot that moved well, but paper doll characters.
Our final assignment was to write a short story. There was a story that I had wanted to write for a while that was set in medieval times. When I met with Betsy to talk about it, she first suggested writing the story in modern times to get it down before tackling the intricacies of writing in another historical period. Then we began to talk about my story, which was mainly me trying to tell it in vague terms. I've never been remotely good at verbally telling tales. Too quiet as a child I guess, not enough storytelling practice. My ability lay in writing it, as if there was some magic conduit in my arm to translate from my brain to my hand what I was tying to describe. But if there is one between my brain and my tongue, it is broken down, and has been for so long that it has a massive blackberry bush growing out of it. I fumbled with words until Betsy began asking me questions, first general and then more and more specific. She caused me to really look at the details, to get to know my characters. It is important to know the entirety of a character, including aspects that have nothing to do with the story itself, because it is the character as a whole that influences how they respond to situations. It is the tiny details and nuances that make characters real and thus the story engaging. I learned to ask the questions that go beyond the main story in order to know the character I was trying to portray, to really go inside the story.
After the meeting, I immediately went and sketched the story while it was still churning in my mind. It was amazing when writing off that. I found that I would actually enter the story, losing awareness of what was around me. Instead of standing outside like an observer, I became a participant. It was similar to being in a dream, but one that I was creating as I went along. A whole other world and a whole new set of experiences were real inside my mind. And I knew that when it was real for me, if I could manage to convey it right, that it would be real for my reader.
The next week we went over the stories in class. At the end of the discussion on mine Betsy looked directly at me and said "You've finally found the place to write from, the place where stories come from." I just grinned at her. The woman-author who was sitting in on the class added, "And you'll never lose that place now that you've found it." She smiled, saying, "Good for you." I was ecstatic. I was dancing, literally, as I left the class that day. My characters finally had three dimensions. They finally had butts, as I always put it. Betsy and the woman were right - I never have lost that place. It has been there ever since when I needed it, though some days it is more difficult to enter than others. I was now ready to really get to work on the business of learning to write.
And I had my confidence back.
Tony Eprile was my next prose professor. While he kept me laboring on prose, I was taking poetry workshops with Mary Oliver. In poetry, I felt as if I was finally finding my voice. By using some of Mary's exercises I was able to break from the standard poem I'd been writing for years. I learned to be concise and concrete in detail, so my reader could enter the poem and not automatically be lost. And everything I learned in poetry carried over into my work in prose, and visa versa. In the poetry classes I became reacquainted with how writing can affect people by having the illuminating chance to hear what my peers, as well as my professor, thought my poems meant. On one such occasion I was shocked at what they read from an image I hadn't looked at closely. Other times it was good to hear, from the questions asked, what I'd thought I'd expressed and hadn't.
One of the many things I learned in poetry was the importance of keeping a schedule with myself to write and how hard that is. You're only responsible to yourself, and a hundred excuses intervene. But it is important to stick with it and write even when there is no direct inspiration, because sooner of later, something amazing is going to come out and you need to be there when it does. Even though that would be my advice to fledgling writers, I'm not one to talk. I am positively miserable at keeping schedules. When I do, I'm amazed at what comes out, and the quantity of it, but too often -- far more often than I care to admit -- I simply don't make a schedule. And I'm constantly berating myself for it ... sigh.
Meanwhile in prose class, I was trying more complicated plots. I also began working on a longer story and discovered how different it is to write a long piece. There is an entirely different way of approaching it. The long one I am speaking of was meant to be my thesis. But I went to Ireland for the first term of my senior year and, well, I liked it so much I decided to stay. To do that I had to do a critical thesis instead of a creative one. The decision was painful, but well worth it. I realize being here in Ireland, and being distant from school, that the story I was working on wasn't one that would have been a true representation of me, and it wasn't enjoyable to write. If you write for yourself, as I do (and as I think many writers do), it should be enjoyable, maybe not always easy, but even the hard work can be pleasurable.
Also, here in Ireland I am able to take classes on a wider range than I was able to at my home school. In taking History classes as well as various English ones, I have had the time and been exposed to enough different types of writing to realize that the genre I had been writing within wasn't what I would have chosen for my thesis. I had been writing for what my professor felt confident teaching, but not what I really enjoy writing. I read and I like to write fantastical stories. The one I was writing then was too much a work of realism. Now it is simply a matter of taking what I've learned already and applying it to the areas I do want to write in. I think it has been healthy for me to be forced out of my normal channel of writing, and write in a different form. It was definitely much more challenging and it gives me a freedom to cross genres if I want to in the future. Now, with the insight I have of how I write and how to create, I feel ready to launch myself into the more fantastical realm.
My time in Ireland has been like a dream. It is a perfect place for someone who loves fairy tales and medieval tales like I do. The land is strewn with as many old tales as there are old stone buildings on its green and rocky slopes. This land has been filled and covered over by stories of magic for hundreds of years, and that suits me perfect.
I have had some curious experiences here concerning writing and being a writer. I've had a nice evening of listening to an Irish author talk about writing, and how he writes and his process; what he thinks it is all about. There was one exquisite evening talking to an Irish playwright and poet, who is trying to "make it" in New York, and an English composer/pianist. Sharing cultural differences with them and talking of our different ways of composing, whether in words or musical notes, and the joy we take in that composition, has been one of my favorite experiences. They were both so positive and passionate about their art. Really taking pure joy out of the beauty of being able and willing to create something.
I also had a disturbing run-in with a questionable older man who decided to lecture me in a pub about what it means to write. While I didn't agree with all he had to say, I do agree with him that to write, you have to do just that, write, and with a daily persistence. Simple concept, yet so hard. And I would have listened to more of what the man was saying, if at the same time he hadn't been trying to put his hands all over my friend. Experiences like this one sometimes make me wonder why I've gone through all the classes and clashing egos telling me how to write. But learning to write is learning not only how to say something, but also how to make myself heard -- you can't learn that without also learning how to listen.
The power of writing is that its clear and effective expression, as straightforward in a way as, I suppose, the old lech's probing paws. It compacts, assimilates and amalgamates the things that you need to communicate. And personal expression, the act alone whether the material is accepted by others or not, can be one of the most rewarding experiences in the world.
Leslie-Anne Schildt, a lover of travel, the outdoors, reading and, of course, writing, will graduate this June with a B.A. in literature and writing from Bennington College. She can be reached at Schildt@worldnet.att.net.