Creative Writing Courses or The Attempt to Produce Cookie-Cutter Writers

Okay, so, today was not a particularly good day. I had serious downs. And in terms of my writing, well, blogging has been it, pretty much. While I have escaped my own mire, I’m not trusting myself to get out of my own head and into my characters’ heads quite yet. But that won’t stop me from plotting and planning later tonight.

Anyway, the title of this post has to have you wondering by now what the bloody blue blazes I mean. The topic stems from a bit of personal growth I discovered during a relatively calm discussion with one of my friends today about her creative writing courses. She and I went to different schools, so there will of course be discrepancies in how programs are run, but to my slight dismay, I found that isn’t really the case.

See, when I attended my university, the focus was purely on this ambiguous genre of fiction called “Literary,” which while I know by the examples given of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Chaucer, Hawthorne, Austin, Wolff, and many more covered in courses more in detail. I didn’t understand what made them “Literary” when things like “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “Peter Pan” were also “Literary” (to say nothing of Asimov and Bradbury). The former are what everyone always strove to be in these programs, or at least what would receive the highest marks, but the latter would get passing but not much better marks. So what was this “literary”* they were demanding so much?

I guess I could put it as “true to life” writing. Stories that are plausible for the world we live in, be it current times, an age long past, or an age yet to come. The stories of people who go on living day-to-day lives and face the challenges of what that entails. But that alone would be boring. No, literary also has something special attached – a conflict that shows an issue, be it family issues, racial, gender, sexual, or just the issue of appearances. There are subtexts.

But the question remains as to why our two schools chose to focus solely (and some might even say restrictively) on this “literary” fiction that so many find terribly dull. I came to realize at least part of the answer as I spoke to my friend about it.

“Literary” fiction as covered in school is boring. It is our lives put on paper trough the eyes and ears and touches of characters. It is our thoughts through their mouths, but given the decency of creating a different persona for the characters so that we can avoid a certain responsibility for saying such things. (Hint: We’re still given credit for them though, so don’t run from that. It’s impossible.) It’s boring. But it’s useful.

This form of fiction has only the most basic of basics in it to make it work. It has a focus on the characters, plot, conflict, setting, climax, action, pacing and so forth. There are no gimmicks like magic or world-creation rules or fantastic science that modern science has yet to discover. There is only a character or two, their lives, their problems, their dialogue – if any – and a classroom filled with editing piranhas ready to rip your story to shreds just as they would have you do to theirs. “Literary” fiction as had by college courses is essentially the fiction of nuts and bolts, the basis for everything else. To learn this and learn it well is to learn how to create a solid foundation for any type of writing you could possibly create down the line.

Now, that being said, their insistence on ONLY writing this way leads many to believe wrongly that anything outside of this genre is lesser writing. I have my own experience in this. My counselor in the English department assumed that because I didn’t like to read the classics that I didn’t like to read at all and thus wrote me off. I did try to clarify that I liked reading fantasy and light sci-fi and such, but she wouldn’t hear of it. According to her, I didn’t “read.” Students who don’t like writing “literary” fiction are writing “junk” and this opinion comes not only from the teachers but the other students who DO tend to write this elitist fiction and get outstanding marks.

Just like there are students out there who learn in different ways (the different modalities: Visual, listening, speaking, doing, etc.) there are writers whose brains simply struggle to think in terms of “literary.” It’s simply much easier for some people to write Science Fiction or Fantasy or Romance (smut edited out for classroom distribution) or whatever genre they find themselves gravitating toward. So why are these people looked down upon? These stories have the basic nuts and bolts that “Literary” fiction has, it’s just they have something different added to it.

What I have found I’d love to see more of is the classes where the students are asked to try out the different genres, even if they fail, just try it out. Mystery, Romance, Horror, Mythology/Folk Lore/Fairy Tale, etc. There are so many. Spend a day each going over the major genres and what standards they follow like Mystery focuses on very detailed plot and setting while Romance focuses more on the characters and their interactions. Go into some of the larger, more popular subgenres as the larger ones are discussed, like Science Fiction is very focused on the technology and human interaction with it while Steam Punk (a subgenre) is a specific kind of technology in a more historical period, usually Victorian.

The reason many of my fellow writers chose to enter into creative writing classes in the first place was because they wanted something out of it, usually some guidance on how to get better, but most of what I’ve seen is a lot of condescension, a silent battle between genre-fiction and that “elite” “literary” faction that people seem to value so highly, and a whole lot of miscommunication. Just like “Literary” does not necessarily mean “better,” “genre” does not strictly mean “junk” or “trash.” The whole point was to create a story that the reader would enjoy: TO ENTERTAIN. Each person is different, so let them write what comes most naturally to them and stop looking down your nose at what comes out if it’s not “literary.”

Creative writing courses were not created to produce cookie-cutter writers. The End. Full Stop.

**I would like to say this right now, though: I do not take sides in this conflict. I read genre fiction, the Classics that constitute Literary fiction (now that I’m not having it forced down my throat in class), and I read “literary” fiction. I enjoy some authors from each and dislike others. I enjoy them equally for the ability to immerse me into another person’s life and world for a few hours at a time and make me care about the characters. What do I write? I’m still trying to figure that out. Right now, I do a bit of everything. But for the longest time I had a strict preference for fantasy. Then I tried something new because it was MY idea. If it had come from anyone else, I wouldn’t have done it. It has to be my idea for me to enjoy it. I guess that means I’m wired a bit oddly. I write the stories that my characters either tell me or need, be that in a fantastic make-believe world or a realistic one. To each their own.

So now I open the floor to you: Do you have any ideas that I haven’t covered here as to why this “literary” genre is the sole focus of the creative writing programs that my friend and I have explored? (“Because it’s just so much better, meh~” without justification won’t cut it.)


*I use quotes around it bring into focus the differences between the two. Literary with the capital L being that large collection of works force-fed to us as we grew up like so many moldy old prunes (It’s GOOD for you!), and literary with a lowercase l being this genre that the college professors seem to prefer.
** WordPress decided to cut my entry here short and use an autosaved version instead of what I’d finished writing. My apologies for any misunderstandings and inconveniences this may have caused.

The Day Off or Why My Brain Decided to Betray Me

So, originally I had planned to use today as yet another day of plotting and planning and maybe get a little bit of writing in. My body (or more specifically, my brain) decided to betray me instead. See, I’m female. I’m PMSing pretty bad today. And I know that there are a lot of people who say PMS ISN’T REAL. Well, then I challenge them to properly define a true crankiness, depression and a major thinning of the proverbial skin during this one week before my period. I have been to the doctor before and was never actually diagnosed with the proper term: PMDD. Maybe this was because I was too young (roughly 18).

For the record, this is how it turns out for me: I wake up, feel fine enough and go about my day until suddenly and for no apparent reason I start feeling horrible. It’s like every shadow and ghost and memory I’ve got locked inside my brain come out as if the gates of a Lovecraftian Hell dimension have burst open. I find myself facing a painful depression where my mind haunts me with all of my past, every ghost of my memories comes out to tell me how I’m useless and worthless. And no matter how hard I fight back, I still end up emotionally drained, crying, and feeling sorry for myself until I look up at the calendar, count the number of days since that little stamp mark from the last time I felt relief from this very same feeling, and realize what this really is that I’m fighting. See, knowing that I’ve fought against this particular demon and survived multiple times brings with it the relief that I can do it again. And somehow it brings, while not a full cure, at least a hope that I was lacking before so that I can go back to facing my day. For the next few days I just keep reminding myself that it will end until finally the day when Aunt Flo comes to visit and I finally do get relief… unless I end up with cramps just then, but that’s a different matter entirely. I’d honestly rather just suffer cramps than this emotional self-flagellation. (Lovely image there, right?)

I took myself off medication for very personal reasons related to my living situation, which I ask you to respect. My living situation in the intervening years has not changed except that I no longer have health insurance. I cannot afford it. And even with it, I would refuse going back onto pills until after my home life has changed for the better. (Mainly, I refuse to have my need for medication shoved into my face daily and with condescension, patronization and pretension.)

So anyway, I’ve decided that today I’m taking a day off from writing simply because I’ll only end up a) ranting, b) putting too much of myself into my main character, or c) both. Today is about surviving and finding something to smile about and appreciate.

Wasted Time, or I tried being productive and failed

Okay, so I know I promised in the last post that I’d try to figure out what sort of writing I’d post on here. I’m working on it, I promise. I’ve got the planning out of a story I think I could share online, but that I don’t think should go here, per se. I think I’ll make a separate blog somewhere else for that one. For here, though, I’m still drawing a major blank. I’m sorry.

So what have I been doing these past couple weeks? I’ve been writing. And job hunting like half of the US it seems. Things don’t look like they’re going to be improving anytime soon in that regard either. Anyway, writing. Yes. What have I been writing? Well, I wrote this wonderful little short scene featuring a romance inspired by two people in my real world life. There were smiles and heart emoticons when I shared that with those involved. And I finally finished one of the shorter stories I’ve been working on for a few months. (Hey, this one didn’t want to finish easily like it should, okay? I can’t do anything about running out of ideas on how to end it well. Don’t judge me. *hides*)

That one is going to my friend for her editing class project. Well, it will once she gives me the paperwork I need first. Silly editing classes with their not dispensing the important pieces of the assignment until the last moment ways. Then again, it’s a creative writing class. When aren’t things left to the last minute? Seems to also be the way of the world at the moment. Oh well. I shouldn’t really complain since I’m the same way.

So, this other story, the one I don’t think I’ll post here? Yeah, I’m still planning it out. And I hate doing that. See that word? HATE! I’m the type who loves to jump in both feet first into the projects I start, make a big splash and hope for the best. So far, I enjoy my work a lot more that way. Outlining who my characters are, the exact details of the setting, the backstories… it’s all so boring and it feels like I’m not doing any real work, which is the writing itself. But I know for a piece like this that I have to. *Sigh* Cannot win.

Well… back to the outlining. Maybe I can jump in with the first thousand words by the end of tonight. If I can get the first few chapters down, I might be able to convince myself that it’s worthy of blog status. Wish me luck! Take care~

Updates and Questions Unanswered

Focusing on my life is not something that comes easily or without consequences for me. What I mean is, I can’t look back on how things turned out the way they did without wondering “what would have happened if” and how I could have changed things. I’m just now starting to realize how some of my inherent character flaws are affecting my current life and wondering if I have the courage to break past them and stay on the other side of those walls for extended periods of time. I miss going out with friends and having fun. Few of them are still in the same area as me, having gone off to better their own lives or get an education, not that I can really blame them with how dead our town is. Unless you’ve got money, there’s really not much to do.

So I put this out there, if not talk about myself and the world around me, about what changes in my life and what I observe and think and dream, then what do I write about in a blog? I’m still figuring this whole thing out. I’m loath to put any of my creative writing up, if only for the fact that I don’t know if I’ll need it later down the road and because it was here first, nobody will touch it. Why pay for something I can already access for free, right? Well, what if I were to start a story intended only for the internet? Only for this blog? Would I be able to keep it up? I don’t know. I’ve never tried, really.

On that note, I’m glad to have finally figured out what my New Year’s resolution is. I’m so close to a novel length piece after working on it for… dear god, it’s been 2 1/2 years now! So my goal for this year is to finish that monster. Even if I only finish this first part of the story, the first book, I’ll be happy. It’ll mean I have finally finished something of such a great length. And I intend upon completion to treat myself to something nice. I have no idea what, but I’ll figure that part out later. At that point, I can clearly and easily say to myself to kick my own rear into gear “Get off your butt and just do it. You’ve done it before and you can do it again! Now MOVE!” It’s that sort of thinking that got me to a two-mile walk in about 20 minutes when I was doing those. Long story. Different post. Don’t ask. But suffice to say, I’ve been rather lazy and haven’t seen my old walking route in quite a while.

So yeah, finish that beast. I’ve got the second part started, thanks to a NaNoWriMo from a while ago, but only a fraction of the story down. It’s a good thing I already know where the first part ends, isn’t it? Anyway, what sort of story should I write for you here, since I’m not likely to get it published elsewhere? I suppose I’ll figure something out. Until then, you’ll just have to settle with my thoughts. Here’s to planning out the next big work! My side-project of sorts.