Sunday, April 29, 2012

Learning to Write

I recently stumbled across some short stories I'd written in 2003, two years after I'd graduated from college with a degree in Creative Writing. The stories all had a Message, and happily beat the reader about the head for several pages with it. I skimmed through several old pieces to see if there was something I could reuse, then I finally closed the file when I found only embarrassment.

I've evolved significantly in the years since I wrote those short stories. I recognize what was wrong with them easily. While my style is still very much the same as it was when I wrote those stories, and my characterization was fine, my content is improved. When I have a theme, I'm able to pursue it with far more subtlety, and tie more aspects of the story to that theme.

I didn't learn this in college. If I had, I wouldn't have written those execrable short stories two years later. I don't remember reading anything explicit about how I shouldn't do that in the interim, nor have I discussed it in the writing group or attended any workshops. It's something I've managed to internalize in the last nine years.

So, what did that Creative Writing degree teach me, then? It didn't teach me the building blocks of writing; I learned those in elementary, middle and high school, in the school system I was lucky enough to attend. My voice was entrenched by the time I entered college. I'd already been finishing stories before I started college, and finding time to write.

Mostly, when I look back on college, I remember it as where I learned I'm sensitive to criticism. It was the first time my peers had read my words, and I felt like I'd been peeled apart and stabbed repeatedly after critiques. Mostly, I felt vindicated in my decision to keep my writing to myself.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I wouldn't advise that people go to school for writing degrees if they wish to be published authors. If you go to college, get a degree in something you'll get directly hired into a job that'll pay the bills.

On the other hand, I am just one person, and my perspective could be skewed. Still, college is awfully expensive to use as an experiment. If you can afford it, and you'll have a job in the publishing industry lined up at the end, by all means, major in Creative Writing. But for the high school students with a yearning to write, I say, just write. When you feel like you've gotten as good as you can, let another writer see it, and get an honest critique.

Your first critique will hurt. There's no getting around that. But it's growing pains. Once you've finished hurting, and you've had a chance to let it sink in, you'll see that your critique partner was right, and that you can fix the issues he or she brought up.

I think getting input from people you trust to steer you right is an important part of the process. The story will have to leave your hands, at some point, if it's going to be good enough to publish. Maybe you'll get to the submission process without ever getting an outside critique, but getting non-professional input, in my experience, is a good way of breaking bad habits and seeing glaring errors or issues before an editor bleeds red ink all over it.

Lots of writers have learned and improved a lot through various workshops, boot camps, and retreats, so I'm not going to knock those. I will say, though, that the best way to improve is by practice, and by breaking bad habits. Personally, I learned far more from reading a lot, writing a lot, and getting critiques from my writing group, than I did spending tens of thousands of dollars and four years of my life on college.

No comments:

Post a Comment