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Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 19: Do creative writing classes help?

Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 19: Do creative writing classes help?


Key points: creative writing classes, panels at conventions, books on creative writing -- they can all be useful, but you have to want to learn. Learn about the business, learn to be accountable for your own productivity. Ask yourself -- without the magic, without the robots, without the fantastic elements, is there still a story here? The range of human ability that we are born with is miniscule compared to the range of human accomplishments, what you can do. Listen to suggestions, and don't be afraid to rework your writing from the ground up. You can learn, but you gotta really try.

[Brandon] Dan and I met while we were both taking a creative writing class at BYU. I went on to get a masters in creative writing. Dan and I, I know, both spent a lot of time in creative writing classes. Howard, you've sat in on a lot of lectures and listened to us ramble on the podcast. I want to talk about this. Is it useful? A lot of people e-mail me and say, "I'm thinking of going and taking creative writing classes, getting an MFA." Dan, were your classes useful?
[Dan] My classes were very useful. Though I think they were more useful on the business side and the network side than they were on the actual writing skills side.
[Brandon] Okay. Explain.
[Dan] The class we met in was taught by Dave Farland. I learned more about the business of writing in that class than I had ever learned before. That's where I learned that writing is not only something fun to do, but it's a viable career. That was the first time that anyone stood up and said, "You can make a living doing this, and I'm going to tell you how." That made the entire class worthwhile.
[Brandon] I will agree 100%. I never took another class that did that. I think that most universities don't have classes that do that. Seems like creative writing education doesn't focus a lot on that. Though I want to expand this to greater than just classes. I want to talk about listening in on panels at cons. I want to talk about reading books on creative writing. Generally, is it useful? How is it useful? How can you make use of it?
[Howard] It is phenomenally useful. It's incredibly useful, and thank you for opening it up because I never got to take a creative writing class. I would have loved to, I kept wanting to, and just never did. I was just too focused on my major.
[Brandon] You became a code monkey, right?
[Howard] Actually, I majored in music.
[Brandon] Oh, yeah, you did. Right.
[Howard] I majored in music. And then did tech support, and then product management. 10 years in the software industry. And started writing again because web cartooning seemed like a fun way to tell a story. But I didn't really get good at the storytelling until I started doing it for a while and then started looking... going to conventions and looking at the way people were crafting stories and realized, "Wow. This stuff actually applies to me." Recently, with the current storyline -- and I've mentioned this before in podcasts -- The Longshoreman of the Apocalypse storyline, I took Act I and Act II, completed, printed them out and sat down with Bob Defendi and Dan Willis and told them, "Okay, you read those. Now you read my notes for Act III. Now let's sculpt Act III together." And we applied... they both have lots of creative writing expertise, and I've been spending time with you guys and... osmosis, some of that has rubbed off. And I had somebody post in LiveJournal today... and they said, "Wow, these characters, they really... this is really awful. This is..." Blame my friend Bob, because he told me, "Your characters never hit rock bottom." And I thought about it and I realized, "Yeah, they don't." I keep backing away from that. This time, the bottom has rocks in it.

[Brandon] Do you need a creative writing degree to become a writer?
[Howard] No.
[Dan] Not at all.
[Brandon] I asked that kind of facetiously because it's somewhat of a famous question... a famous conundrum in creative writing programs, being that creative writing programs... what they don't give you something to write about.
[Howard] You need a creative writing degree if you want a career teaching creative writing.
[Brandon] If you want to be a writer... a lot of times people will say, don't major in English if you want to be a writer. Major in something that will give you a lot of experience and interesting things to write about. I went through an English degree. It was useful for me partially because my creative writing classes, for which I was doing writing anyway just on my spare time, I could turn that in and get grades on it. It made things a lot easier. But... it made things a lot easier and sometimes you don't want the easy way. I would say creative writing classes can be very useful, but you have to know what they are going to give you. Most creative writing classes will not talk about the business end of things. Books will. There are lots of good books out there. Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith. Orson Scott Card's book is a very good one, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Stephen King's On Writing is a very good book about the actual nuts and bolts of writing. But there are a lot of other books out there that will talk about the metaphysics of writing and how it feels to be a writer and expressing your inner whatever and this sort of stuff. That can be useful, most creative writing classes seem to focus a lot on that. Discovering your inner artist. Did you ever run into that, Dan?
[Dan] I didn't take a ton of creative writing.
[Brandon] How many did you take?
[Dan] Most of mine was essay writing actually and research writing and things like that. I honestly... my experience after coming out of college writing classes, in general, was that most of what they give you is a responsibility to write. You're accountable, you have to turn something in and so you have to force yourself to do it. A lot of people... like you were just saying...
[Howard] I got that at Novell.
[Dan] You were writing anyway, so a creative writing class was something to get credit for what you are already doing.

[Brandon] Though I will say, creative writing classes, one of the nice things they gave me, was community. Meaning a community of writers where I met other writers who were struggling with the same things.
[Howard] Interacting with other writers has made all the difference in the world for me. As I illustrated in my previous tirade...
[Dan] But as we talked about in a previous podcast, you can get a lot of that through a good writing group or local writing...
[Howard] conventions...
[Brandon] Although where can you find a good writing group? A lot of mine came from creative writing classes.
[Dan] That's true. That's where you and I met, so it's hard to knock that.
[Brandon] There are good reasons to take creative writing classes. I think they will help you work on your craft, some of the basics of craft. A lot of the things we talk about here on the podcasts, but they will often make you workshop your pieces and people will point the flaws out in your writing over and over again until you say, "Wow, I really should try changing this."
[Dan] It's also, for a lot of people... it's easier to take criticism from a teacher than it is from their peers.
[Brandon] That's a good point. Creative writing classes, usually your beginning creative writing classes -- just as an explanation -- will be survey classes. They'll make you write a little bit of this, a little bit of that. You won't do a whole lot of workshopping with other class members. The teacher will make you read short stories and then try to emulate it, this sort of stuff. When you get into the upper-level ones, then you'll start workshopping. You'll split up into groups or whatnot, and submit your piece and the class will talk about them. It becomes a writing group, and they work very much like the writing groups we've talked about.

[Howard] Depending on where you're going to school as well, your early creative writing classes... the teachers opinions may look at you and say, "Oh, you want to be a genre fiction writer?"
[Brandon] Let's bring that out.
[Howard] And try and beat that out of you. You know what, frankly, if you want to be a genre fiction writer, the first thing you want to be is a writer. And right or wrong about... your teacher's opinions on genre fiction... they probably know more about writing than you do. Let them teach you that. Don't let them beat your love of writing out of you.
[Brandon] They will try. They really will. I have run into lots of writers that this is happened to. They go through a program, going in wanting to write brilliant science fiction and fantasy, and come out thinking that it is just sludge. A good poet can teach you a lot about the lyrical nature of writing. It can be very useful for you. But the good poet will also often try to keep you from writing any sort of genre fiction. They will.
[Dan] Now as Howard said, if you want to be a good genre fiction writer, you need first to be a good writer. And I think that that's actually a really good exercise to do, and a really good reason for creative writing classes, even if they're not genre, is to force yourself to remove all the fantastic elements and say, "Is there still a story here?"
[Howard] Write mom arguing with her daughter at the dinner table. Make it believable...
[Brandon] And interesting...
[Howard] And no robots.
[Dan] If you take out all the magic and all the robots, do you still have an interesting story? If you do, great, you're on the road to being a good writer.
[Howard] Awesome.

[Howard] Something else I want to bring up. I think primarily were talking to people who have the opportunity to take creative writing classes? We're addressing college students in many cases? I wish I had been college student that my friend Kevin was. My last year in college, I looked at my course load and realized, well, I need to take a minimum of eight credit hours merely to be a full-time student, but I only need six to graduate. So I took the six that I needed and a throwaway class, and I coasted my last semester in college. Kevin took 18 credit hours his last year, and he only needed four. The other 14 hours he was taking were a machine shop class and a pottery class -- all kinds of classes that had nothing to do with what he was doing. I asked him about it, and he said, "Well, these are classes... I'm getting tens of thousands of dollars in education here for fairly cheap price." I said, "Well, all those classes have fees. They all have shop fees and material fees." "Yeah, it's an extra hundred bucks or 200 bucks." While you're in college, learn stuff.
[Brandon] If you want to be a writer, go take... if you want to be a fantasy writer, woodshop class would be very helpful.
[Howard] Get your hands... get splinters.
[Brandon] Go and take some history classes outside your major. Take a history of feudal Japan class. Just audit it. Do some of this stuff. I think it's great.
[Howard] You know what... I realize now that the reason I made the decision I did was that I was kind of tired of school and I wanted to be done. You know what, if you're tired of school, you're not studying the right thing. I bet if I'd taken that machine shop class that Kevin was in, I would've loved it. It just never occurred to me. Well, now it has occurred to you, dear listener...
[Brandon] And you don't have to be a college student to do this. Or you can go back to college. There are lots of things. Remember that an MFA is specifically targeted at one thing. MFA means Master of Fine Arts. MFA is targeted mostly at people who want to write literary fiction and become professors of science fiction and fantasy. Most MFA programs... not science fiction and fantasy. Who want to become professors of creative writing. If you want to become a professor of creative writing, these are the courses, but I applied to 12 and didn't get in and I was submitting Elantris. So... they're tough, they're tough to get in. But I think what Howard said, your experience as a writer, take lots of different things instead. What is... oh, go ahead.
[Dan] I was just going to say, we're talking a lot about college. I know a lot of our listeners are younger than that. There's no need to wait that long. I was talking to a friend online the other day about all of the writing classes I had in elementary school. I've been writing stories since second grade, and he pointed out that not everybody gets to do that in elementary school, so I feel really lucky now, but...
[Brandon] Are you lording it over us, your elementary school education?
[Dan] Yes, I had a much better elementary school education than you. No, my point is you can start doing this as early as possible and start writing and start learning other things as early as possible.

[Brandon] We've got about three minutes left. Let's talk about things we've either read in a book, or taken from a class, or gotten from a panel, or something like this that has significantly influenced our writing. What sorts of things have we learned by taking these classes? We've already mentioned Dave's class which meant a lot. I have learned a lot about brainstorming from cons -- going to panels where people show the brainstorming process has helped me to learn how to brainstorm more effectively.
[Howard] Learning that World Builder's Disease is a disease -- that's been hugely helpful to me.
[Dan] Taking poetry classes actually has helped me a lot.
[Howard] Can you bust a rhyme for us?
[Dan] Not right off the top of my head. I believe very strongly that writing prose and reading prose will teach you how to tell story. Writing and reading poems will teach you how to use words most effectively.
[Howard] It teaches you wordsmithing.

[Brandon] Books. Are there any other books that you've read that have been very useful to you in your writing career?
[Howard] Yes. And I'm going to cheat... I'm going to call Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. It's awesome because it explains the syntax of an art form and nobody had yet sat down to describe the syntax. Brilliant, brilliant book.

[Brandon] Can you learn to write? Is it something you can learn? We asked this in our very first podcast, and let's end on this...
[Howard] The episode we discarded?
[Brandon] The episode we discarded.
[Jordo] It is on our DVD.
[Howard] If you've got the DVD, you've got that episode.
[Brandon] Let's cover it because this is something I think we need to talk about. Can everyone out there learn to write books? Can everyone out there become a professional writer? How much of this is art, how much of this is talent, how much of it is craft?
[Howard] You asked two completely different questions.
[Brandon] Okay. Answer them both.
[Howard] Can everyone out there become a professional writer? No. Can anybody out there become a professional writer? Yes. And the qualifications for that are, you have to get really lucky, and know some of the right people, and you have to have a passion for that craft, and you have to be writing and driving yourself to get better at it all the time -- and if you'll do that, you'll have what every professional writer out there has and you'll start developing the rest of those skills and then it's just who you know and when you know them.
[Brandon] Dan, any responses to that?
[Dan] Yeah. Same thing. You can do anything you want, but if you want something, you have to do it. Work is an inescapable part of that. And you just have to work really hard, and I think anyone, if they put in the effort, can learn the skills it takes to be a professional writer.

[Brandon] I want to say... and part of the reason I asked this question was to kind of toss it across the plate for me... sorry guys but... I want to say, if you want to be a professional writer -- and kind of the whole point of this particular podcast is -- you have to be willing to learn. Maybe we're getting into the whole... I don't know... legend of Bagger Vance sort of, you know, inside the head, it's... but it is in your head. And the writers who are successful are the ones who are capable and willing to take a hard look at their writing when people make suggestions and willing to say, "I'm going to rework this from the ground up, because I'm not doing a good job of it."
[Howard] Boy, you haven't said anything about the writers who are just born talented, and that makes me so happy, because I believe that the range of human ability -- the range of what we are born with in terms of talent -- is miniscule compared to the range of human accomplishments. That the things you can do are so much greater than whatever crap talents you may have been born with.
[Brandon] But you know as good as you get at something, you have to be willing to learn.
[Howard] You've got to work and you've gotta learn.
[Brandon] Couple examples of this. I've got a friend who wants... who wanted for a long time really badly to be a professional writer. He... every time he would submit something, I would say, "Look, your grammar is atrocious. It's just terrible. It distracts me so much I cannot read your story." He would say to me... he'd say, "Okay, okay." I eventually figured out what he was thinking in his head at that time was, "Grammar doesn't matter. Someone will proofread and punctuate it for me. I am a storyteller and I'm learning to tell stories." Well, we couldn't get beyond this and he was not willing to learn and work on it to the point... he's never gotten better at this.
[Howard] That's like a golfer who doesn't want to learn how to putt.
[Brandon] Right. And the other example I was going to give was actually a golf metaphor. Sometimes you'll learn... you'll see someone like... someone famous like Tiger Woods saying, "You know what, I'm going to rework my short game. I've got to break it down and start from the beginning because I'm really good, but I think there's something I'm missing, and I can't hit those extra few percentage points until I start from scratch again." And I think that's the sort of thing you have to be willing to do. [Inaudible -- it's like?] You know what, I'm good at this, I'm not great yet. Let's take it from a completely different approach and try it over again. Until you're willing to try these things out and break down your writing and start again, you're not going to make it. So -- yes, you can learn, but you've gotta really try.
[Howard] Amen.

[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. Your writing prompt is...
[Dan] Write a story about a golfing metaphor.
[Brandon] Thanks for listening.
Tags: ability, accomplishments, books, conventions, creative writing classes, learn, panels, story, writing excuses
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