Almost every aspiring writer takes a creative writing class at some point in their lives. A lot of us wonder, though, about the value of those classes. I know a lot of young writers especially question whether or not they should go on to get a Creative Writing degree. So today, I thought I'd share my own experiences with creative writing classes.
I took my first creative writing class in seventh grade. Before that, my teachers supported my writing, and I even had some dedicated time to it through the GATE program, but everyone took the same classes. In middle school, we got to choose some of what we did, and I, of course, chose to take creative writing.
That first class did not go well.
It was taught by the same teacher who taught GATE English, and she turned out to be a problem. To be fair, she had a lot going on in her life, but she was so distracted and disorganized that, by the end of the semester, half the class was failing due to missing assignments (many of which she hadn't properly informed us about or had outright lost after we turned them in). I was one of the people who was failing. I managed to get my grade up to a C last minute, but it was really upsetting. (Besides that class and one P.E. class in middle school, I was a straight A student from elementary through high school.)
On top of that, I didn't enjoy the class that much. By then, I'd already written two fantasy novels, and I had a decent idea of where I wanted to go with my writerly life. I went into the class hoping for a chance to hone my novel-writing skills, but instead, I was assigned a whole bunch of specific, shorter pieces. Many of them were on topics or in genres that I had no interest in, and to make things worse, I've never liked writing short fiction. I am a novelist through and through. This is not to say that there's anything wrong with those who do write short fiction; honestly, I'm jealous of you if you can. I just don't possess the inclination. For me, storytelling is best in long-form, and I get impatient and annoyed when I try to force my big visions into a small piece.
These problems would turn out to be common in my creative writing class experience.
The next creative writing class I took was in tenth grade. I liked that one, because the teacher gave us a lot of room to just do what worked for us. He would have us do a bit of writing at the beginning of each class based on a prompt, and then left us to work on whatever we wanted after that. He did require that we demonstrate, at the end of the semester, that we'd been working on a long-form piece of some kind, but he didn't have any genre or topic requirements, and he was very loose with how much we had to have completed. I really appreciated his awareness of how personal and varied writing is, and I got the chance to read a lot of different things from my fellow students, which increased my admiration of them and gave me some new ideas and skills to think about.
Those were the two creative writing classes I took before college. As many of you probably experienced, I also had a number of creative writing opportunities in my regular English class. One teacher in particular, whom I really liked, was a poet, and she had us write a ton of poetry of our own each semester. Though I'm not really a poet, I've never struggled with it as much as I have short fiction, so it worked pretty well for me. She was also fairly loose with her requirements--generally she would assign a certain form for our poems, but rarely a topic.
When I started college, I intended to be a Creative Writing major--or at least an English major with an emphasis in Creative Writing. After all, writing is my passion, and at the time, I didn't have any focused vision of what else I might do with my life. Writing was the career goal (and still is, although now I'm intending to go into librarianship for a day job).
I started out at Adams State, as you guys know, and I was a double major with English: Creative Writing and Music, which ended up not being great for me. I love music, but I never meant for it to be a career, and majoring in it contributed to the mental breakdown I had at the end of my freshman year. I struggled to regain my interest in music for two years after that, and by the time I finally did, I was already too sick to maintain any kind of hobby or social life outside of school.
But at Adams State, because of my double major and because of the nature of being a freshman, I didn't take any creative writing classes. I took a lot of music classes and a lot of gen eds, but only regular English otherwise. When I transferred to BYU-I for my sophomore year, I finally took my first collegiate creative writing class--and hated it even more than one I took in seventh grade.
By that point, I was very clear on what kind of writing I wanted to do--YA fantasy novels with a just a little flexibility when it came to the genre--and I knew the industry quite well. Compared to seventh grade, I had even less interest now in writing other genres and forms. Right away, I knew I was going to have trouble when the professor informed us that all of our pieces would have to be adult literary fiction. (I put that in italics for added snobbishness.) There would be no room for fantasy or sci-fi, no room for children's writing. Furthermore, we would be studying three forms: short fiction, short nonfiction, and poetry.
Cue me sticking a finger down my throat.
It went about as well as you'd expect. I spent the semester forcing myself to write pieces that, for the most part, I had no interest in. I felt like I was in this constant fight with the professor, trying my hardest to bend my ways, to stretch out of my comfort zone enough to write something that he would like. The further we got into the semester, the more frustrated I became. By the end, I was literally throwing in as much violence and sex as I could personally stomach, trying to make my stories "gritty" enough for him. It never happened. Every time, he told me that my work wasn't deep enough, that it didn't have enough meaning--which was probably true, given that my heart wasn't in it. However, I doubt he would've seen much value in my novels, either. He had a very specific vision for what "good" writing looked like, and it left out almost everything that I love.
The second semester of my junior year (I believe), I went to take my second collegiate creative writing class, which looked, based on the description, to be less structured and more friendly to someone like me. Alas, twas not to be. I walked in and sat down and there was the exact same professor as before, saying that exact same things about adult literary fiction and short fiction and serious writing. I looked around the classroom, at all these serious writers nodding and taking notes while he talked about being a true artist--and I had a grand epiphany in which I realized two things. One, I hated absolutely everything about this. Two, I didn't actually have to stay if I didn't want to.
I dropped the class, and the next day, I went to change my major from English with an emphasis in Creative Writing to regular old literature-type English.
That turned out to be the right choice for me. Though there was still a faint snobbishness in the air whenever I mentioned writing YA lit, I didn't have to deal with it being up in my face all the time. Instead of spending my school time writing a bunch of short stories that I hated, I read and analyzed a bunch of literature (only some of which I disliked). I got as much--probably more--out of that as I would have taking creative writing classes, and I liked it a lot more.
I still took one more creative writing class as an elective--and it was the best one I've ever taken. This class was focused on screenwriting, which sounded like a fun and interesting challenge, so long as I was given freedom with my length and genre. Luckily, I was! The professor was a screenwriter herself, and like my tenth grade teacher, she had a good understanding of the personal and varied nature of writing. She allowed us to tell any story we wanted and gave us two different options for length: either we wrote a TV episode length script that she would expect to be fairly polished, or we wrote a movie length script that would be more of a first draft. I chose the second, of course, and I spent the class adapting one of my novels into a screenplay using the readings and viewings that she gave us.
I learned a lot, let me tell you. The experience of transforming one of my works into a screenplay ended up providing a lot of editing opportunities, and it taught me a lot about storytelling through film as well as plot structure in general. I don't have any intention of actually becoming a screenwriter, but this professor gave me what all of the others failed to: a chance to hone my skills and become a better writer, within the limits of a class but without disparaging or cramping my personal style. She was encouraging and welcoming to all of us, no matter our genre preference or skill level, and that, I think, is an important quality for every writing teacher to have.
So what's the moral of story? First of all, you do not have to be a Creative Writing major or even take a creative writing class to be a writer. You might want to, and I absolutely recommend you at least find a writing group to work with, but creative writing is a self-taught skill. Second, it might actually be better for you to not go that route. Writing is an art, and that means it's going to be different for everyone. Like most arts, there are base skills that you need to learn, but those are often taught in general English classes. The rest you can learn in your own time through reading and writing, and the writing community can help you fill in the gaps.
Third, most creative writing classes focus on shorter pieces, and many of them will have prompts or genre limitations. As such, they work best for those who a) don't really know what they want to write yet or b) are very flexible and happy to work with different forms, lengths, and genres. Short story writers especially may enjoy them. If you're like me, though, and you have a good idea of what you like to write and little patience for anything else, you're going to have bad experiences. You might also have good ones--if you can find the classes and the teachers with the most flexibility and least snobbishness. That's a hard call, though, so making it your major may not be the best choice.
Fourth, whether you take creative writing classes or not, in order to be a good writer, you do have to challenge yourself. That means different things for different people. A creative writing class might provide that for you, or, like with me, it might be more of a frustration than anything. If a class won't work for you, create your own challenges that will. Adapt your work into a screenplay. Mess around with point-of-view. Grab onto that idea that's a little outside your usual zone. Always, always, read as much as you can, including a number of books that are outside of your genre.
Just because a creative writing class doesn't work for you doesn't make you any less of a writer. Just because a certain genre or form doesn't work for you doesn't make you any less of a writer. What matters is how much effort you're willing to put into doing what you love.
Thanks for reading, friends! I hope that helped you out. Tell me about your experiences with creative writing classes! I'll be back Tuesday for another Top Ten.
Images via popkey.com, folhadepoesia.blogspot.com, wiseinkblog.com, and Julia Byers.
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