Without a Clue

You’re sitting in cool shade, but your fingers hit the keys as though they’re hot to the touch. You’ve never done this before. You have a character, a situation, perhaps a gut punch to finish the plot. You can see the opening scene. Perhaps you can smell it.

But you have a history degree. Or it might be science or business. You’ve never taken a creative writing class. You write the opening scene anyway. You read fiction, so you know a few things. You should describe images, action, and so on. You should make the character feel like a real person. You should write more than mere plot. A few thousand words in, you’re proud of yourself. You show the story to a few people. They make approving noises. Problem is, you know it’s only so good.

You also know the image of the naïve artist; the mouthpiece of God-in-humankind from whom great work just flows, and you know it’s a myth. You need training. You check out the local university, and it has an MFA program. You finish your story. You send it to them with a bunch of paperwork. You try not to think about it all the time.

You get in. You start taking classes. The other students use jargon you have to look up. They all have BFA’s or regular English degrees with creative writing coursework. Their work is more comprehensible and uses voice and literary devices in ways yours doesn’t. Your workshop pieces get politely torn to shreds.

*

This was my situation when I joined the program a year ago. I had degrees in Comparative Religion and History. I’d spent a decade teaching those subjects, Economics, and Debate. I’d read mostly nonfiction. Then, about a year before starting the program, I started writing a story. I still don’t know why.

If you’re in this situation, and if you happen to be interested in my advice, do the following.

1.Cut yourself slack.

No one is anything on talent alone. Research the “naïve geniuses” (Einstein, Mozart, Jackson Pollock, whoever). People talk such nonsense about them. They had serious training. The other students have had training as creative writers. You haven’t, so forgive yourself if you’re starting from behind.

2. Listen, and not just to the professors.

When your work it critiqued, don’t hear, “you’re bad, you’re bad, you’re bad.” Hear the specifics. Are you misusing close third-person? If so, what exactly are you doing wrong? Are you overusing detail? If so, what kinds of detail are extraneous? Take notes. And don’t just note the professors’ criticisms. Literature is the stuff of interpretation, not objective truth, so hear the variety of advice from professors and students.

3. Form specific goals.

Having noted the criticisms, reconstruct them as goals. You’re not a failure who overuses adverbs. You’re a learner figuring out effective adverb use. Think about these goals each time you write. Be satisfied with gradual progress.

4. Take the reading part seriously.

LIT isn’t a distraction from CRW. A composer listens to music. A painter looks at paintings. If you want to be a writer, read. Reading in a literature class is better than just sitting home and reading. Other serious readers can help you see what you read from a variety of angles. They’ll notice stuff you don’t, and you’ll notice stuff they don’t. If the assigned texts aren’t your idea of fun, celebrate, or at least put up with it. You’re being forced outside your comfort zone.

5. Use the summer.

It’s ideal to write a certain amount each day, but you have classes, maybe TA responsibilities, maybe other kinds of work, family, that series you can’t stop binging on. So work with the time you’ve got. Set yourself a thousand words a day goal during the summer. Or use whatever system works for you. (And write during the semester as well, even if making time is a struggle.)

*

Admission is competitive, so you wouldn’t be in the program if you just didn’t have it. Sure, you’ve got a tough task ahead of you, but that proves you’re braver than most people. So get your room set up, buy groceries, explore the campus, figure out how on earth Gemini Circle works (and tell me). Gather books, meet people, sit under a tree and watch the clouds. And then get to work. You’ve got a lot of it to do. You’ve also got potential, and you owe it to yourself to become the best writer you can be.

IMG_0752Robin Eliot was born in London and grew up in rural Gloucestershire, in the West of England. He graduated from the University of Manchester, with a BA in World Religions, and the University of Cambridge, with an M.Phil in History. He met Joy, who is American, in Cambridge, and moved to America in 2005. Since then he has taught a variety of subjects, mostly in high school, and is currently the Chair of the Humanities Department at All Saints Academy in Winter Haven. He has always loved reading, but only started writing in 2013. Ask him how that happened if you like bizarre stories.

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