A professor who teaches Creative Writing at a university in Kingston had some decidedly harsh words for his field of study:
Creative writing courses are a “waste of time”, according to the novelist – and creative writing teacher – Hanif Kureishi, who says that “a lot of my students just can’t tell a story”. . . They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can,” said Kureishi.
But is he wrong?
I graduated from the University of Arizona in 2010 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing. I feel that this gives me some perspective on Kureishi’s criticism, even if novelist Lucy Ellman agrees with Kureishi and claims that she “can’t stand it when authors announce they have a degree in creative writing. So what? They’re a dime a dozen.” I guess she’s talk about people like me. Again, ouch.
I don’t think a Creative Writing degree is going to make you into a writer any more than getting a Music degree will turn you into a world-class musician. Most of the students who enter such programs will likely stop writing once they finish. Few who graduate with such a degree will go on to publish.
Even when I was in the program, I could tell that many of my peers weren’t going to be writers and that there was nothing the professor could do to make them into such. I would even go as far to say that some of my classes were relatively worthless to me as well.
I had the same professor for my final two classes. I won’t post his name out of respect for privacy, but he’d published a few books before teaching those classes and last I heard, he’d gone on sabbatical to write another book. His comment on the first day of his class stuck with me to this day: “if you need to get an A in this class to keep your scholarship or keep your GPA up, register for another class.”
It was a terrifying and sobering warning.
His were the best two classes I ever had. It took me five years to get my degree and all of that time was worth it just for those two classes.
That sort of speaks to Kureishi’s point in that an entire Creative Writing program isn’t worth it. His advice is to find one really good teacher. And he’s right, that would be better. I think of how much time and money I could have saved if I’d been able to pair up right with my one professor from the very beginning.
Sadly, that’s not something that most of us can do. You don’t know who’s going to be “that one professor” for your work and often you don’t realize it until your time with that individual is over.
So while I agree with Kureishi’s point that most of the people who enroll in Creative Writing can’t tell stories and I agree that having a mentor would be better than a program, I look at my own choices and I see the chain that led me to a teacher who helped me write the best work of my life.
I’m hesitant to ever make judgments about my fellow writers because such things reek of ego-massaging. Author Matt Haig said something similar in the same article”
“To say, as Hanif Kureishi did, that 99.9% of students are talentless is cruel and wrong. I believe that certain writers like to believe they arrived into the world with special, unteachable powers because it is good for the ego,” said Haig.
More has been said about the relationship between talent and hard work than I could ever hope to summarize in a single blog post. I try not to believe in some mysterious, super-special writing powers to describe why I do what I do. I like to imagine that what I’ve managed to do so far comes more from the fact that I read a lot and I write a lot and over time I’ve managed to learn a few things along the way.
The Creative Writing degree may not be valuable for everyone who earns it. It might be a waste of time and money for 99.9% of the people , exactly as Kureishi says. If I had the choice to start over, I’d still study it. I don’t know if I’m worthy enough to be considered in Kureishi’s elite 0.1% of students according to his estimation, but I certainly feel that way about myself.
On a side note, I also can’t imagine how emotionally cutting it would be to have be one of Kureishi’s students and read this article. It certainly can’t feel very good to know that your professor basically told the world that you suck.
It was a cold December morning when I rode my motorcycle onto the interstate. My hands began to freeze beneath my two layers of gloves before I reached the five mile mark.
At the 20 mile mark, I started talking to myself.
How long does it take before frostbite starts to set in? I asked myself as the world blew past me at ninety miles an hour. I think this wind is giving me frostbite. The only thing I can feel under my gloves is pain.
Don’t be ridiculous, you can’t get frostbite if there’s no frost, I replied. It’s not called windbite.
It’s thirty-four degrees and there’s a windchill factor involved, I argued. It might be frostbite. And look! There’s frost right over there!
On either side of the highway, long rows of planted crops were sporting a very festive shade of white.
Well, shit I thought. I guess it could be frostbite.
Epilogue: When I arrived at my destination, I went inside and ran hot water over my hands for ten minutes and felt better. No fingers were lost. For a while, I was worried about my toes, but they’re still attached as well.
I met my NaNoWriMo word count goal last night: 50,149 words in thirty days (actually twenty-nine days since I finished a little early). Hooray!
I only started entering my daily word counts a few years ago but it’s one of my favorite things about doing NaNo. I like seeing the daily goal, the words per day, and the various other statistics it provides.
One thing that I’m proud of is that I didn’t miss a single day of writing, although I did have a few lean days here and there. Compare that to last year or the year before and you’ll see the difference. This year was much smoother than previous attempts.
In 2011, it was even more spotty. The first big gap was caused by a local convention that I was working, but I honestly don’t know what happened on the other days.
Another statistical quirk I noticed is how things always accelerate in the last few days. I think this is because the momentum starts to swing in my favor; I’m moving towards the most exciting part of the story (hopefully) and I also have the weight of all those words behind me spurring me on to finish. It’s a good thing, too, because it’s nice to have things move so smoothly after the slog that is the 20,000 to 40,000 push. I think the only reason I was able to tough it out this year was because I’ve seen the pattern a few times now.
So I’ve finished another NaNoWriMo; my fifth, to be exact, and yes, I am bragging a little. For one thing, I’m proud of the accomplishment and it’s the kind of thing one does just to do it.
With the conclusion of NaNoWriMo for another year, it’s safe to say that December will be a much better month for blogging than November was. My original intention was to keep up a blog schedule of 3 times/week, but by day three of NaNo, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. Although I’d love to spend all of my spare time writing things and posting them and then writing other things, I did have a graduate school course that needed attention. And my friends like to “socialize” and “see me” now and then. And I need to finish the quest for my legendary cloak on my druid. So, you know, I was busy.
I titled this post “a retrospective” because I spent a lot of time thinking this pat month thinking about what NaNo meant to me and why I was doing it. I’d like to share a few of those observations.
I can honestly say at this point keeping up the streak is a pretty big motivation, as petty as that sounds. Alcoholics and anybody who has tried to quit smoking (or other drugs, I imagine) can attest to the power of the streak; if you break it, all that hard work is undone. You go back to day one. Is doing that thing (or not doing it, in my case) really worth going from five years back to day one?
With five NaNos under my belt, where do I go from here? I know there are other challenges out there. Some folks do a “double NaNo” and aim for 100,000 words or they try to do 50,000 in half the time or whatever. That’s not really for me. Honestly, I feel like I manage to make the 50,000 writing goal by the skin of my teeth every year and trying to increase the difficulty of the goal seems a recipe for failure. Life itself seems to be a great way to add difficulty to one’s writing time; every single time I was asked to go out for a beer with a friend or to see a movie or anything . . . that was a challenge on the writing time.
Not that I’m complaining about those other things, of course. I enjoy those things very much.
There was something else I realized during this past month. Before I explain, a caveat; I love NaNoWriMo. I will advocate for it for the rest of my life. I love that for a month, being a writer is cool. Everybody wants to talk about writing! Do you know how often people want to talk about “that novel you’re working on?” Other than NaNo, the answer is never.
Not to mention, NaNoWriMo was a great catalyst that got me through my own writing doldrums. My first win in 2009 was the first time I’d managed to achieve something in writing since I wrote my first (terrible) novel at 16 and then I languished for several years, starting dozens of projects but never developing any of them.
NaNoWriMo gave me my confidence back. It gave me a seed that grew into the novel I’m proud of today, the one I feel really does deserve to be published. Sure, it took years and years of work and rewriting, but the important thing is that it exists and it exists because of NaNoWriMo.
That all being said, it pains me to admit that I think this past month was something of a distraction. Yes, I wrote another story. Yes, I wrote a story in a genre I’ve never even tried before (although it did slip into something else quite bizarre halfway through). Yes, I challenged myself and proved once again that writing time can be carved from even the busiest schedule.
But NaNoWriMo also meant that for an entire month, I completely ignored all my other projects. Actually, it’s been more like two months since I worked on anything else, since around October, the gravity of NaNo’s impending arrival started to pull my thoughts away from anything else. I didn’t do any editing. I haven’t attempted to do any more query letters.
I now have another half-finished story sitting on my hard drive. With the exception of Unrepentant, which I wrote in 2009,all of the NaNo novels I wrote since then have gone untouched since reaching the 50,000 goal. Some of them may remain buried forever. The Snake Detective might end up being one of those stories; I’m not particularly pleased with large parts of it and I don’t know that I have the motivation to polish it up. I did have one idea that appealed to me that I may still pursue, depending on relevant enthusiasm. Since I have no real intentions of trying to publish the Snake Detective, I might edit it and post it for free on my blog. At the very least, it’d be a chance to show something of my writing beyond just talking about it all the time.
Regardless, what I learned this month is that sometimes, even writing can be a distraction from writing. I allowed this month’s NaNo to be an excuse to not work on other things. Yes, it was fun (mostly). Yes, it means I cranked out another story that would have otherwise just languished in my brain as a weird idea (it’s like Castle, but he’s a herpetologist and then things get really weird. Seriously, that was the extent of my outline before I started).
So what do I do moving forward? Although it might seem premature to start thinking about next year’s NaNo before this one is officially over, I want to write down what I learned so I have it to look back on come October 2014. And what I realized from this past month is I need to make NaNo be about something else other than hitting the word count. I need to change things up.
The rules state that you shouldn’t work on a novel you already started and that you should always start from scratch. From nanowrimo.org:
This sounds like a dumb, arbitrary rule, we know. But bringing a half-finished manuscript into NaNoWriMo all but guarantees a miserable month. You’ll care about the characters and story too much to write with the gleeful, anything-goes approach that makes NaNoWriMo such a creative rush. Give yourself the gift of a clean slate, and you’ll tap into realms of imagination and intuition that are out-of-reach when working on pre-existing manuscripts.
Honestly, this is a very good rule. Most writers have a novel, whether it’s their first or just their favorite, that they’ve been working on for years and years. I did that for almost six years myself and I can honestly admit that I would not have been able to write recklessly with the characters and plot I’d begun in 2002.
This rule served me well for five runs, but I think next year, it’s a rule that I need to break. I have four stories sitting on my hard drive that are half-finished and need some attention. They are stories that deserve to have a shot at being completed.
Patrick Rothfuss has a great post on his blog from a few years ago where he arrives at a similar conclusion. I encourage you to take a look.
NaNoWriMo gave me the push to start and develop stories. Now I need it to help me finish what I’ve started rather than continually starting one project after another whenever my attention wanders.
This could change, of course. Maybe I’ll finish Bleed (fropm NaNo 2012) or even the Snake Detective and be ready to start a new story. I still have a few ideas that I really want to develop at some point; Dreamshift seems like it could be awesome and I had a pretty amusing idea after watching the trailer for Divergent for a parody version involving the MBTI. Perhaps the appeal of one of those ideas will provide the impetus for me to finish one of my other projects to clear some space for a new story. Otherwise, for NaNo 2014, I’m going to continue a story I already started, even though it’s against the rules. I’d really like to finish writing Bleed and I know I have at least one person who is absolutely appalled by the fact that I haven’t touched Angel’s Descent since 2011.
There’s a lot to do. I’m grateful that something like NaNo exists. It gave me the boost I needed to get where I am today. I think next year, it might again be a source for growth. Regardless, it’s a wonderful thing. I’m glad that it exists and I’m proud to have completed it for five years running.
Just a quick status update to keep the blog from atrophying. I’m currently considering what to do with this blog while I triumphantly plow through my NaNoWriMo project, the future bestselling novel The Snake Detective. I currently don’t really have the time or energy to meet both my NaNoWriMo daily goal of 1667 words and do a 1000 word blog post.
If you’d like to track my progress, you can follow my novel’s update page here. I really enjoy looking at the stats throughout the month as the novel progresses. It’s very personally rewarding to see the bar graph fill up day by day.
I’ve been idly considering posting a few chapters here as I write them, but the idea of showing this rough draft gives me hives. It might completely destroy the ability to move forward if I know I’m going to show it to somebody.
I’ll keep trying to think of something to do with this space so it doesn’t go stagnate for the entire month of November. To those of you who are trying NaNo yourselves this year, I hope it’s going well and you’re meeting your word requirements. If you’re not doing it, I invite you to try. Even if you don’t succeed (and most people don’t, especially your first time), it’s a very rewarding experience that I highly recommend everyone tries at least once.
We’re just over a week away from November 1, which means we’re a week away from another National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo is one of those things people either seem to love or hate; you either drink the kool-aid (as I have) and are a believer that it’s a great antidote for procrastination or you scoff at the idea that writing a novel is something that can be distilled down to a 30 day flurry.
I’m torn about what to do this year. I have two ideas for novels, one titled The Snake Detective about a herpetologist recruited by the police to help solve a bizarre snake-related murder. Now, murder mysteries are certainly not my forte, aside from my love of the TV show Castle, and I can safely say I’ve never written a murder mystery of any kind in my life. So while the murder mystery might be a genre as over saturated as any other, for me, it’s uncharted water. Also, I’m pretty sure very few people have written murder mysteries about herpetologists, so there’s my hook. Yes, this idea was inspired by my reaction to the rock python strangulation in August.
My second idea is one called Dreamshift. This one is more nebulous in my mind, but the basic idea is that each time you fall asleep, your mind shifts into a different world. This worlds exist concurrently, so each world you shift into moves on without you even after you wake up. The main character would then be living out fragments of his or her life in several different storylines. I’m sure this idea is already the basis for an anime somewhere, because that’s what always happens when I have a high concept idea like this. “Oh, that sounds just like Neon Galaxy Ghost Dream Warriors.”
The last idea is to try something different, which is to break one of the cardinal rules of NaNo. One of the rules is that you shouldn’t work with a story you’ve already been working on. There’s too much investment and time which can interfere with the ability to just write like crazy. There’s always the chance you’ll get bogged down. Also, you can’t use a word count from last year as a starting point, since that would be cheating.
Regardless, you’re still free to do what you want and since I’ve “won” the last few NaNo’s, it might be time for a change. My idea is to take the novel I wrote last year, Bleed, and finish it. I stopped at about 50,000 words, which wasn’t the end of the story. The goal then would be to create another 50,000 words. Bleed, Part Two, maybe. Bleed was my first venture into the cyberpunk genre; basically, a near future where everybody had their smartphone equivalents implanted directly into the brain which led to problems as the distinctions between the virtual world and the physical world began to bleed into one another. Hence the name.
I’m not going to crowd source this particular decision, of course. I’ll start working on whatever I feel the most inspired by come November 1. But some feedback would still be interesting. What do you think?
“October is poised on the eve of NaNoWriMo. The month itself cools in preparation for what is to come; the frenzy of too many words and too much caffeine. October is the hushed breath just before the plunge.”
Did you like that? That’s what I’m going to be doing all next month for NaNoWriMo: writing terrible sentences without any sense of shame or literary decency. Look, there’s a reason why it’s taken me years to rewrite the story I wrote for my first successful NaNoWriMo in 2009.
Come to think of it, that’s probably not a resounding endorsement.
Anyway, I’m trying to get myself geared up for NaNoWriMo 2013. It’s been difficult to get my brain working, what with the World of WarCraft addiction and my grad school and such. I’m trying to get writing back into the forefront of my brain again, which you can tell based on the sudden uptick in posts last week.
I was thinking about critique and feedback I’ve received over the years. A good critique is an amazing thing, of course, and one should never ignore critiques even if one disagrees with them. Feedback is always valuable.
That being said.
Look, I think we can all agree that if you’ve ever taken a creative writing class or joined a writing group, you’ve heard some pretty stupid comments. In fact, I’m willing to go one better and admit that I have made some pretty stupid comments. This post isn’t about sharing the horrible feedback you’ve received, but horrible feedback you’ve given to another writer. At some point in your development as a writer, you have been called on to critique another story and at least once, you probably screwed up monumentally, even if you didn’t realize how bad that feedback was until years later when you finally knew better.
While I have several critiques that I’m not proud of in retrospect, there’s only one comment I ever made that I’m trulyand deeply ashamed of:
It was for a college freshman poetry class. I don’t remember what the style of poem was supposed to be or even what my poem was like. All I know was that I was looking for something to say during the critique and totally drawing a blank.
One of the poem’s lines referenced Kerouac. I don’t remember what the line was exactly; something like “being on the road, Kerouac’s road,” etc.
In my critique, I told the writer that her poem would be improved if there was something in the poem that told us who Kerouac was, something that gave the reader a little more context about “this Kerouac guy.”
Yes, that’s correct; as a college freshman studying creative writing, I didn’t know who Kerouac was. And I unknowingly admitted it to my entire class.
To this day, the shame haunts me.
So what’s your writing critique horror story? Feel free to share in the comments. Please remember that we’re all friends here, so when we laugh at one another, we are indeed laughing at you rather than with you, but we’re laughing out of love.
It occurred to me that I haven’t written a blog post since last week, since is the longest gap I’ve had in writing with the exception of the week I took in July for my grad school course. I’d love to say that I was really busy with class or that I’d been focusing on work or studying or inventing a new kind of robot-serpent that I will use to bend the world to my will. The truth is, while I was working and studying, neither of those things are reasons why I’d stop writing. The truth is, there’s only one thing that keeps me from banging out even half-hearted posts about whatever is on my mind.
That’s a word that will either have you nodding in sympathy and understanding or scratching your head in confusion.
Seriously, I’ve got it bad right now. I’m worried, because although my performance at work and my grad school class haven’t slipped, virtually everything else has. I haven’t taken a crack at the manuscript for a few weeks now, even though I’m literally in the 9th inning on my rewrite with less than 50 pages to go.
On the other hand, my druid dinged 90 two nights ago. Yay, I guess.
Even worse, November is right around the corner. November means NaNoWriMo. I’ve completed NaNoWriMo every year since my first success in 2009. Every year, I tell myself that I don’t need to do it again, that I’ve already done it and I really should focus on the growing pile of unfinished stories collecting on my hard drive. And then every year, November 1 rolls around and I think, if I don’t do it, I’ll break my streak.
The worst part is I already have a character and a title, so I know I’ll probably end up doing it and going a little (more) crazy. Alas. If only I could get my addiction to Azeroth under control before that day comes.
I would like to say that I’ve been writing for the past few hours, but in reality I’ve been sitting at my computer staring at this chapter and hating where it picks up. So I stare at it until my attention wanders and then I go poke around on the Internet for a few minutes until I feel bold enough to look at the chapter again.
The problem is I hate where the chapter breaks, but if I try to combine it with the previous chapter, I’ll end up with this monster chapter that’s three times longer than anything else in the book.
Contrary to what I was led to believe, writing does not seem to be a sexy or glamorous occupation. Ah well. Back to staring at this chapter for a while.
Yesterday, I talked about my affinity for looking at other writers’ desks. I also worried about the fact that my desk was so very cluttered and messy, and what this said about the state of my brain. I resolved to clean up my work space and photograph the before and after so you can see the improvement. Well, the cleaning is done and the results are in. As promised, I took some before and after shots to chronicle the event. This will be an picture-heavy post so I’m including a page break. More below.
One of my particular interestsis looking at pictures of other writers’ desks and offices. I know that it’s a common trait among bookworms to look at pictures of personal libraries; Neil Gaiman’s personal library is epic, in my opinion. I’m not certain whether writers do this as often, though the existence of various blogs and Tumblrs posting pictures of writers’ offices makes me think I’m not alone in my interest.
It doesn’t update very often, but Write Place, Write Time is a great Tumblr page of writer spaces. One thing that’s particular cool is that one of the writers featured on the page, Manuel Munoz, was my writing professor during my undergrad at the University of Arizona. He helped me develop my writing ability more than any other teacher I’ve ever had. It was cool to see what his writing space looks like, especially since it really matches his writing style in my mind.
If one’s desk represents the state of one’s thoughts, however, I am well and truly screwed. My desk is currently a nightmare. Without moving my eyes, I can see a stack of unopened mail, an empty beer bottle, my keys, a WarCraft III cd case, headphones, a coffee mug, a topographical map of the Chiricahua Wilderness, another pair of headphones, a bookmark of a vampire cat, two candles, sticky notes, two boxes of Magic: the Gathering cards, a signed picture of Boba Fett, a cartoon of Medusa blow drying her snake hair, and you know what, I think I’ll stop there. There’s more stuff.
In fact, I think this might be a sign that it’s time to clean my writing space. Maybe I’ll take some before and after photos to show you the horror.