Tag Archives: creative writing

An Anecdote About How I Review Books

When I was in college, I studied Creative Writing, which had a fair number of literature classes required, as you might imagine (thought perhaps not as many literature classes as a literature degree would require). In fact, it’s only my years of extensive education that allow me to craft such complex sentences as the preceding one; my education in this area also explains my love of the semicolon.

There’s a lot about college that I don’t really remember. Sometimes, for fun(?), I try to remember all the classes I actually took. For the classes that I do remember, I try to remember my professors’ names. And eventually I arrive at the conclusion that my memory sucks, I’m bad at paying attention, and what’s the point of any of this! But there are things that I remember from college, in particular, the following anecdote:

It was a literature class, although fuck me if I can remember what the actual focus was. We studied Moby Dick for a while, which narrows it down marginally (I took an African American literature class once and can confirm Moby Dick was not part of the curriculum.) At one point in the semester, my professor showed us one of those videos you can create, the ones where there are two animated characters that can discuss whatever you like, and all you need to do is fill out the text bubbles so they’ll talk to each other with appropriate animations and camera angles. It’s the kind of thing that’s a novelty for exactly the first video you see, maaaybe the first video you try to create, and then never again. I wonder if I can find it. Hold please.

And we’re back. For you, dear reader, the transition was instantaneous. For me, it was 45 minutes of getting sucked into YouTube videos. I forgot what I was talking about. Oh, right.

I was not able to find the video itself, though I did the original video that created the meme. Take a look if you’d like to see the style; it’s exactly the same as what my professor did, down to the robot voices and two bears.

In the video my professor created, the title was something like “the problem with reading difficult books.” And one of the bears (the one with the vaguely feminine voice) expresses frustration with how hard it is to read certain books and how she often has to read them several times to understand what they are saying.

Then the other bear points out that you don’t really need to do that. “Simply stare at the book for an appropriate length of time. Say ‘hmmmm’ a lot. Then in class, instead of talking about the book, talk about how the book made you feel. Other students will think you are attractive and interesting. You will go on many dates with other students who also did not read the book. And perhaps one day you will have children of your own, who will grow up not reading the book.”

And at the time, I was like daaaaamn, this guy is way too young to have that level of despair regarding the worth ethic of his students. And that video was the one thing I remembered from his class, so, hrm, maybe he was on to something.

The reason I bring up this little trip down memory lane is because when I write reviews for books these days, I basically just talk about exactly that; how the book made me feel. And every time I do, there’s this little voice in the back of my head telling me that I’m letting Professor (sorry, can’t remember your name) down, because I’m just talking about how I feel. The little voice tells me that I should be doing more rigorous analysis, more detailed examination, more critical thinking, instead of something I type up during a fifteen minute break or during lunch.

I tell myself that I don’t actually have to do anything I don’t feel like doing; I’m not a professional reviewer and I don’t think my little reviews are going to earn me any actual career advancement. So I can do them however the hell I want. But there’s always that voice telling me that I should do more, that I owe it to the author and to my own ridiculously over-priced degree to do work at the level I’m capable of doing.

But I don’t. I just talk about how I feel after having read it and take comfort in the fact that in my mind, I’m always just talking to myself and if you’re actually reading this now, it’s entirely an accident of fate and not by my design.

Also, there’s the fact that I originally didn’t even bother writing reviews; I’d just slap a few stars down on Goodreads, grunt, and go on my way. So the fact that I’m actually leaving thoughts at all is a big step forward, if you think about it.

All I’m saying is that I’m aware of what I’m doing. But I also know that I don’t really like reviews as a thing. I don’t trust reviews if I don’t know anything about the reviewer. This is true for reviews of everything other than washing machines (for those, I just need to know if it’s going to wash my clothes). But for everything else, for books, movies, video games, I don’t actually care about the professional reviews. I need the reviews from people that match my particular profile: people who think that (motorcycle + velociraptor) x Chris Prat = awesome is an equation that leads us to the highest echelon of entertainment. I’m aware that Jurassic World was not actually a  good movie. I’m just also saying that I don’t care.

So, that’s why I do what I do.

Creative Writing Professor Calls Creative Writing Degree “A Waste Of Time”

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.

Ouch.

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.

However.

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.