Creative Writing 101 – In an email to my friend Gord the other day, I related in brief a story about the first creative writing class I took at university. As I was writing about my experience, I realized that it would probably make a good Liminality entry, if for no other reason than it might be interesting and it would help me flex my story-telling muscles. I can guarantee it will be better than what I’ve written in the past week (i.e., nothing).
So, to set the stage: it was my second year, I think, and I was looking for a class to fill out my schedule. My friend Howie was doing the same, and he suggested that we take Creative Writing 101 together. We both liked to write, and it sounded like an easy credit, especially considering that the rest of our courses were leaning toward a Computer Science major: things like calculus, discrete structures, and a whole slew of other things that I would no longer recognize if I ran into them on the street. It wasn’t that difficult a decision.
As an introductory course, it was the only CW course that had no prerequisites. All other levels of CW required the submission and approval of a portfolio, but CW 101 was open to all comers. For some reason, we didn’t realize what this would mean until the class started.
I don’t remember our professor’s name, but I do remember that he had a round face and a bushy mustache, and he had a habit of staring at the ceiling rather than looking at his students when he talked. In retrospect, I think he did this partly to keep from laughing and partly to quell the urge to stick his head in a meat grinder. I don’t know what sin he committed to be assigned CW 101, but whatever it was, he paid for it and then some.
Class followed a fairly simple formula: a student would read their work and then we would go around the room, with each student giving a bit of “criticism.” Then our professor would stare at the ceiling and share his thoughts with us in a voice that sounded like pulled taffy: soft, and drawn out far longer than you would think possible. I remember the first time we engaged in this so-called criticism. I don’t remember who read, or what they had written, or precisely what anyone else said. All I remember is that Howie and I were seated at what would be the end of the circle, and we listened in horror as our classmates spouted empty praise for something I thought was completely tedious and inane. No one said anything negative about it, or anything that would approach real criticism. Howie and I looked at each other, and I knew that the fear I saw in his eyes was in my eyes also.
When it was finally my turn, I stammered for a bit and managed to squeeze out a few neutral words. I turned to Howie, and he did the same. Then our professor looked up at the ceiling, perhaps praying to God above for deliverance, and managed to gently criticize the work without embarrassing the writer. I was impressed, but I knew I couldn’t do that—I was far too critical and honest (and inexperienced and impulsive, since we’re being honest) to candy-coat things, and if something was horrible I would have to speak my mind. Either that or I would have to do what I did that day, and be untrue to myself.
I felt dirty. Used. I could see by the look on Howie’s face that he felt the same. Maybe CW 101 wasn’t going to be as much fun as we had thought it would be. Maybe our easy credit was going to turn out to be the nightmare class of the semester. After all, we didn’t have to hem and haw when building our breadboards for our logic circuits class. You just plugged stuff in and it worked or it didn’t—there were no feelings to be hurt.
In the next class, though, I hit upon a solution to our problem, albeit inadvertently. When my turn came to “criticize” the latest inanity, I drew a complete blank. There was absolutely nothing I could say that was good about this work, at least without lying through my teeth, and that was something I couldn’t do. I looked up at the professor and said, “Um, could you get back to me on that? I need to give this some more thought.” He nodded, and I caught a knowing look in his eye. Howie must have seen it, too, because he piped up, “Yeah, I think you’re going to need to get back to me as well.” The professor never did come back to us, and we were spared.
That phrase became our code for, “Please, I have absolutely nothing good to say about this person’s writing, so unless you want me to make them cry, just skip me.” We didn’t do it every day, of course—too many times and it would have become too obvious. And not all the writing was so bad that we couldn’t find anything good to say about it. Usually there was at least something to be salvaged, some shiny nugget of gold to be fished from the sewage, and occasionally we had the pleasure of listening to something that was actually quite good. But every now and then a poem or short story came along that would make grown men weep and gnash their teeth. That was when we pulled out our ace in the hole and the rest of the class was spared a gruesome evisceration.
It continued to amaze me, though, how tactful our professor was in delivering his criticisms. He always said good things about the work in question, yet he managed to slip in a little real criticism each time, like a bitter pill slathered in chocolate. At the time, I didn’t recognize it for the unique talent and skill that it was. After all, I was just a sophomore full of piss and vinegar—what did I know? But even our professor had his limits.
There was one student in our class, and although I no longer remember his name we all called him Bob, after Bob Dylan. Not because he had Dylan’s skill as a poet—far from it—but because he sounded a lot like Bob Dylan, although maybe a little less coherent. It was Bob that drove our mild-mannered professor to the closest he ever came to flat-out mockery. The lines of the particular poem are, thankfully, lost to time, but I assure you that they would have made even a Vogon bard cover his ears and beg for mercy. The subject matter was banal: our erstwhile poet was sitting at home, waiting for a girl to call. When the phone finally rang, Bob uttered the line that will be forever burned into my memory: “I ran to the phone with the speed of a thousand anxious men.”
An appalled silence hung in the room when he had finished, and terror flashed in every student’s eyes at the thought of having to say something positive about the poem. Howie and I used our trump card, of course—strangely enough, no one else ever caught on to that and tried to use it themselves, or maybe they just weren’t brazen enough. When everyone had finally had their say, the silence crept in once again as our professor turned his eyes upward and implored the ceiling tiles for strength. Then he tilted his head a bit, and I swear I caught a twinkle of laughter at the corner of his eyes before he spoke.
“Well,” he drawled. “I have to wonder if a thousand anxious men would really be any faster than one anxious man. In fact, I imagine they would be significantly slower, what with all the tripping and stumbling over each other.”
He didn’t get any further; the class erupted in laughter. I glanced at Bob and saw the shame and mortification on his face, and for a moment I felt sorry for him—until I remembered what he had just inflicted on all of us. Were we cruel? Yes, undoubtedly. And, to be honest, Bob got more than what was coming to him, because we weren’t really laughing at him, not entirely. That laughter was the release of weeks of tension that had built up because we could never speak our minds, because we had to walk on eggshells that threatened to shatter beneath our feet. I guess our professor felt it, too, and with that one brief criticism he opened up a steam valve and everything came hissing out.
Bob never wrote another poem in class, and I suppose I should feel badly about playing a part in crushing someone’s dream, but my guilt is tempered by the knowledge of how many lives we saved by doing so.
I don’t remember anything else about CW 101. I do remember that when it came time to declare my major (thanks to a little encouragement from the university in the form of an academic probation), that class gave me another option, and I declared as an English Lit major specializing in CW. It was one link in a chain of events that led me to where I am today—a single link, but an important one. I went on to graduate with a degree in English Lit and Creative Writing, which at the time was about as useful as a degree in underwater basket weaving, thus leading me to search for less conventional employment options. A decade and a half later, and here I am.
Interestingly enough, the things I learned as a CW major apply to translating literature as much as they do to creative writing. I am advising two students this semester who are working on MA theses, and in meetings with them last Friday I found myself sharing techniques I learned as a student of creative writing, techniques that I later used when translating literature. I guess it just goes to show that you can never tell how things might turn out, and how something that might have once seemed useless might become very useful indeed.