When I walked into the first session of the class I’m taking at Grub Street Writers, I felt like I was walking onto hallowed ground. It had been so long since I’d taken time out of my busy life to invest in my writing. I made my pilgrimage into the city, my head filled with undefined expectations. Other than what I’d read in the class description, I wasn’t sure what I’d find or even what I hoped to find.
One thing I didn’t expect was to find a silver bullet that would solve all my writing challenges. Writing is not a mechanical skill that can be taught by rote. There is no black and white way to do it. It works differently for each person who dares harnesses its creative spirit and climb aboard for the ride. Most writing teachers will tell you that they cannot teach anyone to write. They can only provide the space and the framework within which their students explore their own processes and ideas. Happily, I arrived at that first class with no specific expectations. I was just glad to be there.
Just being there – in that space dedicated to the pursuit of the writing craft – was good for my inner writer. I felt her stir the minute I stepped off the elevator. The years of sticky slumber that had kept her lying quiet and dormant began to melt away. She stretched experimentally and was delighted to find herself in a space without the usual boundaries of deadlines, school pick-ups, phone calls, and endless social media chatter. This place –wrapped around the time I’d carved out to spend within its walls – was a fortress against the usual onslaught of interruptions and distractions.
Without those distractions, my mind slipped easily and readily into “student mind.” Open, eager, and focused, I waited to see what the class would bring. Stepping outside my normal routine let me step away from my monkey mind – that incessant and annoying inner dialog that prattles away non-stop about the slow driver in front of me, my grocery list, the client call I had earlier, what I’m going to have for dinner, when my daughter’s last dentist appointment was, and so on. I let go of my usual need to be constantly doing, and sat back – ready to receive.
That first class was full of ideas on how to approach my stories, create my characters, and build my worlds. I also heard about the lives and work of my fellow students. Some of them read their free writes aloud. That was when the insidious side of human nature kicked in. As though I suffered from a mutant form of Turret’s, I began systematically comparing myself (and my writing) to everyone else in the room. When, at the end of class one, the instructor asked each of us to commit to a writing goal for the upcoming week, all I could offer was that I would show up to the next class. Next to others who were committing to 2 – 6 hours of writing a day, my intention felt weak and pointless. The voices of fear and judgment began whispering in my head:
“Wow, she’s really good. You’ve never written anything like that. You don’t even know what ‘narrative altitude’ is. How can you even call yourself a writer when you haven’t written so much as a short story. These people have finished novels, for gods’ sakes! If you really wanted to write, you’d make more time…”
But then I told those voices to shut up.
I said, “I’m here, and that is enough. This is where I start.”
I adopted a businesslike approach. I thought about writing not as some romantic endeavor fueled by the capricious good will of anonymous muses, but as a profession. Without inflicting so much as a scratch on the surface of my creativity, I replaced the “magic” of creation with the “science” of study, practice, and solid execution. I reminded myself that this fiction-writing thing is not so different from the non-fiction writing I do each and every day to make my living.
The beauty of making these observations about myself as a writer is that they gave me some clarity about my strengths and weaknesses as well as the opportunities and potential pitfalls that I will encounter on my journey. As I watched myself ride the ups and downs of my emotions, I could see my fears and pick them off, one-by-one. I also realized that I could recreate this class experience for myself. So can you:
- Set aside some time, but don’t limit yourself by setting specific expectations.
- Find a space that fills you with energy and maybe even a little reverence.
- Adopt the “student mind” (and shut down the monkey mind – use a sledgehammer if you must, he’s a resilient little bugger).
- Give yourself a minute to compare yourself to others – your favorite authors, your writer friend who just landed an agent – but just enough to get it out of your system.
- Get down to the business of approaching your writing like the professional you are. Keep the magic in your heart, but don’t let it cloud your mind. You know what you have to do. Do it.
There is no definitive guarantee that a writing class will make you a better writer. It depends on the writer, the class, the teacher, the subject matter, and a hundred other variables. But any writing class – even one you create for yourself – will increase your self-awareness and provide you with a broader perspective. Just the act of being in that space and engaged with the craft will help you sink more deeply into being the writer you are. And that is worth the price of admission every time.
What do you think? What have your class experiences been like? Do you think you could create a class-of-one for yourself?
Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.