Writing class and the power of self-awareness

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:

  1. Set aside some time, but don’t limit yourself by setting specific expectations.
  2. Find a space that fills you with energy and maybe even a little reverence.
  3. Adopt the “student mind” (and shut down the monkey mind – use a sledgehammer if you must, he’s a resilient little bugger).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Image Credit: Lyre Lark

33 thoughts on “Writing class and the power of self-awareness

  1. I took a series of creative writing classes beginning ten years ago from a diminutive German immigrant, a survivor of WWII and East Germany, Elizabeth Schneider-Scull. I learned one thing from her in the first ten minutes which launched me into writing. After that it was just write, write, write, and I get better with each story. It was such a simple, fundamental concept that I am reluctant to say what it was.

    • Morning, Robert!
      You’re killing me. You had an epiphany and you’re not going to share? Really?!?
      It is amazing when the right words land in the right ear and suddenly things come clear and we think, “THAT’s what it takes? I GET that!” and do a little happy dance. I’m glad you had one of those moments. Perhaps you ought to do a guest post here on Live 2 Write – Write 2 Live … share a little of your wisdom … help our readers out? What do you say?

  2. There are others of us out here wanting to know more, and finding this all a bit tantalizing! Can I add my weight to the plea and ask to know what the fundamental discovery was?
    I found myself wondering what – fundamentally – I need in order to be able to write. I think that I might add to your excellent list of essentials ‘find the writing tool/s you’re really comfortable with, ones that let you write without getting in the way of the writing.’ (It sounds ridiculous, but just so as not to hold back – personally, when I’m writing by hand I have to have either a mechanical propelling pencil with a reasonably soft lead, or a really smooth flowing drawing pen and preferably plain unlined paper. Like most people, nowadays I do more writing on the computer, so the same goes for a comfortable keyboard, chair, and all the other paraphernalia.)
    Thanks for underlining the importance of making time to put aside everything else and focus without distractions on what really matters creatively. We should all be doing some of this every day!

    • “… making time to put aside everything else and focus without distractions on what really matters creatively.”
      That’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it.
      Easier said than done, but always worth the effort.

      And as far as the perfect tools go, we writers all seem to have a particular fascination with the tools of our trade – electronic and otherwise. I agree that the right tools are important and can make the work more enjoyable, and even flow more easily; but I’ve written some of my best ideas on scraps of paper with a crayon. 😉

      Thanks for sharing!

  3. I haven’t taken any formal classes yet, beyond literature classes way back in college. Most of my initial writing was business related – I didn’t decide to be a writer until I turned 50 and closed my failing remodeling business that was hit hard by the economy. A year after starting, I was nowhere – studying books about technique written by other writers or editors, reading inspirational books by Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Sol Stein, etc. Writing, but no clips, no writerly connections, feeling unsure, etc. At that time, I wrote a letter to God. Here is what I said in August 2011:

    “Dear God: I am writing a letter because it’s one of the things I do best. Passion for the written word is a gift so if I’m to ‘pray’ it seems right to offer my best prayer in this way. Great voices sing, musicians compose – and writers should write what is whispered into their soul! The preacher, the singer, the musician, the writer – we are all praying. Many of us working in the creative realm aren’t good at rituals; nontheless, we’re grateful for what has been given to us and despite reluctance to adhere to structured creeds, we’re faithful. My own demonstrations are unique, making them true prayers designed from deep within. I have flaws. Not claiming perfection in this prayer. Not claiming to have all the answers, I move forward in small increments. Often, I’m struggling, but you planted this seed in me and now I’m nurturing it carefully. Look inside me. I dare you to tell me I’m wrong to want this after you have moved me to a point where I have embraced it. It has become an obsession and my words want to live in the outside world. My wants, my desires, my prayer is a good one. I won’t say it’s selfless, but it’s not self-indulgent. I can feel in my heart this is right. You can tweak it in any direction you want as long as it plays out. I am listening more intently than I ever have before. If I need help along the way, as I surely will, I trust you will point me in the right direction.”

    Not quite one year later, I started a critique group (which lasted ten months – and failed – but still a good experience), have had forty-two published articles
    ( 20 syndicated), have become part of a formal critique group, and met and talked with some extremely intelligent, funny, and inspirational writers and editors. No fiction published yet, but it’s coming. I can FEEL it going to happen.

    Sorry this post is so long…but Jamie…you are on the right track. You are listening to the inner voice. Beginnings are powerful stuff. Someday I will be reading your fiction.

  4. Simplicity IS elegant! My bad. 🙂
    My post was way too long everybody! Pandora’s box opened! My heart was touched and spilled my guts about the doubts and passions I identify with in Jamie’s post!

    • Don’t you dare apologize for “spilling your guts,” Laura. I’m touched and flattered that you chose to share all of that with us. You wrote from the heart and that’s the most honest and authentic thing you can do.

      I admire the way you put yourself out there.

      I recently shared an image and quote from The Africa Yoga Project on my Facebook page. I can’t pull the image in here, but the quote was this, “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”

      That really struck home with me.
      Your prayer is not at all self-indulgent.
      You are trying to give your gift to the world. That is the noblest and most loving thing you can do. It isn’t easy. Easy is to ignore our gift and the challenges that go with unearthing and refining it. Easy is to live life always consuming and never creating. That’s not your path. That’s not your passion.

      I love that you are going after this with all your heart. I’m right there with you.
      🙂

    • Hello, granbee!
      This is exactly what I’ve been craving of late. I’m afraid that now I’ve given myself a taste of dedicated time to work on my writing, it’s only whet my appetite for more (and more, and MORE)!

      Our modern, plugged-in world is a veritable bog mire of pitfalls for the writer trying to listen to her inner writer. Distractions and shiny objects abound. Stepping away from all that noise and motion, sitting still, stopping long enough to hear your own thoughts – this is how we reconnect and remember why the hell we started writing in the first place.

      I hope you are in intimate terms with your own muse. I bet she’s fun.

      PS – Visited some penguins at the Boston Aquarium on Monday. They asked me to say, “hi!” 🙂

    • Hello! Thanks for the reblog.
      I think of Lizard Brain as more fear-driven … the old fight-or-flight response system that is often negative, but more in a self-preservation tone. Monkey Mind is all about pointless and incessant chatter … less concerned with keeping you alive than with battering you via an endless stream of inane and often nit-picky, stream-of-consciousness prattle.

      They both have their place – even Monkey Mind – but neither is good for productivity or creativity.

      I wonder what that mind would be called … ?

  5. Hi, Jamie.
    Great post, I have not taken a writing class since high school, but I create the space of one everyday when I write. The trick is creating the space in our busy lives, it came to the point that I told my wife if you come to my office and hear me typing away to please leave me be, because I am in my zone. I look at my writing from a business perspective and the ROI, not in a monetized sense but in the sense that the more time I invest in my writing, the better writer I will be.

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