Chapter 1: The Quest for Pura Vida

Why Everyone Should Take a Creative Writing Class in College

I had meant to find where my classes would be before the first day of class, but somehow I didn’t.  Luckily, with the help of a couple of upperclassmen and a sign that said, “If you are looking for room #421, turn around,” I managed to find my first class on my first official day of college.

I registered for the Intro. to Creative Writing class on a whim, because it fit the right time slot to make my schedule “perfect” and I had always vaguely wanted to know the secrets to writing.  I ended up in a room with a temperature for winter coats, not Nike shorts, along with 17 or 18 other students and a young, energetic instructor who introduced herself by her first name.

The first day, and every day following, she had us arrange our chairs in a circle so we could all see each other.  We wrote our names on makeshift notebook paper name plates and were given a pop name quiz halfway through the semester that actually counted as a grade.

All in all, slightly different from my other classes.

That class covered poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction writing; since then I have taken intermediate classes for both fiction and creative nonfiction, and I plan to take poetry when I come back from Costa Rica, even though poetry is a struggle for me at best.  I have several reasons why I keep coming back to writing classes, and none of the them are because I’m an English major (because I’m not).  These are the reasons I give to anyone I know going into (or already in) college anytime I am asked for advice.

  1. Because you hate (or like) writing.  It’s nice to be able to complain to your friends that you have  a 10-page paper due when you’re getting into debates over who has the more difficult life, while secretly knowing you’ll have fun writing the paper.  The truth is, creative writing is unlike nearly any kind of writing you’ve ever been forced to turn in.  You don’t have to deal with strict format guidelines and you can actually write about anything ANYTHING you’re interested in (including yourself, in a non-posing-for-scholarship-committees kind of way).  Having deadlines and prompts will give you a structure and discipline so you can fully explore your writing style without having the Procrastination Beast (permanently) in your way.
  2. Because you have something to say.  Creative nonfiction is a genre I didn’t even know existed before I took the creative writing class, and I spent the entire semester dreading writing a piece because I was convinced my life was average and boring and I had nothing to say.  So I ended up writing my piece about why I didn’t want to write the piece.  Here’s a quote from the first draft:”I could vomit up some moments that you would find interesting, rummage around in my little bag of cute-small-town-girl-who-didn’t-belong-in-cowboy-boots memories that you may find intriguing—I myself might find them entertaining if they hadn’t happened to me.  But I’m done with those.  I’m not even the same person.”I couldn’t even make the minimum page limit by the time the class workshopped my piece, but with the help of constructive comments and encouragement from my instructor and classmates, I ended up with a viable second (and third) draft that articulated something I previously couldn’t even articulate to myself.Also, did I mention I got to write a paper about why I didn’t want to write the paper and got an A?
  3. Because you can.  You don’t have to be Shakespeare to write.  The professor doesn’t expect you to turn in a first draft that will be published and critically acclaimed by next month.  It’s good to have a basic grasp of grammar, but other than that, you’re in an introductory class where everyone is exploring their writing style and experimenting with structure.  A guy in one of my classes kept apologizing for his writing before I had even read it.  The first draft wasn’t bad writing, but the second draft I read a few weeks later was what left me wanting to read more.  Once he stopped worrying about what the class would think and started writing what he wanted to write, he ended up with a voice that was unique and strong.
  4. Because it will keep you sane (mostly).  College is a mess of exciting things that are always happening, leaving your old self behind, no sleep, friends who always want to go to Walmart, mistakes, looming deadlines, no sleep, too many classes, parents wanting you to visit, life-altering decisions, and no sleep.  Writing helps to relieve a lot of the stress.  The one semester I did not take a writing class was the most stressful and burdensome time of my life. While part of this was the inherent nature of my job and the classes I was taking, writing would have alleviated some of the pressure.  Yes, I could have written without taking a class, but I was convinced I didn’t have the time (rather, I don’t have the discipline).Writing also gives you an opportunity to try to organize the mess of your life and actually understand what’s going on.  You find consistent threads in your life to follow.  One of my writing professors had us keep a journal of inspiration for our writing.  Mine had everything from short quotes and images and real-life dialogue to research and entire first drafts.  At the end of the semester, I went back and read through the entire journal and found that I had written the same (original) paragraph almost verbatim four times without realizing it.  Writing a full-length piece out of it allowed me to release the beast that kept surfacing.
  5. Because you will be able to connect perspectives to real people.  In a creative writing class, you get to know people on the surface before you ever read any of their writing.  You get to know who laughs at what jokes, who speaks up in class, who will come in and actually turn on the lights when half the class is already there sitting in the dark, who never thinks before raising their hand, and who instinctively avoids whom.  Then the first round of workshops happen and you get to read and comment on everyone’s writing, and you realize which of your surface-level judgements are wrong and which are accurate in unexpected ways.There’s the guy with the afro-mohawk who likes poetry who ends up writing about the interesting combination of fear of the dark and insatiable curiosity about his childhood house at night.  There’s the girl with the modest fashionable clothes in the back who never speaks and smiles nervously if you make eye contact, who writes about sign-stealing and setting hand sanitizer on fire.  There’s the guy with the full red beard and hipster clothes who writes a story about a middle-aged, beer-swigging divorced hunter.  There’s the two guys who never talk to each other but end up both writing about visiting family in Honduras.And then there will be a piece of paper you disagree with completely, but you can’t judge the writer or dismiss her as an extremist lunatic, because you know her and you know she’s a nice, sane, complex person, so now you have to reevaluate why you disagree so much with the writing.
  6. Because you will become part of a community you never knew existed.  Through the classes, you get introduced to a whole world of writing you never read in your English class.  You will read as far back as Montaigne, the French guy who wrote some of the earliest creative nonfiction, and as far forward as what your professor is currently working on.  You will read the best literary short stories of the previous year and learn that there’s such a thing as places made specifically for writers to stay and find inspiration and write all day every day.  You will go to readings by famous authors and writers on-campus and maybe one of your instructors will invite you to the after-party where a bunch of the professors sit around with the writer making conversation and eating delicious cheese-on-cracker things, and you and the other two classmates who plucked up the courage to go will feel awkward because you don’t actually know any of the writer’s work other than what he just read, but hey, it was an experience, right?You will expand and find the work you actually connect with and stop thinking that just because you can’t get through the first chapter of Dickens without falling asleep, you’ll never enjoy literature.

Bonus: if you put some effort in and turn in all of your work, it tends to be a GPA booster.

6 thoughts on “Why Everyone Should Take a Creative Writing Class in College

  1. Interesting post–glad I stumbled upon it. I’ve always considered myself a writer, but I have yet to venture forth into a class dedicated specifically to fiction, mostly due to anxieties regarding criticism. But you may have changed my mind!

    1. Most writers are primarily readers, and the feedback from 20 other writers is invaluable. People tend to evaluate others’ work in the same way they would want their own to be evaluated. I found that people were as quick to point out strengths in the my writing as things to work on. Also, my fiction class helped me a lot with the structures and tools that build good writing.

      If you want to take a class, go for it! One nice thing about having classmates read your work rather than friends or family is that you never have to see your classmates again after the semester if you don’t want to.

  2. I took my first (and only) writing class (travel writing, creative non-fiction) right before I went abroad. I had to fulfil a core requirement for graduation (since, you know, liberal arts), and that one seemed like the least amount of pain/fit my schedule/might be fun.

    I ended up having a blast – and learned a bit about travel blogging, which kind of prompted me to start my OWN blog 🙂
    I don’t necessarily think everyone is built to be a blogger (deadlines, no pay, hate mail), but I DO think that writing classes in college can give you the motivation/strength/purpose to start your own blog~

    1. I never thought about my writing classes leading to blogging. We only covered literary topics.

      But I guess it did indirectly by teaching me that writing recreationally is a thing. Interesting to see the connection.

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