Stephen Leigh & S.L. Farrell

Roaming at the intersection of fiction and reality

Being A 'Writer', Not An 'Author'

I’ve been preparing material for this semester's round of classes -- I'm teaching a 200 level "Intro to Creative Writing" and my absolute favorite class since it's entirely my baby, the 400 level "Novel Writing" class.

Now, in the Novel Writing class, I'll have mostly focused students who really want to be there and are interested in writing fiction. Yes, there will be the inevitable one or two students who will drop the class when I read the riot act (otherwise known as the syllabus) on the first night, and they realize that I expect them to do one hell of a lot of writing during this semester. But for the most part, the students who take that course already have a certain dedication -- they are already, to some extent, 'writers.'

It's different in the Intro class. For that class, the crop of students usually falls into one of two categories:

1: those who are interested in pursuing creative writing of one ilk or another in their college career, and thus must take this course because it is the prerequisite for all the other creative writing courses

2: those who are taking it because they need a class in the English area, and have signed up because, hey, how hard can something called "Creative Writing" be?

Of the second category, I'll lose a few of those the first night when I go over the syllabus and my expectations. They'll realize that I actually expect a fair amount of work and input from them. The rest will stick around, and they will either find that they actually enjoy writing and I might actually see them in another course, or they will come away with (hopefully) a much deeper appreciation of the process of writing and the decisions involved in it, even if they never set down another piece of creative writing in their lives.

Of the first category, within that group there will be three sub-categories:

1) The tabla rasa

2) Those who are already writers

3) Those who are 'Poets' or 'Authors'

The first sub-category, the 'empty slates', are those who are curious about creative writing, but haven't really done much of it. They're curious, and curiosity is a wonderful thing. Some of them will actually become writers -- because they'll play with the poetry, the personal essays, or the stories we work on in this class, and one or another of the forms will excite their imaginations and make them want to do more on their own. And some of them will also find that this isn't what they thought it was... which is good, actually. Knowing what you're not interested in doing with your life is a valuable lesson.

The second sub-category is a teacher's favorites (and is also the rarest segment of the class): students who will push me, who will ask questions and challenge what I say, who will demand to know more, who will venture beyond the "I like this" and "I don't like this" in the workshop sessions and will show nascent critical tools and thinking. They'll get the most out of the class, because they'll mine what small bit of knowledge I have and use what they can of it. They are already 'writers' because they are already writing, because they've produced short stories and poetry and essays all on their own already, because something in them forces them to smash their thoughts onto paper so they can see the patterns of their thoughts. They don't need my class or any other -- no writer needs to take 'classes' in writing, because you learn by writing, by reading and dissecting the writing of other people, and by getting critical feedback on your own work and using it to refine your skills. You can do that on your own as effectively as you can do it in a classroom setting. And yes, I actually do say that in my class...

And then there's the third sub-category: the 'Poets & Authors.' This is sometimes the largest category in the class.... These are the students who want to "have written and published." They don’t have an interest in actually writing, they only are interested in seeing their name on the cover of a book. These are the same type of people who might also want to be rock stars or lead actors or famous painters, but either don't want to actually have a great deal of motivation to learn music, take acting lessons, or learn how to mix paint or visual composition. They have the mistaken impression that no real work is required of creative efforts, that 'art' flows unbidden and whole from some secret well inside the 'artist’ and the artist either has that native talent or they don’t. They seem to feel that the 'revise and revise and revise again' process is somehow dirty, and that 'writing with the intention of selling your work' is even dirtier.

They've been infected by academics and previous teachers in elementary and high school who, not being writers themselves and thus not understanding the process at all, have told them how 'real' Authors are 'inspired' and 'suffer for their work' and 'write from the heart.' They've been sold the Romantic Vision of Art—that the Muse comes to visit the Artist in their lonely garret and strikes them with Divine Inspiration, at which point the Artist falls into a mad fit and produces a True Work of Art. They've been convinced that if something is Not-Dense-and-Difficult-to-Understand it's also Not-Good.

When I inform them that work from the heart nearly always requires additional editing no matter how inspired, they don't believe or understand that. When I tell them that clarity is a quality to be desired, they raise their eyebrows. They're the ones you can see shaking their heads during the workshop critiques, because their story is pure and from the depths of their immense teenage angst and "it really happened that way" and therefore must be perfect as is. They've been taught, all along, that it's the reader who must make the effort to appreciate the story. The reader must do the work of understanding the story rather than the writer doing the work of making the story understandable and entertaining in the first place.

Because they equate writing with Capital-A Art, they wait for Inspiration. They wait for the Muse. They spend nearly all their time waiting.

My job is to destroy that Romantic Vision and begin to undo the infection of former teachers and past perceptions.

I tell them that to be a writer, they must make writing a dirty, filthy habit: they must apply their butt to a chair and their fingers to a keyboard and put down words each and every day whether they feel inspired or not, then when they're done they have to go back and polish the words and eviscerate the bad ones and create more good ones. I tell them they have to work at creative writing as they would work at any job, that writing is work and research and revision...

Some of them will hear me, and they might actually one day become writers. To me, that's when I succeed as a teacher: when they come into my class a "Poet & Author" and they leave as something else.

I don't always succeed, of course. Others might get the message later, from some other teacher or mentor, or they may never get it. Some will remain 'authors-in-their-mind' and will never produce anything. They'll be the people who come up to me at conventions or at signings and tell me about this great idea they have for a book... and how one day they'll write it: "When I they have time." I always smile at them and suggest that they should start now—go home and put those first sentences down, and write a bit more of it every day until you have a complete draft, then revise it, tear it apart, and revise it a few more time.

And they'll smile back at me and shake their heads, because they know that's not how True Art is done.