Old Lady: New Tricks? Writing courses for wannabe authors

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Tomorrow, the second of the two workshops I signed up for this summer will start.

The first was a MOOC through Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I must say…that was a bust. First off, you’re invited to listen to an introductory video. This consists of two Iowa faculty members sitting at a desk reading the welcome and the desiderata for the course.

No kidding. They have their notes laid flat on the table — apparently Iowa can’t even afford to provide a plywood podium so they don’t have to look down to deliver their remarks. They’re sitting in front of a videocam with their faces staring DOWN at the desk, reading the stuff as if they’ve never seen it before themselves. TED Talkers, these two are not.

When they do look up, their strained politeness toward each other is of the sort that reminds one why one is glad to have exited academia. University faculties are all the same — whether they’re at some prestigious school or at Podunk State. And lo! There’s that familiar expression on their faces, the one that tells you it’s all they can do to hold it together without lunging at each others’ throats.

Yeah. I do know the look. 😀

That seemed inauspicious. And as it developed, the omen was tryin’ to tell us something. The theme of this summer’s workshop was examining social issues in your writing. All very intellectual-sounding. But when you get into it, what you find is that it’s set up much like a series of virtual dorm-room bull sessions. Some broad topic is presented: it’s the sort that undergraduate students like to “philosophize” about as they’re hashing through the challenges of entering adulthood. You’re asked to read some stories, and then you’re supposed to go online and “discuss.” Presumably the insights gained will inform your writing, and some of you — maybe at least one of you? — will disgorge Lit’rachure.

In the “been there, done that” department…ugh. It was fun when I was 19, but I think I’m past it now.

The truth is, I don’t want to contribute to the literature of the 21st century. I just want to tell a good story. Any good story.

It need have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Certainly not high-minded qualities. Let’s just write some fun stuff, some interesting stuff, some inspirational stuff, some depressing stuff, some detective stuff, some urban fantasy stuff, some sci-fi stuff, even some romantic stuff…but spare me the middle-brow dorm room bull sessions.

So that dropped off my computer after Week 1.

In lesser precincts: Maricopa County, home of the fifth-largest city in These United States, has a library system. Can you imagine? Yes. Flyover states got libraries. And the county managed to dig up some cash to offer residencies to actively publishing writers of various stripes. Some of them are genre novel writers, some nonfiction writers, whatEVER. All have contrived to get their emanations published through real publishing houses, a mark of distinction in this game.

Some of the resident writers have allowed themselves to be got up to offering writers’ workshops at their respective libraries. And lo! One such resides at the city library where my favorite group of tyro writers meets each month.

It’s a bitch of a long drive out there, but there are only two meetings a month, spread over three months. So I figure what the heck: I can afford the gas to make an extra couple trips a month out there. Also I figure a guy who’s writing genre novels for what he hopes will be a living is not likely to fill my ear with high-minded socially correct post-adolescent palaver.

So that starts tomorrow. It should be interesting.

In my experience, writing classes and workshops for would-be Writers with a Capital W are pretty much hit & miss. There used to be a workshop in Santa Fe that was truly outstanding. I don’t think it’s still extant, unfortunately. But when it was going, they would have real, publishing writers direct groups of 15 or 20 wannabes in reading and critiquing their work. The people who ran the groups knew what they were doing, and they were very, very good. They had sit-down meals in the retreat where they met, so you got to know people; they had authors’ readings; and they invited real, nonfraudulent working literary agents who would speak to you and if they felt inclined to do so would agree to let you send your proposal to them.

One of the neat things about the Santa Fe conference was that it attracted a lot of attendees who were already publishing or who were real-world writers. I took up with a woman whose day job was technical writing and editing, for example. On the side, she was a pretty creditable fiction writer.

And that’s the thing: I’m a little past the wannabe stage. I’ve been a paid, working writer. Granted, what I wrote was (mostly) nonfiction (though my poetry has been published in Puerto del Sol). I spent 20 years as a journalist, which is the reason I wangled a full-time NTT university job teaching upper-division and graduate-level writing.  My eyes are not wide and starry, my heart is flinty, and my skepticism is heightened. And I do know how to write a simple sentence.

So a lot of writers’ workshop endeavors are lost on me. They’re as much a waste of my time as palavering online about topics that my friends and I hashed out in the dorm fifty years ago.

And yeah: I know that sounds snobby and elitist and dismissive. But truth to tell, I don’t have so much time left on this earth that I can afford to waste it.

Image: DepositPhotos, © kasto

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4 thoughts on “Old Lady: New Tricks? Writing courses for wannabe authors

  1. marty knox

    One of the best most honest blogs and podcasts I have read is Joanna Penn, The Creative Penn. Check it out.
    Fiction and non-fiction both are on Amazon

  2. marty knox

    I’ve seen some incredibly awful boring MOOC classes. I’ve also seen some spellbinding ones. Good teachers are good teachers. As a retired Mathematics department chair (gasp a woman the first in my school). I could immediately tell the good teachers from the crappy ones the minute I walked into the classroom, needless to say, I fired half the mathematics department the first year. Yes, Virginia, you can fire teachers. When I retired I began to sub because I missed the best part of teaching -the kids. I walked into a horrible classroom, kids were wild, no lesson plans were left, no curriculum. The room was a disaster. I wrote lesson plans for myself on the fly. the kids cleaned up the room, carrot and stick approach, and the principal wanted to hire me full time on the spot. The funniest incident happened later that day when I talked to the janitor, who happened to be my neighbor. She said “I could tell there was someone who knew what they were doing the minute I came into the classroom. the room was totally different than the usual disaster.” Even janitors notice.During my whole career teaching and in the real corporate world I always made sure I thanked the janitors and secretaries for their hard work. PS They know where all the bodies are buried.

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