Friday, October 2, 2009

Schoolin’ About Writin’

I never took a creative writing class in high school. In fact, I didn't care much for English class, always opting to do some kind of alternative communication project when available (think videotaped speech, pantomime, or interpretive dance), rather than write a paper. Maybe if they'd called it Language Arts, like they do now, I'd have been more interested.

In college, the only English class I took was a required technical writing course. Why did engineers need to learn how to write anyway?

In graduate business school, we had plenty of writing to do, but itBuzzword Bingo wasn't very creative, unless you thought playing buzzword bingo counted ("searching for synergistic solutions and proactively pursuing paradigms is all well and good, but moving forward at the end of the day..."). Creativity was mostly limited to accounting. (CEO to CFO: "Do you know how much 2 plus 2 is?" CFO: "Sure. Whatever you want it to be, boss.")

It wasn't until many years later that I decided to write fiction. I'd always been a voracious reader, so how hard could writing be?

My first efforts weren't pretty.

But I took a few writing workshops, got into some good critique groups, and, um, read a lot of books about writing.

A few favorites:

On Writing by Stephen King

Write the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

How to Write A Damn Good Mystery by James N. Frey (not that James Frey!)

Don't Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

There are tons of other books on the "How To Write" shelves. Some offer step-by-step plans, some put you through "boot camps," and some promise to help you churn out a book in a month or six weeks or ninety days. Whatever works for you.

Me? I usually feel like I'm just winging it.

What's helped you with your writing? Any special books? MFAs? Writer retreats? A six-pack on the back porch every night? 




Lisa Bork said...

I think everything I needed to know about writing was probably learned in high school English, just like everything I needed to know about life was learned in kindergarten. I doubt creativity can be learned, except when it comes to corporate finance.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

My favorite two books on writing are Stephen King's "On Writing" and "The Courage to Write" by Ralph Keyes.

I learned the mechanics of writing in the usual high school and college classes, but I learned about the soul of writing by reading, reading, reading. And I've learned as much from reading books that I deemed not that good, as I did from reading the masters.

Keith Raffel said...

I took courses on writing at UC Berkeley Extension from Margaret Lucke, Donna Levin, and Ellen Sussman. In addition to being fine novelists themselves, they were terrific and inspiring teachers. My fellow students were really supportive as well.

Anonymous said...

That's a really interesting question! I didn't learn to write in an "official" class. I learned how to write nonfiction, scholarly work in my graduate program, but my fiction? I just played around with it. Once I started getting solid ideas for novels, the rest just flowed. In that sense, I agreew ith Lisa's comment about creativity not being learned (and about corporate finance ; )).

Alan Orloff said...

Well, so far, we have one vote for HS English (ok, maybe one and a half votes), one vote for reading, reading, reading, one vote for creative writing classes taught by novelists, and one vote for "playing around with it."

Many roads leading to the same place. Very interesting.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Everything I needed to know came from hanging out with my English teacher dad and my English teacher grandmother.

Reading helped, on top of that.

And, of course, I was an English major. What choice did I have? :)


joe doaks-Author said...

Much to everyone’s chagrin, I’ve become a real fan of How To writing books. Not sure why that is. Maybe because I’ve learned how little I know and every page brings some “ah ha” moment. So, yes, the writing books have helped. Probably what’s helped the most, however, is just reading…a bunch. Some of that has also been counter-productive, as that body of work includes many “classics,” a style in which we no longer write. But, overall, I learned a lot through osmosis.

Best Regards, Galen

You went to college??? Sorry, couldn’t resist.

Imagineering Fiction Blog

Alan Orloff said...

I think I see a few more votes for reading. I know that's what probably helped me the most.

So writers are readers? Who would have guessed?

And Galen, I know, it is hard to believe I went to college. I may even have the sheepskin lying around somewhere to prove it.

Craven said...

Alan, you're my peeps. I too avoided English classes unless required, took technical writing in college, and became an engineer.

I've always been a storyteller. When an old friend pointed it out, I wondered why I wasn't writing. The toughest part has been overcoming the passive voice required in technical writing. I have a bookcase near its tesile limit from the weight of how-to books.

It's interesting how writing has changed the way I read. Beyond being transported by the story, part of me is analyzing technique and language.

Alan Orloff said...

Craven - We need to stick together in the face of all these English majors!

I find that settings and description are hard. For some reason, I just want to get down to business. Probably the engineer in me.

For me, the worst part of high school English was having to read all those "classics." To this day, the idea of reading James Joyce makes me a little queasy.

G.M. Malliet said...

Alan - I had great teachers all thru my school days. And I was always that kid reading long after lights out.

Deborah Sharp said...

I'd say 20 years as a reporter taught me to write tight, do dialogue, and deliver on deadline. But the actual creating and plotting??? THAT took some doing! Much credit goes to my fiction-writing group in Ft. Laud, headed up by the wonderful Joyce Sweeney.