After a quarter and a half of business school and the work that went into the application and GMAT, I was starting to feel a little bit like I was losing myself. I hadn’t made anything for myself in ages which was making me seriously anxious. But between graduate school and work demands, I knew I would never make time to correct the imbalance.
My solution? Enroll in another class on Tuesday nights between my Monday/Wednesday blocks of MBA classes. Reasonable!
Ultimately it proved to be a great decision. Tuesday night creative writing class at Cabrillo quickly became the highlight of my week. For me, immersing myself—even in such a small dose—in something creative was critical for my mental health. It really helped rekindle my love for fiction writing.
No, that’s not right. My love was kindled, but I had a big block in my head. What the class did was provide enough structure to get through that block. The class gave me the reason to push through the block and actually get words down on paper and then provided me with a method to actively discuss the work with other real-live humans in meatspace, instead of just putting it up here to languish. That was pretty special for me and felt rewarding in a way I didn’t anticipate when I signed up for the class.
The class also provided a venue for me to interact with other creative people in a way now missing from my life. I love the people I work with and the people I go to business school with, but I missed having weirdos (like me) to talk to about artsy nerd stuff.
I could write a whole post about it (and I probably will), but for now I will share with you the final reflection I wrote for the class. It provides some insight into where my head is these days and maybe you’ll get something out of it. I got something out of writing it.
1. In which of the following elements of fiction do you feel you grew the most? In which do you still wish to grow more? -Character, Setting, Dialog, Plot, Imagery, Point of view, Other…
I focused most on the structure of my work, and thinking of each as a coherent structural unit. I was digging through my blog recently (so 00’s) and found tons of fiction I have little memory of writing. Some of it was good, but some of it was not so good. All of it was fully improvised in the moment. Pantsed. That’s where my practice lies. And for that reason, thinking about writing a longer piece always seemed pretty overwhelming, insurmountable.
When I enrolled in this class, I knew I had a block in my head about longer works, that I lacked the tools to engage a longer piece. Getting some practice considering the writing as a standalone unit rather than a scene proceeding from and leading to another scene was important and something I was deliberate about. I knew that thinking about each story this way would translate to thinking about longer pieces the same way. All I needed was to get into the habit.
Truthfully, I didn’t nail it on all my stories. The first one was a single unit. One and done. The second one was unfinished when submitted. I’ve since finished it and sent it out to the journals. The third was really just a sketch of a bigger idea. If I had to grade myself on nailing the idea of keeping each one of these as an independent unit, then I didn’t do so well. But if the idea was to figure out how to make these freestanding units within a larger project, then I think I did all right.
Past that, the aspect I struggle with the most is plot. I’ve always thought of plot as doing, not happening. It needs to feel like the choices characters make are the choices they would make if it was a real situation, if they were real people with real drives. I get stuck in a pattern of thinking, “well, I guess they could just sort of do anything, right?” and that leads nowhere. Creating a plot that feels motivated and purposeful is a little bit like playing the role of your characters as if you were an actor. But, in this case, it’s like you are one actor playing every single role all at once and that is pretty hard to focus on. One or two sets of motivations and desires and obstacles, sure, but dozens? Tough. That will require much practice. It’s a one-man show with an ensemble cast that is forty hours long.
2. What is your long term goal as a writer? (Both as what you want to achieve artistically, and how you hope the world will receive it.)
I’d like to see if I can make a living writing. I’ve always wanted to make a living in a creative field, and, for a long time, I did. The older I get and the more experienced I get, the more I recognize that I am not so good at working with other people. Over the years I’ve learned to do it, but I am impatient and often prickly when I feel like I don’t have the autonomy to execute as I think is best. It’s a bad tendency that I try to temper, but still comes up now and then.
What I am really good at is executing to a deadline when I need to. Want me to go sit an office all day? NOPE. Grumpy Joe all the time. But, give me a list of things to finish and a deadline and the autonomy to do them in the order and method I choose? You’re going to get everything as requested to the best of my ability. Writing professionally is, from what I know, a lot like that. I just need to get myself to a place where someone wants to give me some deadlines. I can, of course, give them to myself, but that is less effective.
I understand that it’s not some magical free-for-all, do-what-thou-wilt arrangement, that there is pressure from publishers and editors and agents and booksellers and the realities of the market. The auteur is always tempered by the situation. I’ve learned that lesson a thousand times already. I am prepared for it and not at all worried about it. I long ago rid myself of the delusion that my art is ineffable, too great to be sullied by the crassness of commerce. Anyone who wants to make a living has to learn that.
Beyond the lifestyle aspect, I really enjoy writing and telling stories. It’s what drew me to the film world in the first place. Humans are storytellers. It is an important part of how we interact with each other and an important part of what we leave for those who follow us. And I really think I have stories to tell that will resonate with people. What else could someone ask for? If I can reach out through my words and make someone’s day or week or month better, then I am happy.
3. What has been your journey with your inner critic? What is the critic saying to you these days? How do you handle it?
He’s a real son of a bitch. My greatest enemy, even with things I know I am good at. It’s been a lifetime struggle that is sometimes ok, sometimes terrible. I am getting better at working through the terrible and giving myself permission not to generate perfection at all times. That was a difficult lesson to learn.
He’s better these days, less quick to reject any thought I have. I’ve found the best way to deal with him is to just talk to someone about my ideas. That’s something I’ve never had before. Voicing them gives them life and allows a different part of my brain to process them, which I think is helpful. I’ve discovered that talking about the ideas with other people is a helpful way to create what my wife calls “commitment devices”; if someone knows I should be working on something it keeps me accountable. And accountability always wins out over the voice. It’s a factor that always worked for me with my film editing (since you never just edit for only yourself), but not something I incorporated into my writing life until this class. Pretty wild to think about, but I’ve always been too shy about the work to talk about it. I’d post it all over the internet with my name on it and to the social medias and whatever, but speaking about it aloud was hard. Weird how these things are sometimes, right? Part of what I looked for with this course was enough confidence to talk about these things aloud and that has been a great success. I am very thankful for it.
4. Do you plan to keep writing after the class? What will this look like? (How often, where, etc.) Do you want to form a workshop with buddies from the class?
Yes. I am planning a novel version of The Boneman (title subject to change) in the weeks until my business school quarter ends. I dropped all my summer MBA classes when I learned that school would only be online. It doesn’t work for me at all. Too old, I guess, but I really require the in-person engagement for classroom learning.
I am giving myself a little break from writing until the end of the quarter, but will be using my free time to do some pre-writing and outlining of the novel. I’d like to be ready to execute as soon as finals are done. From there I have a weekly word count to hit—which may or may not be totally reasonable—and a deadline for the first draft of the project. It’s all subject to change as things evolve, but this will be a good way to start.
I would love to form a workshop with buddies. Ann, JJ, Lily, and I spoke about it during our final workshop session. I’ve already sent them work to read since then. And even if it’s not as formal as the You Are A Mirror set-up, having someone to chat with about the work is super helpful. Obviously. That’s why people have writing groups, right? I’d love to have something more formal, but it’s pretty hard with the plague quarantine. I’m sure that the group will evolve as time goes on too. All groups do.
5. How did the move to online learning impact your experience of the class?
Real talk. It was terrible. I thought you did a great job of the sudden shift from real-life to online, especially considering how quickly you had to make the change. But the online format, as I mentioned earlier, does not work for me. And for a class like this one that relies so much on discussion and open communication, the format just doesn’t work. It also didn’t help that like 60% of the class just disappeared when we went online. And it’s really tough to have a conversation with other students who elect not to use their camera. Talking to a name whose face you cannot see is pretty unhelpful. You did your best and I recognize it and appreciate it.
6. Do you plan to take another creative writing class?
Maybe. I believe my only option at Cabrillo is to retake this class as 12A. Santa Clara isn’t an option. And Hunter didn’t take me for their MFA program either time. If something comes up, I’d like to take another class. I really enjoyed this one. Tuesday night was a bright spot in my week. Just not totally sure what my options are.
I intend to keep learning, though. I have a number of writing books queued up to keep my brain churning along on the best way to tell stories. I’m going to finish the Anne Lamott book. That one is best a chapter at a time. I’m going to give King’s On Writing a run. I purchased and read the beginning of Wayne Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction which you mentioned in class. That one is a touch dense and will have to wait until my non-fiction reading doesn’t also include Data Analytics and Ethics for Managers. But I am excited to read the genesis of the unreliable narrator. Dipping in and out of books like these is a great way to give my brain something to process while I do other stuff.
7. What activities did you most enjoy?
-specific group interactive writing games (We didn’t do a lot of these because of the move to online learning. Address them if you remember them, and if not, don’t worry about it.)
-specific individual writing prompts
Hands-down the thing I most enjoyed was the workshop. The prompts were good and helpful for getting into the mood. I even generated a handful of ideas there I’m going to develop. The music playlist game was fun too and I enjoyed the one where we created a backstory for a character as a group while discussing specificity. But, for my money, the workshop was the most valuable exercise we did.
8. A year from now, what will you remember from this class?
The value of having a writing group. Too-hot coffees from the stand outside the building. Wondering each night if I was going to get away with not having a parking pass. Dark walks to the bathroom around the corner. Curiosity about what the sign language class was talking about when I passed. That kid asking you about his Star Fox fan-fiction on the first night of class. Attendance dropping as the weeks went on. Recognizing that I probably needed to learn how to type with more than just my left index finger, right index finger, right middle finger, and right thumb. Getting back into the swing with Scrivener. Coming home totally jazzed about what we’d been doing in class and talking my poor wife’s ear off.
9. How was your experience of workshop? What did you learn from critiquing the work of your peers? What did you learn from getting the feedback of your peers?
Workshop was an incredibly valuable exercise for me. Getting feedback is great, even if the feedback itself isn’t what you want to hear. I mean, we all just want to be told how smart and how funny and how good looking we are, right?
It’s so easy to get stuck in your own head about parts of the work, and from there you have nowhere else to go. Just deeper into your own damn head. The workshop digs us out of that mire and keeps the wheels turning in a way that you just can’t do on your own. I also found that thinking about the other work helped me think about my work more critically. Maybe there’s something about getting into that mindset or maybe when we read other’s work, we are subconsciously looking for things that bug us about our own. Probably a little bit of both.
Regardless, I often had good breakthroughs on my work after dissecting the work of my group members. That is testament to the importance of having a writing group and not grinding things out in isolation. Perspective is key.
10. What are you most proud of? What were your personal writing “wins” this semester?
I am proud of the work I produced. It has been a long time since I’ve written and finished anything. Part of the point of enrollment was to shake off the cobwebs and I did that. No matter what comes of any of it, this has been valuable time spent honing my craft.
I’m really curious to know how business school is going. I work with lots of people with MBAs and I’m often the odd duck sitting on a product team with my Linguistics degree, in a sea of CS degrees and MBAs.
I really really miss writing. The last writing class I took was in 2011. I relate to a lot of the sentiments you describe in this post, especially when you talk about always wanting to make a living as a writer.
I’ve got a whole lot of thoughts about business school and would gladly chat with you about it in real life as soon as the quarantine lifts. Or on the phone. You still have my number, right? It hasn’t changed in ages.
You should take a creative writing class at the closest community college. It’s easy to get in—especially as a college graduate—and it’s super affordable. I just signed up. No prerequisites. I recommend it. I took ENGL 14A at Cabrillo. https://success.cabrillo.edu/Student/Courses/Search?subjects=ENGL Try to find something equivalent. It will be worth your time.