In my Sentence Power class, I experienced a lot of negative feelings. Isn’t that a cold way to put it! They made me feel like shit, okay? There were only a few fiction writers in the class and the rest of them were nonfiction writers. One girl even told me that she didn’t know why I was in the program at all. When I complained to my teacher about the nasty vibes in the class, he said it was because they were nonfiction and I was fiction. The only poet in the class had it much worse. People were constantly telling him that he was doing everything wrong.
I was already a writer. They could all jump someplace or other or do other rude things to themselves. I’d already written book-length manuscripts. That had to be worth something. If I hadn’t heard all those folks in Iowa City talking about how hard their workshops were (although they didn’t mention why they were hard) and experienced a little negative fallout at the summer festival myself, I wouldn’t have been prepared for what happened in this class.
Originally, we met in one of the old classrooms down-under in Gilman Hall, that kind of classroom where the ground was even with the windowsill and the mowers outside sounded like an attack of bomber squadrons when they passed by.
With the windows open to catch the summer breeze, even the crunch of a stone under someone’s foot or the slapping of flipflops could catch us unaware and steal our attention. Our teacher quickly lost his easy smile when our eyes turned to the summer scene outside instead of looking at his diagrammed sentence on the blackboard. We were having class in a forest of grass and I kept thinking of us as the Lilliputians who were dwarfed by the lush grass outside the window. The next week, our teacher had our class moved to a room that always seemed to be in perpetual twilight and the halls had samplings of amethyst and miniature towers of clouded crystal in glass-covered displays. Once again, our desks were placed in a tribal circle. Except this one was a council between warring clans. Most of the nonfiction warriors were on one side, the few fiction folks and poet on the other after we moved into the new classroom.
As time went on, a few members of the different factions broke the strict seating arrangement, but not many. What did change was how we wrote our assignments that were due twice a week. The fiction and poetry majors focused more strictly on the requirements that we were given, examples of novel clauses, metaphors, etc. The non-fiction majors started writing more creatively.
When I look back, it was a good experience for all of us, seeing what our writing could have in common and what made us different. I won’t ever forget the look on some of my classmates’ faces when they saw my assignment that described a commercial kitchen from the perspective of a lobster trapped in a tank, rubber bands around his claws.