During my Contemporary Writers course, Jean McGarry had brought a spiral notebook that she used when she wrote one of her stories. She’d made very few changes in the text from her original draft. When I mentioned this to my Sentence Power teacher, he said that nobody wrote that way. Later at a book signing, she’d laughed when I mentioned the notebook to her, saying she’d probably just been showing off.
After years of writing, she’d made all those questions, all those choices, a part of her writing process, doing the work mentally before she wrote down the words. I’m not sure how well this would work for me, slowing down my writing enough to make all those choices as I write, to write one sentence at a time and be able to see the whole story before its written. Yet, my goal in this course was to integrate better word-level techniques into my drafts and to some degree, I’d become an advocate of that philosophy.
I identified several different ways that helped me absorb good micro-writing style that usually followed the rules. The structure of this exemplary class and spending an extraordinary amount of time on the exercises changed how I read other writers too. In our program, it’s called Sentence Power for good reason. In the past, I had consulted Strunk on occasion. If you have that kind of patience, I would like to meet you, you must be related to Ghandi!
The last non-credit writing class I took at Hopkins was primarily about novel structure. The teacher, a graduate of the Hopkins Writing Seminars, was a screenwriter writing his first novel. He’d analyzed several different books that were similar to the one that he wanted to write and was imitating their structure in his own book. His approach, as I wrote earlier, made a lot of sense to me because that’s how I’d figured out the essential elements of a mystery.
He had the advantage, however, of having learned what elements to look for during his studies atHopkins, which I hadn’t had when I took his course and we’re back again to whether or not writing programs teach us how to write. Knowledge is a powerful thing. How we integrate that knowledge into our writing seems to be something we have to figure out on our own.
My program didn’t teach me the creative process or how to imagine ideas and characters. The program did provide a structure through exercises that made me do the hard work on my craft and develop good writing habits.
I do think that the larger community of writers is very different from the communities of musicians and artists that I’ve known. Writers often wrap the creative process up in this mystique that reminds me of some ancient cults that created elaborate rituals for their followers. Most musicians, in contrast, have no trouble demanding that their students practice scales and exercises, that composers learn the elements of music theory. The emphasis on technique continues through graduate school. I suppose that in large part, writing teachers are trying not to squelch the process of coming up with ideas, or they’re relying on the English classes that everyone’s had before.
I did expect the emphasis on technique to continue in my workshops, which wasn’t always true. That’s another story.