The Writing Class

I summarized the circumstances that brought this about in my last post. Now that it’s finished: a synopsis – and the outcome!

The day of the first class, there was a pretty serious snowstorm. School was cancelled, roads were relatively crummy, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get the twenty miles to Decorah, but I was determined to go. I took the vehicle with better tires, and made it there only a few minutes late (which, considering my chronic “time optimism”, is not too bad). I enjoyed the first class, heard some things that I’d learned secondhand from my vicarious following of Lance’s classes phrased in a different way, and got what I thought was an “assignment” for the next class: write a familiar recipe as a story.

An assignment to me, historically (based on my experiences in high school, community college, and the University of Iowa Nursing program),  is a prompt that you write to, re-read once for errors (maybe), turn in, and then wait for a grade. And generally get a very good grade and a comment on how well-written the piece was.

I took the class very seriously, so I fought with myself over which recipe I knew that had the best story. Lance kept lobbying for stir-fry, but it’s a recipe that I, myself, never actually make. So, I eventually decided to do the stir-fry recipe and make the fact that I never have to make it the focus of the piece. I wrote it the same way I’ve written every high school and college essay ever… Quickly but confidently, with one or two re-readings to fix minor details and proofread (and a considerable amount of fact-checking with Lance, because I’ve legitimately never made it). And at the last minute, of course. I printed it immediately before I had to leave for class.

The second class, we talked about earning editorializing speech through the use of vivid description. (The piece the instructor used to illustrate this is “Aspic” by Tatyana Tolstaya in The New Yorker, 1/25/16)  I waited the entire class for the call for homework, and was confused when it never came. Towards the end, I asked something like, “Am I crazy, or was there homework assigned last time?” Other classmates agreed and the instructor gave me kind of a funny look, and said there was, but it was more of a suggestion, but had I done something and would I like her to read it?

Yes, of course! I gave her the printout of the assignment I’d completed.

The next class, after the lecture and discussion, she kind of jokingly flung my ‘homework’ back to me and told us that her ‘assignments’ were suggestions. She had written a short comment on it that spoke, ironically, specifically to the lecture she’d done that night. I had written a thing, but there was no real story. I had lots of room to add interest and should consider emotion… Like the piece from the last class. I was honestly pretty deflated by the lukewarm response. Since high school, through community college and even university level, every time I’ve submitted a paper or project, I have gotten very positive comments about my writing.  (I once had a community college instructor suggest that I submit a ‘descriptive essay’ for publication. I had assumed she was kidding at the time, but I wish I still had that file, just to remember what I had written.)

That took the wind out of my sails completely for a little bit, but I was determined to suck everything I could out of the class. The fact that the instructor is entertaining, charismatic, knowledgeable and obviously passionate about her art only enforced that maybe my expectations were too low.

The prompt for another early class called for us to bring an important-to-us object to explain. I brought the $130,000-teether that Olin had in the hospital at Mayo. I explained the story and wrote in a classroom exercise, after a beautiful explanation from the instructor of how to bring it out:

“There is a cave, a sort of limbo between the brightly-lit, expensive-decorated public halls of the institution, and the antiseptic-scented bustle of the ward. It’s a dimly-lit interior warren of halls, marked with the occasional abandoned gurney or laundry cart and guarded on all sides by large, solid double doors with signs that say “CAUTION: Automatic Door”, “Restricted Access”, “Biohazard”, “Staff Only”, “Do Not Enter”. But you must enter. Because your child is on the other side.”

I’m not sure where the second person point of view came from on that. It seems – from what I’ve read and listened to of hers – that Ms. Weldon prefers writing in second person, so maybe I picked it up from her. Several of the pieces we had read used that technique of a long, drawn out sentence followed by one or two short ones to “punch up” a point, so I was attempting to use the technique. Enh.

The last two classes were  a ‘workshop’ to develop a piece that had “a beginning, a middle and an end.” The last entry I wrote in this blog was part of a drawn-out internal debate on what to write about. And a lot of quiet freaking out. I was kind of used to talking to Lance about his workshop word-length requirements, so I was looking for a requirement, and she didn’t give even a suggestion, so I was just assuming the ‘short story’ format I thought he had – 3,000-8,000 words. I had a scene from “The Story” that Lance and I have been working on for decades that I wanted to try, but I couldn’t gather the confidence to draw it out.

I ended up writing about the most dramatic, familiar, emotional, important thing that has ever happened to me: Olin’s surgery. (Funny that the most interesting thing that has happened to me didn’t actually happen to me at all.) The first time I wrote it out, I referred extensively to the blog posts that I had made at the time, and mentioned things that were important to me then. Once I had finished, I felt like it was ‘cheating’ for a writing project, because it felt like a condensed blog entry. I write in my blog a lot, as you (my very small audience) know, and rarely do more than review for typos and better phrasing.

This time, I did pretty extensive revision and rewriting, reading it out loud to myself and fixing things so it read better, and changing things around a lot more than I have ever bothered with before. I still kind of felt like a fraud, because it was so much like the blogging I do on a regular basis, though. I very nervously took it to the workshop class, and got some feedback about how the piece made them feel and some personal stories from classmates, and a really amazing critique, editing suggestions and very, very useful feedback from the instructor – as well as a few comments about my “voice” and italics/section break usage that were extremely encouraging. After I read her feedback, I went up and asked her if she thought it was worth cleaning up to try and publish, and she said, “Yes!” and wrote the name of a magazine on the top of the page.

So, I took her feedback and the suggestions Lance had made, and made some pretty specific changes that improved the readability and clarified a few things, and “punched up” some of the higher-tension passages. I read it for the last class and was so nervous, I had to hold my hands against the table, or they’d shake too hard for me to be able to read the words. Urgh, stage fright. At the end, though, the instructor told me “That is ready!” Ready to publish, she meant.

stapler

I took her seriously, and went out and bought myself a bunch of envelopes, a shiny new red stapler, and lots of stamps. And then, I submitted my first manuscript to a publisher. That is an absolute milestone for me! It feels like when I found out I could take the NCLEX – or when I found out I was pregnant. So much potential, nervous about the outcome, but still an accomplishment in its own right. I have only submitted it to the one place so far, but am looking around for other places to go with it.

More importantly, I’ve learned that I actually can write something worth reading, and that someone who knows what they’re talking about thinks would be publishable. That means a lot to me. Enough that I started in on a new writing ‘project’ less than a week later. I don’t have the deadlines of the class to drive me on this one, or the promise of such useful feedback, but I’m still inspired to try.

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