Friday, January 25, 2013

How to Get the Most Out of a Writing Class


Despite having decided on the career in middle school, I didn’t take many writing classes outside of the mandatory English. I had my typical, fearful, egotistical, and disenchanted reasons for doing so. It’s why I became a theatre major instead of something that would be more useful, like English. (Joke intended.)

I believed that writing classes were filled with egos, that they taught the professor’s closed minded opinion, that they would illustrate to me just how many people were doing the exact same thing, that they would prove I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be, and that it wouldn’t really improve me as much as demoralize me.

Over time I’ve come to realize that I was pretty much correct.

Nevertheless, one of the things I regret is not utilizing the lessons I had. The reality is that though a classroom is not a pure entity for art to be discussed openly, honestly, intelligently, and thoroughly, it is one of the few places the discussion can happen at all. Once outside of it, you are really alone.

-Don’t waste energy trying to impress.

Being impressive has its rewards, but it tends not to be worth it when you’re in a room full of people who not only have no effect on your future, but would rather be ghost writers for teenage romance novels than be impressed by you.

Looking good is hard enough for a neutral audience, let alone a competitive one. Of course, having a teacher think that you’re talented may encourage him to help you, but, discounting extreme exceptions, the best he can do is a good letter of recommendation and a grade. But, and more importantly, the professor is not immune to feeling in competition, and even the honest, open minded, friendly ones have trouble trying not to impress their students. Being impressed by those same students is counterproductive to being impressive.

This doesn’t mean not to do your best work. It just means that a student who fixates on impressing will divert a lot of energy to it, be more susceptible for offense, and have a harder time to objectively take in information being given by the unimpressed. The hard work should be oriented towards potentially impressing readers outside of the classroom, utilizing those in the classroom to get feedback on how to make that happen.

In that context, peers’ opinions only matter as far to help the student learn. The only reason to care what they think is so that he can prepare himself for like opinions in the future. Of course, people’s feelings and thoughts are important in general, but inside a learning environment they don’t need to be kept wholly intact.

The best way to learn is to look at feedback objectively, dissect it, and throw away the useless bits to keep the good parts. The fact of the matter is that in a classroom setting, there’s going to be bad advice, cruel advice, advice far too focused on being clever to be clear, biased advice, and misinterpreted advice. But, unfortunately, it doesn't mean it is useless advice. There are idiots in the real world too. When someone is a jerk, as it is likely someone will be, the writer can think about it with clarity, as long as they’re not too fixated on disappointment.

-It’s not going to make you write the best work possible, it’s about teaching you how to make the best work possible.

You’re going to be asked to do something ridiculous. It will be busy work, it will be contextual tools, it will be above your head. Sometimes it will even be something that the teacher wants to teach because he wants to talk about it or because he thinks it makes him look good. Whatever it is, whatever reason there is for it, it might ruin your work.

One of the hang ups we get into is this scenario. The teacher asks for a change and we don’t want to make it. We think, or even know, it will diminish the ending result. However, the number one way to learn is by doing. Most tools and techniques are contextual, meaning that this book might be best made without an outline, but to get through that one, the author needs to start planning it out. This means that often your story is better off without utilizing a technique, but practice using it while you still can get feedback on it helps the author to do it later when another story needs it. Experimenting is best for a time when you are being forced by outsiders to work but not being obligated to come up with anything good.

Of course, most teachers do not think that they aren’t trying to help you make this story the best it can be, but their motive doesn’t change yours. Honestly, the number one problem in classes is when the professor tries too hard to make the story “good” and disregards what the author is going for. But if the writer knows all of this and sits there remembering that this does not have to be The Story, at least not while in the class, he can experiment without fear of how it’s going to come out.

If you like the story how it is, keep the draft and make a copy to play around with. Class is a rare moment in which the author can screw around and be creative with his work, get feedback, and have no real ramifications. I know that this can often feel like wasted effort, but the reward will come later on.

-Write a lot before signing up.

This isn’t a requirement, in that if an author wants to take a class on a spur of the moment, he should go right ahead. Don’t allow arbitrary excuses to stop you from taking opportunity.

But, writing class is a lot like math class: you don’t know what you don’t know until you try it for yourself. No matter how much the teacher explains how to do it, until you actually attempt the problem, you won’t realize what you don’t get.

Each author goes into the art world with some sort assumption, right, wrong, superficial, philosophical, judgmental, etc. Becoming aware of, understanding, utilizing, confronting, changing, or circumnavigating those assumptions often requires experiencing, not just being told.

Controversial concepts like writing by inspiration versus planning, balancing artistic decisions with business decisions, keeping up appearances, and basic suggestions like “Show, don’t tell,” are best understood from an experienced perspective, not a theoretical one.

I spent the good portion of my childhood being told basic and seemingly inane demands in art classes, like singing with my mouth wide enough to fit three fingers in. These “rules” which are sometimes right and sometimes wrong, but most often sometimes right and sometimes wrong, are extremely hard to understand when the student is not aware of why. Yes, the teacher can try to explain it, but that’s not as easy said as done. For one thing, he might not know. For another thing it is often based off a complex series of problems that, not only would take a long time to go into detail on, but take even longer to convince them each problem really exists.

Lastly, having written a lot, it combats the idea of this story being The Story. The more an author writes, the better he is at compartmentalizing, experimenting, and looking at it objectively. While he is still trying to make The Story, his priority is perfection (which doesn’t allow for creative risks) and to utilize a mass of ideas that may not fit in it. Having already written The Story, the author can now be satisfied with writing this story.

-It’s not about whether it’s right or wrong, it’s about why it’s right or wrong.

Sometimes it’s hard for students to get past that a teacher can be wrong. Sometimes, while being fully aware that he is wrong, it’s hard to believe he is malicious.

Of course, there are thousands of good, honest, and helpful teachers in the world. There also just happen to be a good number who are horrible people. Good professors can be wrong and bad professors can be right, and it’s hard to tell each time, especially because right and wrong is usually not black and white.

When someone gives a suggestion that seems false, the usual instinct is to just question it outright. He says, “The sky is green.” Clearly it isn’t. End of conversation.

But why would he say that?

Either he is lying or he is mistaken. Or a weird mixture of both. Why would he lie? Why would he believe what he is saying? To qualify the advice, we answer these questions.

In this example, he might be trying to make some sort of point you don’t understand. He might be colorblind. Suddenly, realizing that, the author is benefited in two obvious ways. First and foremost, the next time the teacher says to her, “You have too much green in your painting,” and she’s looking at it and remembers that her professor is colorblind, then she can think, “Is there too much blue here?” Secondly, she becomes aware of colorblindness in general, that not everyone will see it in the same way she does, and she can take that into consideration where she’d never thought about it like that before.

Even when lying or mistaken, it doesn’t mean that it’s completely useless. Often it is only partially wrong or contextually wrong. Sometimes it is actually wrong and superficially correct. And, as I’ve said before, there are moments the wrong answer is the best one. Thinking about “why” clarifies the usability of a concept, going past just the “that doesn’t make sense” stage.

-Understand the teacher.

I’ve discussed several times in the article that teachers come in many different shapes and sizes. Having a great, intelligent, and talent professor is fantastic. It’s also unlikely that he won’t have some flaws. And is more unlikely that, no matter how horrible, idiotic, and hack-like he is, he won’t have something to teach you.

But understanding the levels of knowledge to maliciousness allows for the student to take into consideration the biases that leads him to the “why” of what he says.

Knowing his pet peeves—what he is always going to say is wrong no matter what—his crutches—what he always is going to say what is wrong when he doesn’t know what—and his biases—how much he hates the whole lot of you—will help you take his advice with a grain of salt, and separate truth from contextual opinion.

As kids, students often look up to teachers as different entities. It’s hard to be empathetic with someone you’ve removed humanity’s flaws from. Teachers can’t be embarrassed, bitter, or ignorant. Sure, we can describe those traits, but, at least when young, it’s still not the same form of embarrassment as we feel. They’re past it. Of course, when young, often our problems are ours alone anyway, no matter the age of the outsider.

The why is such an important part of understanding that trying to be apathetic to who the teacher is is like trying to learn through osmosis. It can be done, but, since you’re there, you might as well get the best of it.

It is beneficial to be respectful and attempt to be on the teacher’s good side. Understanding that he is a malicious idiot allows you to take that into consideration while getting his advice, but doesn’t mean you should treat him like he’s out to get you. It will just cause problems for yourself.

-Pretend you are already the author you want to be.

The best way to use advice is to not take offense. The biggest reason for offensive is insecurity. Now I am the first person to believe that if someone feels they should be offended, they’re right. Being insulted is not wrong, it’s just useful to overcome.

Everyone feels like a hack. If not constantly, at least at one point in their life. Especially when they’re just starting out. Especially when they’re being surrounded by competitive assholes who are trying to prove why they’re winning.

Self-respect makes ignoring the tones for the sake of content and utilizing insults as tools a whole lot easier. Instead of using classmates as proof “I am meant to do this,” already believing it will make their attacks meaningless.

Of course, getting self-respect is easier said than done, which is why I say “pretend.” Imagining yourself as the person you want to be is more powerful than we would think, as long as you commit to it. It won’t be easy, and it won’t always be successful, but it can be a lot more beneficial than doing nothing. Especially when you’ll probably be seeing yourself as a hack even with three bestsellers and a Nobel Peace Prize.

It is important to take the power into your own hands, to be in charge of yourself, to respect yourself, and to believe in yourself. Few people will push you. Some will not want you to succeed. You can't always control what you are told and who you are hearing it from, but you can say how much you'll get out of it. Getting feedback, and good feedback, takes a lot of effort, more than the writing Wiki’s would like to indicate. So, having it be so rare and hard to find, it is important to get the most out of it, no matter how terrible the quality.