Writing School Dropout

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I saw a pamphlet for some continuing education courses in writing at a local college, and I thought to myself “Gee! My two degrees and six years taking Communications Studies in university notwithstanding, I sure could use some Official Training In Writing.” I am an aspiring writer and I’m also one of those people who seems to believe that a person can only be a Professional Anything if they can put some institutionally sanctioned letters behind their name (C.A., R.D., Ph.D, M.D, D.D.S., etc– it’s ridiculous, I know). Therefore, signing up for a writing class or two at this college felt like the right thing to do. At the time.

The first thing I learned when I showed up for my College Writing Course was that I have spent a grand total of zero hours taking myself– and my dreams to write– seriously. Sure, I have impressive ambitions to write a best-selling book at some point, and a great number of my waking hours currently are spent writing on this here blog, but I’ve never actually uttered the words “I am a writer” aloud before. Especially in the company of other, Capital-‘W’ Writers. Can you believe it? It’s always been “I would like to be a writer”, or “I love to write [casually? as a hobby? to occupy my time? just for fun?]”. I’ve never granted my love of writing the weight of professionalism or Viable Career Path Credibility when I speak about it in public.

On a related note, I might not be completely right in the head.

Everyone else in my class seemed to be comfortable calling themselves professional writers, even if (in my humble, though occasionally ultra-judgmental opinion), they were clearly NOT PROFESSIONAL WRITERS AT ALL. (Journal writing doesn’t count, people! Unless you are Anne Frank and your diary has been read by millions.) This was an eye-opening experience for me, to say the least. It made me wonder: What is it going to take for me to be a writer? When will I give up becoming a writer and just be one already? Will x amount of Continuing Ed courses get me there? Do I need to have a few Creative Writing credits under my belt? Or should I just print out some business cards and call it a day?

“Dana L., B.A., M.A.: Writer”

Anyway. The course itself was all about writing cohesive narratives using historical fragments (archival materials, objects, snippets of conversation, etc.) as a starting foundation. Like the book-smart, non-streetwise person that I am, I packed some looseleaf paper and a pen for the class and expected to take notes for a couple of hours. I was going to learn how to write narratives really well. After all, I am the best student, listener, and note-taker ever! (I’m just not a Real Writer, apparently.) Instead, the instructor spent a good half of the class talking about us, his students, and asking us to describe for him the historical writing projects we were currently undertaking.

Um.

Imagine how foolish I felt when everybody else in the class started speaking at great lengths about their intricate chapters on locomotive history in British Columbia, their enthralling recollections of the Fraser Valley floods, their gripping wartime memoirs, and their legacy family history projects. They were passionate, they were professional(ish), and they were clearly ready for this class. I, on the other hand, was one of only two participants in the room who were forced to confess, rather sheepishly, that I didn’t quite have a project on to go just yet. (My blog would have come up in this particular context over my cold, dead body. Totally not the right crowd for it.) Yes, I have ideas and plans and dreams and beginnings, but I am nowhere near as far along on any writing project as my classmates were on theirs. I fail Writing School! 😦

To make matters worse, we were assigned a homework project that was to be completed at some point during my grueling trip to Calgary. Pain. And. Suffering. The homework assignment was to send a synopsis of our Genius Writing Project to the rest of our classmates, and then provide constructive comments for everybody else’s projects. Kumbaya! What should we do if we didn’t have a project in the works? Make one up. Obviously.

Sigh.

For my homework assignment, I sent some rough, preliminary paragraphs to my classmates about a project I really would like to work on at some point in the future (you know, when I’m finally willing to take that leap and commit myself to being an Honest-to-God WRITER): a sweeping diatribe on Marty’s artwork. It was not a masterpiece collection of paragraphs, by any means, and I knew that a lot of my initial points would require further elaboration when class resumed the following week.

But I never made it to the next– and final– class. Nope. I was stuck en route back from Calgary, stymied by some avalanches, an epic bus ride, a decided lack of sleep, and I’ll admit it: a bad attitude to boot.

My classmates and instructor ended up discussing my project in my absence (probably so I couldn’t demand a refund for not showing up to class.) My instructor e-mailed their collective comments to me tonight, and I have to say: I’m pretty disappointed with them. My paragraphs were rather off-the-cuff and spontaneous to begin with, so I knew there could be lots of room for misinterpretation. And boy, was there ever misinterpretation. My “constructive comments” ranged from “This project will not work”, to “Choose something different”, to “She has real issues she needs to work through with her husband before this project will go anywhere.” I’m paraphrasing a tad, but this is for real. Thanks, classmates!

So now I’m not sure exactly what I feel right now. Upset, in a sense: I can’t use any of these comments to move forward. Afraid: Maybe this project isn’t worth moving forward on at all? Defiant, in another sense: I’ll show you the best damn writing project YOU’VE EVER ENCOUNTERED!!! You will fall over from the sheer force of its narrative genius!!! I feel guarded and cautious and reluctant to get into any more details, at least with my classmates. They don’t understand. That much is clear. I needed to be there to elaborate and clarify my preliminary paragraphs.

If anything, though, I guess I can take some food for thought out of this class: What, exactly, is ‘good enough’ to be considered ‘good enough’ when it comes to writing and being a professional writer? When will I pony up and start acknowledging myself as a writer? (To your face, not just through your computer screen?) Do any of you find yourselves talking about ‘becoming’ something without ever letting yourselves ‘be’ that something? Or am I the only one? πŸ™‚

21 responses

  1. This is brutal on tons of fronts but you’re not alone.

    1) I have attended writing groups and felt like a complete fish out of water. Though I was lucky and did receive some constructive feedback in one case. Most of the people called themselves writers, but they were actively trying to get (traditionally) published on a regular basis. Victoria needs a young writers/shy about writing/no idea what I’m doing but I’m not bad at it type writing group.
    2) I have always considered myself a writer, but never a professional one, and so would always say that I “enjoy writing”. That said I was never pursuing writing actively enough to say to want to say otherwise.
    3) I don’t actually think it’s weird for you not to say you’re a writer, but wouldn’t think it strange if you did either.
    4) What about the term “emerging writer”?
    5) Serious bloggers call themselves writers all the time, no?

    Do what you please and own it!

    • Thanks, Rose! I definitely felt like a fish out of water in that particular group, but it was also really eye-opening for me just to realize that I tend to define what I do solely in terms of how I work with Marty. (e.g. “I help my partner sell his artwork at the Harbour”, or “I handle all of the Communications for my husband’s art business”) It might be time to start owning my love of writing, as you say. I am a writer, gee-dammit! πŸ™‚

  2. Oh, girl. I needed this post BAD. I have been in a funk for similar reasons. Namely, I write something I think is AWESOME only to receive little or negative response. I write something I kind of rather leave my name off of because it is so awful, and the crowds cheer. I’m not sure I get what good writing really is.
    I will say, academic writers tend to be the harshest of the bunch because they often approach your work TECHNICALLY instead of EMOTIONALLY. They are looking for a topic that fits in X and Z molds rather than reading something and imagining the thought and feeling behind it. I would write what you write, Dana MaChickChick, and let the classmates nitpick by the wayside πŸ™‚

    • Aw, thanks Tori! It’s been a difficult transition at times from ‘All Things Academic’ to ‘I Can Manage In Real Life, Too’! πŸ˜‰ Sometimes, I prevent myself from calling myself a writer because I have it stuck in my head that I need to have THE BEST IDEA EVER IMAGINED IN THE HISTORY OF THE WRITTEN WORD to do so. Then I head to a library or bookstore and see the millions of crappy books that have managed to be published…

      It’s a reality check, that’s for sure.

      I’m not about to stop writing from my heart (or my head, or my funny bone) just because of this silly writing class. To the contrary: I’m going to be the World’s Greatest Writer… as soon as I can make myself a professional-looking name badge! πŸ˜‰

  3. YES. I’ve only recently decided to start saying “I’m an artist!”. But it’s still a hard thing to say… I’m just starting, I haven’t had many public showings of my work, but I feel like being able to say it is half the battle. In art school we would often talk about how anything can be art, as long as you say it is… it only makes sense that I am an artist because I say I am!

    Another thing that helped was putting physical things in place to start shaping an “artist’s life”. A studio, a nice desk just for writing… small things that make it REAL.

    Most important: Don’t stop! Listen to criticism (the real constructive kind, not these weirdos being uselessly harsh), but keep going, despite it all. It’s not easy… There are so many days when I wonder why I’m still trying to do this…

    (It must be weird having random strangers giving you personal life advice… the internet is crazy. Or am I actually the crazy one?)

    • Not crazy at all, Dominique! πŸ™‚ It felt a little weird to be given advice from my classmates about my proposal in my absence (esp. the comment about essentially needing marriage counselling… or did I read too much into that ‘issues’ feedback?) Your advice, on the other hand, is great and warmly received.

      The funny thing is that I’m always encouraging other people to own their interests/hobbies/talents/work. Call yourself an artist! Call yourself a writer! Call yourself whatever it is you want to call yourself! But can I apply that same advice to myself? It’s more difficult to do that for whatever reason. πŸ˜‰

      From this point forward, I’m going to call myself a writer. Thanks for the comment and the encouragement!

      • It’s weird to comment on someone’s blog because you feel like you know this person really well, but really to them you might just seem like a RANDOM INTERNET STALKER. This is why I don’t usually write anything…

        • Not at all! I’m all about random internet stalking, and I’ve even made actual, real-life friendships with people I only knew before online. Besides, even if we never meet in person, there’s nothing wrong with virtual friendships. I appreciate your comments! πŸ™‚

  4. That’s the thing with writing, it’s so emotional. Then when we receive harsh criticisms it hurts that much more. I wonder what our society today considers a ‘professional writer’. How many people have become famous for their blogs?! How many people have written books based on their blogs? I think the whole publishing industry is going through a change.
    Still – maybe that wasn’t the class for you? Are you going to try again? A different school? A different approach?

    • I’m definitely going to try again, but maybe it won’t actually be a writing course at all. Maybe I’m just going to keep plugging along on this dear blog?

      I don’t know how or when I decided that all professions must have degrees backing them up (because it’s not true! at all!), so one of the first steps will be challenging this erroneous belief. Case in point: I worked at an Accounting job for three full years without any Accounting degree or training whatsoever, so why can’t I be a writer with my *TWO* Communications Studies degrees? My logic makes no sense! πŸ™‚

      Sincerely, Dana, B.A., M.A.: Writer

  5. P.S. I always try to remind myself that I might have to practice and actually be bad at something/not like my results. Forgive yourself if you’re writing in a format that you haven’t been successful with yet (obviously not talking about blogging here) and don’t like the first product. A wise Dana once told me that there are always brilliant people doing somewhat similar things somewhere and that it didn’t lessen my contribution…

  6. There are many parallels between expression through writing and through visual art. Everyone is familiar with ‘representational’ art, that which attempts to reproduce objectively the reality of something, and writing often serves to do the same.
    Abstract art is generally far more interesting and bold in it’s more subjective pursuit of focusing or expanding on a slice or particular interesting element of a subject or a facet of the visual world.
    Any writer surely must need to identify their niche interest to grow within, just as visual artists do the same. Generally, it is mastery of personal style that allows any artist or writer to flourish.
    I’ve always appreciated the sentiment of comparing America with Europe when it comes to writing and artistic expression. The US enjoys great freedom of speech but has little worth hearing, while Europe has struggled with enough profound social issues, including suppression of expression, that it has a great deal to say and very much worth hearing.

  7. Dana, you are clearly a gifted writer – funny, articulate, insightful. Don’t sell yourself short. You’re in good company and there’s a lot of us pulling for you!

  8. First – I’m on a NOOK, so I beg forgiveness for any typos.
    Second – I’m amazed for a second time what crazy parallels there are here. I’ve been a writer for over two decades (even have the fancy diploma that says “Creative Writing” on it from a Big 12 university)… So what’s this all about? Why can’t we – why don’t we – consider ourselves Writers?

    Boggles my mind. So stick to your guns. Push forward with your project. You don’t need permission from anyone and you’ve got plenty of cyber support from your cheering section out here in the great blue nowhere. Yawp!

    • It’s funny, hey? What will it take for us to call ourselves writers *in big, bad public*? Clearly, a university degree doesn’t cut it. And neither do decades of writing in your case! Let’s just do it: Make a commitment to call ourselves writers from this day forward. Pinky swear?

      • Pinky swear it is – over the mountainous pile of manuscripts hiding out in my toddler son’s closet. And the two most recent that are languishing on my desktop in the front room.

        Almost a decade ago, after I attended a reading by the author of “Riding in Cars with Boys”, I approached Jack C. Riggs, the writing professor who’d coordinated the reading, and asked him for some guidance. We met at a Starbucks a couple weeks later and the one image he shared with me that stuck in my mind was an early morning half-dream he’d had of his three main characters, all young boys, sitting on a curbside, poking sticks in a gutter. One of the three asked the other two, “When’s that guy gonna come back and finish our story?”

        When are we gonna finish our characters’ stories? I think we’re on our way!

        • That’s a great image to use for inspiration! I’m not sure if my writing will be fiction or non-fiction, but I’m leaning to the “narrative non-fiction” path. For some reason, fiction just ends up sounding stilted and phony whenever I attempt it… Thanks for sharing!

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