Night School–The Creative Writing Class Part 2

The class continued in the manner described in the last blog entry. The “writing prompts” became less frequent, and the time devoted to having each student reading what they wrote the past week was increased. The members of the class did a lot of writing and found it valuable to listen to each other’s writing. There were a lot of good writers in the class and they were willing to share a lot of interesting stories.

Examples included a kind of love story set in Key West, a story about dealing with a parent with Alzheimer’s Disease, humorous stories about raising children, a story about a pharmaceutical sales representative dealing with sexual harassment, a funny but slightly disturbing short story about an office worker setting fire to his desk as a kind of protest, as well as my own primitive attempts at a first draft of a novel. If time permitted, Bill Lyon read some of his own pieces, which were always welcome. The class was very polite with one another and everyone including myself seemed to enjoy listening to the other stories. I was struck by how people bared their souls in the class, and I was impressed with the quality as well as the quantity of what was written. I really looked forward to attending this class each week.

I wound up taking this class for two semesters. There was some change in the membership of the class, but largely it was the same group of people. The class became very comfortable with one another and seemed to have a lot of fun each week, even though some of the writing involved very serious topics that included a good bit of personal sadness. For some, writing was a kind of therapy.

At the conclusion of the class, I had to ask myself exactly what I took from it. I did not feel I “learned to write” in that class. There was no roadmap, no set of rules, no negative feedback. For me, this was a very positive experience, however.

I did write during the class. The chance to have other writers listen to your work is an experience not to be missed. There was self-imposed pressure to take advantage of that opportunity. Even though there was a “no piling on rule” which precluded a lot of negative feedback, there were some valuable positive comments. I also did a lot of self-correction before the class so that I wouldn’t embarrass myself. I learned that simply reading your work aloud was a valuable addition to my usual visual proofreading. I caught mistakes while reading aloud that I did not catch visually. I caught sentences that didn’t work. There was a lot of value to be gained from the class, even though there was none of the brutal but valuable feedback I still feel is necessary. Honestly speaking, I probably wasn’t quite ready for the brutal negative feedback I know I need to improve as a writer.

I gained a healthy respect for the local community college, in this case Delaware County Community College. The classroom facilities were excellent, perfect for a small class like this one with much interaction. The instructor, Bill Lyon, was a treasure, and the community college gave me the opportunity to interact with this man.  As a university professor, we sometimes are guilty of looking down on community colleges. I won’t ever make that mistake again. I have had a lot of education myself, but the community college gave me, at this late stage of my life, a chance to learn even more. The learning possibilities that this place, and others like it, provide to students who may not have the opportunity or desire to attend a four-year college, are Immense and immeasurable.

For me, this class gave me a jump start at writing, exposed me to a really great instructor, and gave me the opportunity to read my work to a group of friendly and talented students. It didn’t provide me with everything I needed, but I would highly recommend it for an aspiring and inexperienced writer.

Night School–The Creative Writing Class, Part 1

I’m writing this entry to describe what a creative writing class is like. If you are familiar with creative writing classes, you might want to skip this entry. I can’t say what other creative writing classes are like. This one was populated with adults of varying ages at a local community college. The students came from many walks of life, with various educational backgrounds. Some have been in this class several times, and some were actually published writers.

I never took a creative writing class in college or graduate school, so this experience was very new to me. The class started out with a brief reading by the instructor, Bill Lyon. The reading was called “Words”, and I believe it actually brought tears to the eyes of several of the class participants. Bill Lyon had a way with words.

After his reading he did what I learned to call a “writing prompt.”  I guess that writing prompts are usual educational tools in writing classes, but I had never experienced them. Bill Lyon asked us to write something about “…middle seat, aisle seat, or window seat.” The class wrote for about 15 minutes then asked each student to read out loud what they had written. He had a “no piling on” policy in which any criticism was to be very gentle if at all. Bill Lyon encouraged everyone to comment on what they enjoyed or thought was good. One of the students who had been in the class before went first. I was glad someone else volunteered. Reading after Bill Lyon had read something could be very intimidating even though he tried his best to make the class feel at ease.

Initially, I thought “writing prompts” were a little silly, but I went ahead with mine.  I learned that most (if not all) of the class were very good, imaginative writers. I was a little bit astounded by what I heard as each student read for a few minutes.  Each reader laid out his or her emotions and their past experience to a class of mostly strangers. I gained an appreciation of the value of “writing prompts” after that experience. Listening to  impromptu stories was enthralling and humbling at the same time. When my turn came around, I realized the value of reading your work out loud to someone else in itself was a valuable experience. Mistakes that you don’t see yourself become more evident when you read out loud. Reading out loud helps. Then the gentle criticism of your classmates helps as well, although they focus on your strong points rather than pointing out weaknesses. For me, this was a new experience. In all my years of teaching business subjects, “getting in touch with your emotions” was not a priority. This was much more of an emotional and intellectual experience than I had anticipated. I was impressed. I am not sure exactly what I learned, but I enjoyed the experience and was looking forward to much more. I was much more of a fan of “writing prompts” and reading your own work out loud.

After a round of student reading concluded, there was some time left in the class, so another round of writing and reading out loud occurred. The next prompt had to do with  “a Martian was ringing your  doorbell.” After that round concluded, the assignment for the next class was “Write something to be read in class.” Bill Lyon’s teaching technique was basic but very powerful.This class was to be a far different experience than any of the classes I had taken. It turned out to be an entertaining and humbling experience. I had much to learn.



Night School–The Instructor

My first step in attempting to learn how to write a novel was to seek out  a class. As an accountant,  creative writing was not something I had a whole lot of experience with. I found a bewildering array of on-line  writing classes.  Since I had no familiarity with any of these, and an inherent distrust of online education, I opted for a classroom experience. Convenience and low cost led me to my local community college, Delaware County Community College.

I made my way to the fourth floor of the main classroom building and a tall gentlemen met me at the door and introduced himself as Bill Lyon, and said he would be the instructor for the class. I knew this name from somewhere, but I could not place it.  There were about ten of us in the class, and we went around the table and introduced ourselves. Some of the class were retired, some were still working. They came from a variety of walks of life, and a number of them already knew each other from previous classes.

Then Bill Lyon introduced himself to the class. He said he was a retired sportswriter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Then, it dawned on me. I grew up reading Bill Lyon on the sports pages. This guy was a true legend. He started the class by reading from one of his own works he called “Words.” No sports, just an inspiring, extremely well-written inspirational piece about the raw power of writing. Bill Lyon had this power. His words could have the class in tears in about five minutes. He could have them in hysterical laughter in the next five minutes. This man could write, sports or no sports. This was to be an interesting class. I’ll talk more about the class in the next blog entry, but I need to say something first about Bill Lyon, the instructor.

Several weeks after I finished the second class, (Yes, I repeated it, the experience was so valuable,) I was reading the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer, and I saw an article written by none other than Bill Lyon.  It seems that Bill had recently received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease. I am not sure of the exact timing of the diagnosis, but I believe it was before he taught the Creative Writing course I attended at Delaware County Community College. Needless to say, I had absolutely no idea he was experiencing this. Apparently Bill decided to write about it in a series of columns appearing from time to time in the Philadelphia Inquirer titled “My Alzheimer’s Fight.” The first article of the series can be found at Trust me, the series is a good read. Having met this talented, humble, courageous man has been an honor. If I pick up a crumb of this man’s writing talent, the course has been worth it. If I learn nothing about writing, the inspiration and positive thinking will last a lifetime.

In the next blog entry, I’ll talk about the class. Please pardon a case of hero worship.



Some Plans for Learning the Craft

In this blog entry I wanted to brainstorm about what I could do to learn the craft of writing. I have learned enough to know how little I really know about writing fiction. It is not as easy as it looks. Those that write books have done a lot of work. Even if you read a book that you think is junk,  that author penned the words to paper, (or paid someone else to write it). After that, they either sold it to a publisher or self-published it. That, in itself takes a lot of effort. In addition, it has to be readable, have correct grammar. If it is fiction, it needs to elicit an emotional response from a target reader. There are also large details like setting, plot, characters, voice, point of view. I am sure there are a lot of other issues I left out due to my own lack of experience. I know I have a lot to learn.

I know I won’t be competing with Hemingway for a very, very long time, but as a recent retiree, the reality is that I have to get up to speed quickly.  I have to learn this craft in a relatively short time. I do hope that my life experiences combined with a small degree of expertise at academic writing will push me up the learning curve.

With this in mind, I am attempting to put together an ad hoc program for myself to bring me up to speed in the writing world. I have put together a list of resources I intend to tap. I am sure many more resources will surface during this journey. My initial list is below:

  • Writing courses at local educational institutions.
  • Online writing courses
  • Books on writing fiction
  • Writing organizations
  • Networking with local writers
  • Periodicals about writing
  • Websites by authors I admire
  • Reading
    • Thriller classics
    • Best selling current thrillers
    • Thrillers that are similar to what I want to write but may not be best sellers
    • Classics in other genres
    • Best sellers in other genres

Well, this is where I am heading. I am looking at a large number of rabbit holes into which I could happily spend the remaining productive years of my life. The trick will be to develop the discipline to glean what I need from each rabbit hole and without falling into the trap of trying to learn everything.  I also need to “write along the way,” as I learn about the craft of writing. I believe learning to write is like learning to swim. You can’t just learn it from a book, you have to dive into the water.

This blog is my first swim. Please pardon any wet pages.