Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Classy Way of Learning

Classes and seminars, like the master's class I'll begin next week, are an excellent way for writers to get educated, if they're taught by good people who get results.  Assuming you've done your research, you can expect results.  

Part of  the reason these things work is the focused time on learning.  Reading books on writing is all fine and good, but there's no guidance, feedback, nor deadlines associated with reading.  Receiving feedback from an instructor, or just knowing you'll be graded, will push writers to improve.  In away-from-home classes, you commit the commute time, and while you're in class (in theory, anyway) you'll have few or no distractions from the subject at hand.  Also, good instructors will carefully link reading assignments, writing assignments, and connect those to real world applications so that they align to prove a point.  Like a good story, good classes have themes.  If it's a long class, it'll have sub-plots with their own themes and counter-themes as well.  

Writing retreats can provide some of the same benefits as a class as far as the focused time, but they lack the academic element.  Some retreats do have evening lectures or debates over dinner.  These can be very beneficial, but lack the overall experience of having formal instruction.

Bad instruction is out there.  Be careful what you sign up for.  Also, even very good instruction can damage your writing.  (See Dean Smith's article about this very thing here.)  Among other things, if what's being taught doesn't fit the way that you work, it can undermine a system of writing that works for you.  

Most savvy instructors are aware that there are many different ways to write and do their best to support a given writer's process, but there are two pitfalls I can think of off the top of my head.  

When there are tight deadlines, a slow, deliberate writer will be forced to rush and perhaps fall on his/her face and decide that s/he is a terrible writer because all the feedback on the stories is bad.  

Also, the authority of an instructor can be dangerous to impressionable students.  For example, even when an instructor acknowledges that he outlines but that not everyone outlines, the student may decide that the real problem is that she outlines and everything will be better if she starts doing that.  But if she's a non-outliner like me, she'll find that it'll feel like she's already written the story, and there aren't any surprises left for her--she'll have killed her inspiration to write, and her prose will become as lackluster as her enthusiasm.  (BTW, it's not true that outlining means there aren't any surprises--even very careful and thorough outliners find the story escapes them and surprises them all the time.  They still have plenty of fun.)

Writers who want to please their peers and teachers are particularly vulnerable.  The ego-laden writer is in no danger (and will probably never learn a thing in a class except s/he may decide that everyone is an idiot.)  Writers who have no sense of the worth of their own work may totally ruin it trying to write it to answer everyone's comments.  Better to chuck the story and start again than create such a monster just like Dr. Frankenstein.  And writers who seek praise and hope that their darlings will be received with enthusiasm and demands that they be published immediately will be crushed.  (The evil part of me says rightfully so, but really, these kind of writers need to be educated, not destroyed, and a class is not where they'll learn what they need to know to avoid this particular pitfall.)

Cautionary tales abound about writers going through a class, seminar or workshop and they never write again.  Though part of me (the evil part) quietly rejoices that the slush pile will be that much smaller, honestly, I don't want a writer to stop writing because of a class.  I'd rather they stop writing because it's not as important as other things, or some other reason, like publishing sounds more like a recipe for heartache than an opportunity to share stories with the world.  Do not stop writing because of a class.  If you think you might, don't take the class.

Before you take a class, have a few things clearly in mind:

*If the work load is notoriously heavy, are you a fast enough writer to keep up?
*What are the stated goals for the class?  Is that what you really want to learn?
*What is the teacher's reputation?  Is s/he (or are they, if there are multiple instructors) published, and if so, do you respect their work?  Or are they editors or agents, and if so, are they teaching what they know?  (Not all editors or agents are qualified to teach writing (some are)--but experienced ones can certainly talk about what they're looking for and offer great advice on how to present yourself professionally.)
*What is the reputation for the class?  Do people often wash out?  Is there a reasonable number of people who come out as better writers for it?  (BTW, even a very good class won't have 100% excellent results, and there are always people who don't do well in a given environment so don't let that discourage you--just be aware.)
*Is the cost comparable to similar classes of similar length?  If not, is it worth the disparity in cost if it's more, or if it's less, are there additional costs (like finding your own lodging or buying expensive textbooks?)
*Can you get college credit or a certificate or does the class have some other tangible worth in the publishing community?

Before you take an expensive class that requires you to be away from work a long time, try something smaller scale, like working with a critique group, a community college extension class that meets once or twice a week, or going to a convention (like OryCon!) where there will be writer-related activities and classes (hopefully for free.)  Willamette Writers often has writing-related activities.  If you're not local you may find similar groups, or online groups like Longridge Writers and RWA who can give you a taste of learning under the guidance of other writers before you take the plunge for bigger things like Viable Paradise, Clarion, or Kris and Dean's classes.  Don't take my word for it--check credentials before you sign up for any of these or other courses.  Writer beware: even the most reputable courses may not be for you.

Happy Writing!

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