Talking to a writing class

Yesterday a friend of mine, the writer Katherine Min, invited me to speak to the students in her creative writing class at UNC Asheville. She’d asked me to provide a recent story a few days prior to act as a focal point for the discussion; I chose “Sunbleached,” since it’s going to be published this spring and since the anthology, TEETH, is geared towards kids just a few years younger than they are. And because it’s about vampires, I figured everybody there would have an opinion about the topic.

It turned out I didn’t have to worry about provoking discussion; these students were ready to go. Katherine told me that, in the previous session, the director of the writing center presented them with the first draft of an essay he’d just written, and they tore it to pieces — much to his consternation. That did a lot to calm my nerves. They sounded like the sort of people I could relate to. Students who are quiet and passive are hard for me; but if they challenge me with ideas, or questions, or arguments, then I can really engage with them. Then we can get something done.

I was still a little nervous going in there, as I always am when facing a crowd of people, but I was put at ease right away. They were an aggressive, bright group of kids (I use that term loosely; I think they were mostly college juniors and seniors). I spoke for about five or ten minutes about who I was, how I got started, the editorial process … basic stuff. Then we opened it up to the students, and things got loose and we had fun.

What I always find interesting when talking to young writers about craft is how helpful it is to say aloud some of writing’s most basic precepts, because it serves as a wake-up call to myself, too. As much as I think I have internalized so many of these lessons, hearing myself say them, and try to convince other people of their importance, revitalizes them for me. It’s like returning to a well for good clean water.

I stressed the importance of writing every day, comparing it to a musician practicing scales and arpeggios. But what’s more difficult for me, and what I touched on a little more thoroughly, was the necessity of writing through your distaste for your own work.  God knows there are times we think we’re geniuses, but I think most of us spend a lot more time convinced of our own unworthiness. That can fill the mind with a killing ice. What you have to do is nearly impossible. You have to write anyway. You have to have faith that you’re wrong.

I gave them William Gibson’s line: “You must learn to overcome your very natural and appropriate revulsion for your own work.”

The other point I hit on was the absolute necessity of having a reader you can trust to tell you the truth. If you’re lucky you’ll have more than one, but at least one is a must. We all have friends and family members who will praise everything we write, either because they don’t want to hurt our feelings or because they just don’t know any better. But if you can find someone who will tell you when your ass is showing, then you’ve found someone you need to hold on to. And when that person does give you praise, you’ll know you can believe in it.

Last year I was a guest speaker at the Shared Worlds Teen Writing Camp, run annually by Jeff VanderMeer and Jeremy Jones, and I had a very similar experience. The kids there were incredibly precocious and fiercely dedicated to the work. Talking about writing with them, watching them absorb the basics of craft, and thereby remembering them myself, was thoroughly refreshing. It was easily one of the purest emotional peaks of the year.

I don’t know how much benefit those kids in Katherine’s class, or in the Shared Worlds camp last year, managed to draw from what I said. But I walked away with a lot. I can’t wait for the chance to do it again.

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5 thoughts on “Talking to a writing class

  1. LOVE this post. As it happens, I just had an amazingly successful (amazing in the sense that they aren’t usually successful at all) writing workshop with my English Comp students (college sophomores) yesterday, and although they were writing essays instead of stories, I very much found that I was “returning to a well for good clean water” (love that, btw).

    I also found that so much about writing–no matter WHAT you are writing or why you are writing it–is universal. Fear is the number one stopper, and learning to write through our inadequecies is so necessary.

    I had them read Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” and write for five minutes about their relationship to their own writing before we started, and it really helped. It gave them permission to hate their first drafts–I think no one had really told them that before.

    Anyway, thanks for this post.

    -Lex

  2. Excellent Nathan great post.
    I’m very blessed to have one of those rare friends (Billie) who will read my stuff and say, “you know, this just isn’t working…” and I do likewise for her.

    Because friends don’t let friends write crap.

  3. Pingback: An act of faith | Nathan Ballingrud

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