Thursday, January 13, 2011

Creative Writing Class

I had more fun in an English class my first semester of college than anyone should be allowed to have. My instructor looked like she'd just returned from Woodstock, complete with sandals and fringed panchos. She took a similarly unconventional approach to many of our assignments. She even had me bring my guitar one day to play and sing the theme song from MASH when we were studying song lyrics as poetry.

I loved every minute of it.

She'd have us read a brief short story or article about an event and then she'd say, “Pick one of the people you just read about or maybe someone else who's not mentioned. Tell me why you're there.” I'd take out my pen and my imagination would start spilling out all over the page. I remember sitting in her office between classes, talking about writing and imagination and what I wanted to do with my life.

As the semester came to a close she told me that she had recommended me for a Creative Writing class that was being offered the next semester. I was honored. You couldn't get into that class without a recommendation.

On the first day of class our Creative Writing instructor walked briskly into the room and in a loud voice said “Good morning, Creative Writers! Since we're all writers here let's write!” He plopped down on top of his desk, not behind it, while we all stared at him, waiting for further instructions. He stared back and said “Well, what are you waiting for? Take out some paper and start writing!”

So we did.

I don't remember what I wrote that day, probably some first impressions about him and my fellow class members. He had long, wavy brown hair, a mustache, little John Denver style wire frame glasses and wore a paisley shirt, tan corduroy jeans and Earth Shoes. It was 1975, so he was cool. Our class was a mix of traditional students, just a year or two out of high school, as well as a few men and women in their 30s, 40s and 50s, each with their own story about going back to school.

After about ten minutes we heard “Stop writing!” So we did. Some in mid-sentence. He gathered our papers, and began to read them. As he read them aloud the class critiqued them and he sometimes added his own comments to ours.

Everything we wrote that semester was shared with the whole class. It was always nerve-wracking and frequently enlightening. I recall one assignment was to write the first page of a novel. Only the first page. He said someday, we'd write our Great American Novel and submit it to a publisher and if an editor didn't like what they saw on that first page, they wouldn't bother reading the second.

Each day the class began the same way. We'd take out paper and pen and for the first 10 minutes or so we'd write. Some days he told us what to write about, usually giving us a choice of two or three topics. Sometimes he would write four words on the chalk board and we were to use as many of those words as possible. These were random, unrelated words and the more we were able to include, the higher our grade. I could usually do it with two and sometimes three. I remember at least one time I used all four.

That day the four words were

1. Emotion

2. Space

(so far, so good)

3. Barbed Wire

(scattered giggles)

4. Cantelope

(audible gasps)

I wrote that I had mixed emotions about my cantelope after being thrown through space by my horse into a barbed wire fence. I've still got that one around here somewhere. If I ever find it again, I'll let you know.

Until then, I'll share this one. The assignment was to write a Shakespearean sonnet. You know the type... iambic pentameter, three four-line stanzas and a couplet with the rhyming pattern abab - cdcd - efef - gg. I was late turning mine in. I had already written and turned in a sonnet of a different style but was stuck on this one. He said as long as I got it to him by the end of the semester, that would be fine.

So I wrote a sonnet about taking all semester to write a sonnet and turning it in late. Here it is:

He told me once to write a sonnet well.
I told him I would try and do my best.
He smiled and said “well, that will be just swell.”
I thought about it and forgot the rest.

I took my weary brain and tried to write,
But all that I could do was fall asleep.
I went to bed and then turned out the light.
In moments sleep had overtaken me.

I saw him in the classroom as before.
He asked me for what I had promised him.
I said I didn't have it, “What's in store?”
He said, “Go home, think hard, and try again!”

We did that all semester, he and I.
He'd say, “Go do it!” I would say, “I'll try!”

 This mug was a gift from a good friend who would later become my first editor.