Sunday, April 4, 2010

Creative Writing

For reasons that I'll get into another time, I'm trying to get rid of my excess stuff. I'm a packrat--I generally don't have much attachment with material junk, but once I get it, I don't get rid of it easily. I blame this habit on my parents, and their boxes and boxes of things older than I am.

Anyway, my particular brand of packrat darts back and forth between unorganized messes and terrifyingly in-depth filing. The latter gave rise to the great archival endeavor of '08. See, at some point in my university career, I decided it would be a great idea to type out all my notes. Best case, it's a nice refresher to go over the material a week later. Worst case, you're looking at illegible handwriting two years after the fact and wondering what the hell a Grobner basis is. (And for the record, yes, I know that preserving a paper copy means more than just making it electronic.) This archiving reached its height in the summer of '08 when I was moving out east and didn't want to take the papers with me. In a period of a few weeks, I scanned hundreds of pages of notes on math, english, and history. Most of the stuff I didn't get to--like the Grobner basis notes--I tossed away. But the one group I couldn't bring myself to touch was the creative writing class notes.

According to my archives, (see? They come in handy) the creative writing class happened during the third year of my undergraduate in 2005. It was a limited number, submission-based class, so I was pretty happy just to get in. It was taught by Guy Vanderhaeghe, (he said, shamelessly name-dropping) a Saskatchewan-based writer whose work I hadn't actually read at the time, and whose name I never spelt the same way twice. (I did read his stuff later; probably best I didn't have it read at the time--it would have intimidated me. I mean, intimidated me more.) The process was my first experience of the round-table seminar-type class: each week, twelve students would critique two stories from two different students. And throughout the term, you'd submit two stories to be critiqued. That meant you had to have the story written a week in advance, and print out thirteen copies, one for the instructor, 12 for the rest of the class. And then be subjected to an hour long flogging over what they thought.

The process was utterly terrifying. My thesis defense was less stressful than these critiques. After all, it was four times the number of questioners, and it's a different kettle of fish when it's colleagues critiquing your creative piece than when it's professionals evaluating your essay writing. But I survived and thrived, and here I am now. Specifically, here I am now with the pile of 13 critiqued papers that I couldn't ever bring myself to get rid of. The archiving process I hit on for these is that I'd type up their comments onto the electronic copy of the essay. And today, I finally got around to doing it.

The disadvantages of this method are readily apparent. First, after a half dozen or so rounds of comments, the paper starts to look like a copy of a prestige edition of a 17th century text, with more marginal comments than actual text. Second, there's the cringeworthy chance you might actually read some of the original text. Normally, I'm someone who can barely stand to read his essays through once an hour after they're written, so this was a special kind of torture. The story in question was "Shelf Space." It's very different from my usual creative writing-- no sci-fi, no fantasy, just an episode from the life of Stanley, the story's main character. The idea was that Stanley, a gifted but awkward 12 year old has had a very vivid, very happy dream, and he wants to recreate the feeling in his everyday life. Problems ensue. The funny part of the story is that Stanley is clearly very close to have Asperger's Syndrome, about four years before I'd have any idea what that is. And yes, for the smartasses in the audience, he is based on me--or at least, my memories at age 21 of age 12, which is something different entirely--but only loosely. He's kind of a caricature of some of a lot of the traits about myself I liked least at the time.

There are parts of it that hold up really well, and parts that really, really don't. But of the latter, they fall into two camps: first, there's a lot of words I accidentally left out. A lot a lot. And once the sixth person has pointed such an error out, words can no longer describe your mortification, even at a few year's distance. Ironically, the missing words are missing because, five years ago, I couldn't bring myself to edit the damn thing properly. It's a bad habit, folks. The other failing, years later, is more problematic, but understandable: reading from five years later, I find myself wincing at how heavy-handed certain aspects of the plot and tone are. Hopefully, five years of pretty intense reading and writing has upped my sophistication somewhat, so it's understandable I'd look back on previous work as a little amateurish.

At the same time--and this is by far the best aspect of looking back on this now--I've got evidence that I'm being a little too hard on myself. People liked the story. Some classmates felt a connection to Stanley, and some felt a connection to his parents, as they could relate to the problems of raising an emotionally distant but brilliant kid. (Okay, one guy felt Stanley was utterly unlikeable, and had no interest in the supposed conflict of a character who had things pretty easy, but you can't please everyone.) There has to be something worthwhile to the story if it reaches people. And not for nothing, but Vanderheaghe liked it too--he thought it was a "charming story" with the feeling of a fable, and that was what I was actually going for, so... Boffo. (It got an 84%--not great, perhaps, but a marked improvement over the 80% on my first attempt.)

The whole experience of typing these comments out has been very strange--a time warp rolled in a retrospective. But it reminded me that there's something in creative writing that I want to explore--once I have the chance. Maybe the summer project?

Later Days.

1 comment:

Ryan said...

Creative writing workshops are probably my favourite type of class. It's interesting once you stop caring about hurting other people's feelings and just start letting them know what you really think about their papers. I think a lot of people go into these classes and try to soften their comments up, because they're afraid they're going to offend the writer if they tell them that their story sucks. I was guilty of this in my first CW workshop, but then I realized that I wasn't doing anyone any favours by taking it easy on their stories; no one is ever going to improve without serious criticism, and I wanted people's honest opinions on my work, so I should be willing to do the same for them, right? I may have taken it too far, however, when I told one girl that her story "gave me grammatical cancer."

I'd love to read this story of yours; it sounds cool. I also think it might be fun to start some sort of group in which we basically run a creative writing workshop, and spend each meeting talking about someone's story (something like this may already exist, but being the Official Buffoon of the English department, I clearly don't know about it if it does).