What’s Your Favorite Anecdote About Learning How to Write?

 Mine is easy.  It was in a college writing class many, many years ago.  Not an MFA writing class, but the kind of writing class that pre-meds, business, and chemistry majors used to take, because deep in their hearts they didn’ want to be doctors, entrepreneurs, or scientists.  They wanted to be writers.

 Creative writing classes were part of the English and American Literature Department at my school, but that was because no one else wanted them.  The English and American Literature Department didn’t want them either, but enough students did, so they were offered begrudgingly.  The teachers were all graduate students who’d never published anything, and they usually picked their small classes (five or six, max), from the cool, artsy crowd, or their friends.

 Since I was neither, I applied, but I never got in.  Then one semester, a visiting professor from the University of Virginia hung up his shingle.  His name was Peter Taylor, and he was a regional writer of some repute from the South (a decade later he won a Pulitzer for his novel, A Summons to Memphis), but nobody I knew had ever heard of him at the time.  I hadn’t, either.

 The usual twenty or thirty people signed up for his class, but, instead of picking the hippest six, he took all thirty, divided them into two sections, added another five latecomers to each section, and settled in to a heavy workload.

 It was a great class.  Taylor devoted each session to discussing one anonymous story, which meant everyone had a couple of stories read and reviewed out of the three or four we each wrote that semester.  It was not the most arduous class in the catalog, and you always got an A no matter how awful your stories, as long as you handed them in on time and showed up regularly to class.  That was another reason you got so many pre-meds.  Their classes were already impossible, and they could use the easy grade.

 The stories were pretty much what you’d expect.  Ruminations on the old man who swept up the bus depot in the golden light of the afternoon sun, the day the writer’s grandmother died, a poignant love story from freshman year.  Taylor read them all, made small suggestions about phrasing and imagery, and went on to the next one.

 Until the day my story was discussed.  That day, Taylor was animated from the start, waving the pages over his head, or smacking them with the back of his other hand to make his point.  “Finally!” he exclaimed, “someone has written a story!  Not a very good story, or one I even understand.  I think it’s science fiction.  But at least it’s a story.  Things happen.  The characters do things.  Everything else that’s been turned in, most of them much better written than this one, aren’t really stories.  They’re vignettes.  Descriptions.  Small slices of life.  But they’re not stories.  And since this is a short story class, I’d like to commend the author for actually writing a story.”

 My classmates stared at Taylor for several seconds, then spent the next forty-five minutes shredding my work for its terrible writing and implausibility.  (I think I was in a Philip Jose Farmer phase at the time, and it was a terrible story.)

 I, of course, was pleased as punch.

 Anyone else out there have any fun tales about learning the craft?

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  1. 1. Wolf Lahti

    That, in a nutshell, is precisely what my problem was for years. I had no difficulties mastering (well, handling) the problems that inspired dozens of Writer’s Digest how-to articles: atmosphere, character development, pacing, description; I could do all these fine and balance them well, and -technically, at least- I was a more than adequate wordsmith.

    What I couldn’t do, however, was tell a story.

    Heck, I didn’t even recognize that what I wrote were not stories, just events, “vignettes”, as said above. I cannot say what helped me to realize this, but once I did, writing became far more difficult – but of course worth the effort.

  2. 2. S.C Butler

    Wolf – It’s an important realization. Glad you made it.

  3. 3. Eliza

    My mother keeps a box to remind her of when we were little kids. Old report cards and special toys, a few baby pictures, old school projects.

    Going through that box, there is a ‘book’ made of artist’s newsprint, the thin, slightly gray paper that my life drawing classes had used with charcoal for gesture studies. Quick, cheap sheets not meant to be saved. At least six or seven sheets of it had been folded in half and stabled.

    It had nothing on the cover but my name and the date, in my mother’s handwriting. I was three years old.

    But inside that book, I had taken every letter I knew (Q, O, P, X, D) and had written words with them, paragraphs, page after page of made-up pencil prose, following the forms of dialogue and narrative.

    I like to tell people that I was writing before I could read.

  4. 4. S.C Butler

    Eliza – Very cool. Now all you have to do is feed what you wrote into a codebreaker and see what it came up with. Perhaps you were channeling someone.

  5. 5. Justine Graykin

    I’ve always been full of stories, the kind of kid who wove elaborate “pretends”, often all by myself. I decided to be a writer because of that. I had endless material; all I needed to do was learn how to write (ha). So naturally I took one of those Creative Writing classes you talk about. The professor was a real live published writer, also from the south, named John Yount. We got along well, and I learned a good deal from him. One of the pieces of advice I never forgot was that I should never have to pay a penny to get my work published.

    I asked him if I could submit the novel I was working on instead of shorter works, and gods help him, he agreed. At that time I was furiously spinning out doorstop fantasy as dense as Christmas fruitcake.

    When I got it back, he had written a paragraph of unexceptional helpful feedback followed by this sentence: “I am very worried about you.”

    He never did explain that line.

  6. 6. S.C Butler

    Justine – Did you need the line explained, or did you suss it out yourself?

    Not paying a penny was good advice until a couple of years ago, I think. Now, with self-publishing actually viable, I’m not so sure.

Author Information

S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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