Well, my first writing class was a roaring success.
You know in those romantic comedies, when the girl gets together with her sexy male best friend she ignored for the whole movie at just the last moment before the credits roll? The guy who was perfect for her all along, but she just couldn’t see it? And you think, “Finally, you silly girl!”
That girl would be me, both oblivious and resistant for way too long, realizing that this is what I’m meant to do.
Last Saturday I took a class in Writing Extraordinary Prose, taught by an author and professor at San Francisco’s MFA program.
The focus of the class was on the variety of ways to craft a sentence. We pulled apart work from James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and Truman Capote. We turned them inside out and analyzed their structure and the author’s reasoning behind that structure. We’d then try writing our own sentences following a similar format to see what we could come up with. It was fascinating and mind-blowing and really freaking hard. The math behind art.
I was so excited slash nervous for class, barely able to sleep the night before. Besides worrying about my ability to write creatively, I worried about the people. What would the other students be like? Would I fit in? I expected literary folk, looking like they either stepped out of some obscure novel I’ve never heard of, wearing black turtlenecks and perfectly placed berets, or bored frumpy housewives writing self-published young adult novels about faeries marrying spirit elves with PDF book covers designed on elance.
Instead I found retired school teachers, accomplished novelists, one doctor, one life coach and one cancer patient/professional golfer who used writing as a form of therapy.
I was intimidated and impressed by them all. I twenty years younger than the youngest student and I felt my age every moment. When we had to expand the sentence, “the boy climbed the tree” I struggled. The boy clambered up the tree? The boy hoisted himself up the knotty tree? Oh god no this is horrible. Beginner’s stuff. One woman talked about a war happening beneath the tree, which the boy climbed up as a means of escape. Other students got incredibly descriptive about the history of the tree, who had lived there for hundreds of years.
For six hours we worked on many, many sentences. I did my best and it got easier with time. I ended up pulling most of my ideas from life experiences. I wrote, terrified the teacher would call on me, about my writing insecurities, my marriage, my job.
Writing what I’ve experienced seems to be, for now, the only way I’m able to start thinking more creatively. From there I’m then able to tap into the feeling I get when writing is easy like breathing.
The class was everything I’ve ever wanted. Suddenly I was writing words that didn’t sound like me, but were beautiful and mine regardless.
And that’s where I hit my first challenge. I’m strangely protective of my voice. It keeps me from hating to write and I love how easy it is.
My second challenge was that I don’t particularly enjoy reading James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. I get lost in their work. Trying to reorganize a sentence in my head so I can understand its meaning takes me out of the story. For example, from Mrs Dolloway:
How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning.
What a fucking gorgeous sentence. It conveys a feeling. A rhythm. I am there, in this morning.
Sort of. After I read it a dozen times.
But if she had written, “The early morning air was fresh, calm and still,” we wouldn’t get that same impact. That sense of wonder and playfulness.
It’s not like I’m torn up inside about whether one way is right or not. Just that for the first time I feel challenged as a writer. Could I, if I tried, write that way? Would I want to? Would it still be me?
This all said, despite being terrified my sentences would suck, I came home buzzing about base clauses and modifiers and rhythm and how I made a sentence that sort of sounded like something Elizabeth Gilbert might write and who knew a sentence could be such a beautiful thing and oh my God maybe I could possibly someday write a novel and do I need to get an MFA?
Overall, here’s the most important piece I came away with, care of our wonderful teacher Nina Schulyer:
“Intuitively, most of you are already doing this. But by bringing awareness to the decisions you’re making, you now have the freedom of choice. Awareness leads to mastery.”
For years I’ve attempted many career changes. Design! Cooking! Yoga! But halfway there I’ve realized I’m so caught up in the final product and never the journey. Which is usually when I quit.
If I was never paid a dime at the end result, what would I do anyway? I sure wouldn’t teach yoga. Or design homes. I definitely wouldn’t teach people how to Facebook their lives away.
But I would write. I do write. Every day. This realization hit me halfway through class once I recognized that weird feeling in my chest was a heart filled with joy. Now, suddenly, there are goals I want so desperately, resonating someplace terrifying within me.
Finally. You silly girl.