Creative Writing 101
Creative Writing 101
I sit bolt upright on the hard plastic chair, pen and paper at the ready. It’s my first evening class in a creative writing course for very short fiction. The instructor, a chunky man in his sixties with a mop of grey hair, glares around the room at the ten of us.
“One sentence. Include who, what, when and where. Active verbs! Punch! Drama! The action is all you need. Five minutes. Start now.”
I drop my eyes to the blank page, clench my pen, and breathe heavily for a few minutes. Then I write: “On Christmas Eve, Sadie flung the burnt turkey off the balcony of the apartment, hurled the Brussels sprouts and turnip after it and swore off family Christmases for good.”
He likes it! Sam, the instructor, praises it. He shoots down every other sentence in the class and the other students look disgruntled but I ignore them and caress my paper. Sam is a teddy bear I want to hug.
He tells us to email him a three-to-five hundred word piece of fiction for the next class. I take Sadie home with me and sit, staring at my brilliant sentence.
The truth is, I’m good for one dramatic moment but basically I’m not a particularly dramatic type. I tend to think about things, or feel, or wonder, or question. I can imagine Sadie flinging, hurling and swearing for thirty seconds, but surely after that she’d pause a bit. Explain to her partner why she was pitching food off the balcony of their apartment. I mean, they must have paid money for it. And what about the mess on the street below? So when I continue the Sadie story that’s what she does. Explain. For three hundred and eighty-seven words
“Where’s the action?” Sam snarls at me a week later.
The only other action thing I can imagine is Sadie throwing herself off the balcony onto the burnt turkey. If the balcony is high enough, I suppose she might end up looking like cranberry sauce. A seasonal holiday pastiche on the sidewalk.
I’m not used to failure. Sam’s no teddy-bear. What was I thinking? He’s a grizzly bear in early spring, half-starved and bad-tempered. He chews up and spits out my classmates’ homework stories too, growling throughout.
The possibility of Sadie’s violent death, along with Sam’s demand for constant action, reminds me of the stories my high school students handed in after I taught a unit on creative writing, years ago. Almost every action-packed story the boys wrote ended in death and catastrophic destruction. The girls opted for marriage or suicide. I laughed long and heartlessly over them. Obviously I should never have tried to teach creative writing since Sam’s making it clear that I can’t write myself, but at least I enjoyed it. I laughed in private and always found something good to say in public. I hope I never made any of those kids feel the way I do as I leave Sam’s second class. He doesn’t appear to have a sense of humour and I’m rapidly losing mine.
I abandon Sadie and try other stories for my weekly homework. Every time I email one to Sam I think I’ve cracked it, but nothing succeeds. The harder I try, the more dismissive he is. I delete my next homework assignment after he’s trashed it. Four three-hour classes begin to feel like fourteen.
The others in the class do not look as discouraged as I feel. Two of the men seem cheerful and the other seven are inscrutable. By the third week I’m too weighed down by failure to ask others what they think of the course. We’re not invited to comment on each other’s work, although we usually see it. I said once I liked someone else’s piece. Sam gave me the kind of icy stare you’d reserve for a stranger who’d sneezed on you and continued as if I hadn’t spoken.
On the last night of the course, I wait to see if he can find anything good in my final piece of homework. I’ve written about being stopped in my car at a traffic light while a woman who’s been stalking me, stares at me from the sidewalk. I want to jerk the wheel, hit the gas and mash her body like a potato against the light standard. Instead I grip the wheel, white-knuckled, ease forward in my lane and cling to sanity. Although I don’t tell Sam, this is actually nonfiction, not fiction. I suppose that’s why it’s more dramatic in my memory than it turns out to be on paper. Sam sneers. All the tension is internal; he wants real action. The kind that would have landed me in prison for twenty years.
That’s when I realize that I don’t like the kind of testosterone-driven narrative Sam wants. I never read non-stop action. I don’t even watch action movies. I like relationships, feelings, personal growth and happy endings.
In the last fifteen minutes of class Sam tries to be gracious, praises our improvement. I nearly choke. Maybe the others improved; I didn’t. According to him I hit my peak in the first fifteen minutes of the twelve hour course and I haven’t written one good sentence since. I walk out depressed. What a waste of time and money.
When I browse through my computer files six months later, to see what to save and what to delete, I come across Sadie and the turkey again. I like Sadie, did from the start, which is why I never erased her along with the other pieces from that class. I tinker with the story, cut a few sentences, crank up the action verbs.
On Christmas Eve, Sadie flung the burnt turkey off the balcony of the apartment, hurled the Brussels sprouts and turnip after it and swore off family Christmases for good.
“I can not make the Christmas dinner for you and your mother,” she hissed at Joe. Her dark eyes shone with frustration, her black hair spiraled in all directions and her face flushed in the hot smoky kitchen. “For three years I try. Every year worse than the one before. This year burnt, last year undercooked. The first year wrong stuffing and no Brussels sprouts. Bah! Who can like Brussels sprouts? And now she is late. Even if I make it perfect your mother will criticize. It is not the dinner that is wrong, it is me. She hates me. She wants you to marry that pale English woman next door to her, not live with me. You say to try; Peace on Earth; it is Christmas. Well, I try; three times. No more. She does not want peace with me.”
Joe’s young face creased in worry lines. “You’re right. Never mind my mother,” he said at last. “I’m starving. What can we have for dinner now that you’ve pitched the turkey? Should we order in?”
“Pasta,” Sadie said. “It is quick. With my special sauce, the garlic break and the salad. I am hungry too. And I wait half an hour, no more. If she is not here then, we eat without her. Tomorrow I make you the lamb with garlic, tomatoes and rosemary, eggplant and roast potatoes.”
Joe smiled at her. “That sounds wonderful. Damn all turkeys. The pale English woman is boring and my mother is rude. I want to marry you. Let’s open the wine and celebrate our engagement. We’ll elope.”
“Yes!” Sadie laughed and hugged him.
When Joe’s mother arrived, twenty-five minutes later, her blue eyes frosty, she found Joe and Sadie cuddled together on the couch, half a loaf of garlic bread gone and most of the bottle of wine. They smiled up at her. Through the open window a chorus of shrieks shattered the night as the alley cats fought over the remains of the turkey.
Action verbs for Sam. Relationships, feelings, personal growth and a happy ending for me. I see that like my female high school students I’ve chosen to end with marriage but at least I threw in the alley cats to add a bit of bite. Could they be seen as a Sadie vs mother-in-law metaphor? No; I don’t want to suggest that Joe’s dead meat any more than I want Sadie to leap off the balcony. I want a happy-ever-after-ending and I don’t care if it’s unfashionable.
Sam’s class wasn’t a total waste. In retrospect I can see that my failure was more a case of wrong place, wrong teacher, than an inability to write. Sam wanted one narrow and specific kind of writing and I wasn’t producing it so he got cranky. But I do pay more attention to verbs now, even if my characters still think and feel more than Sam thinks they should. And I’ve decided to write non-fiction, a genre that makes room for thought, feelings and questions. For wonder.
When I produce my magnum opus, Sam won’t be lining up to buy it. And that’s okay. Damn Sam. I’m writing for me.