“Congratulate yourselves,” our writing instructor said at the end of our last class as each person shifted around to get bags and purses. “You’ve just written six stories in six weeks.” Since this was our final class, the message got a bit lost, said as it was right before we were about to exit. That night, there’d been wine, cookies, chips, and other treats. We’d workshopped the stories that we’d given each other the week before (1200 words), and we’d done a cold workshop on our last story (400 words), which we’d passed out to each other in class. It had been a busy night. But his words did sink in later, and since then I’ve reflected on some of the life lessons—really reminders—that I took away from the class. Here are three.
Giving yourself specific, challenging assignments can yield truly amazing levels of productivity and accomplishment.
Write one new story each week for six weeks? I’m still impressed that we all satisfied this goal, and in many cases, quite beautifully. The secret to achieving that accomplishment was specific goals, deadlines, and accountability.
Each week we were assigned a prompt or a story type to be turned in the following week, things like “start with an extreme event and no backstory” or “write a ‘how-to’ as a story.” Beforehand, we read and discussed published stories that exemplified what we were to do. (For example, for the ‘how-to,’ we read Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer.“) The following week everyone would turn in their stories, many of which were truly wonderful, based on said prompt or type. As for myself, considering that each week I had absolutely no satisfactory ideas and would have many false starts before I found an idea I felt comfortable with (or ran out of time to keep changing it), I’m still in a bit of shock that I actually did come up with both ideas and stories. The deadlines and accountability to other people were huge factors. If I were attempting this in my little home writing cave, I could allow myself to be stumped or start a story and endlessly take it in new directions, but now those behaviors were not an option: The story had to be done in time for the next class and good to the point of feeling at least somewhat comfortable sharing it with others. It also had to end on some note of closure. On one hand, I found everyone’s ability to come up with new stories despite the narrow limitations of the assignment counterintuitive. Creativity is supposed to be free-flowing right? But as with the rest of life, having all the possibilities in the world can provoke major anxiety and indecision. To be so limited was oddly freeing. This is not to say that those limitations would continue to serve the stories. In many cases, the prompts functioned merely as kickstarters; they would (should) probably be thrown away on subsequent drafts, but they did their job: They pushed us past our floundering and got us to Nike it up and Just Do It, a lesson that has applicability to virtually all areas of life.
“Failure” can be a growth experience.
During every class except the last, we had a period of in-class writing exercises, which we then would share with a partner or two. As I mentioned in my initial post about this class, such exercises are far outside my comfort zone, and I wasn’t the only one: Another woman would leave when the in-class writing started, and another dropped the class altogether because of it. But throughout my life I’ve made a point, at least occasionally, to experience certain things specifically because they terrified me, and so I welcomed this challenge (or a part of me did, anyway). I especially embraced this type of exercise (and the class more generally) because I tend to overthink things, and the exercises called for the opposite. That’s not to say that I came up with great stuff: Almost all the in-class exercises I wrote were pretty terrible. I would start the exercise, realize it wasn’t where I wanted to go, then restart with a new idea multiple times. Or I would try to write an “extreme action,” as an example, but end up starting with back-story anyway. Despite these lame attempts, I would read aloud what I wrote to whichever partner or partners I had for that class. Another outside-my-comfort-zone experience was having the first story I turned in get torn apart (or that’s how it felt), something I’ve never experienced in a class; in fact, just the opposite.
I tend to be the person who wants everyone all happy-happy and gentle with each other as if we’re all made of eggshells, but I heard the criticism and my, for lack of a better word, self-regard was just fine. (Which is not to say I’m dying for more.) I find that there’s something about writing and sharing fiction that feels vulnerable in a way little else does. But what those experiences taught me is that I have more capacity to handle less-than-positive reception than I would think in that area, and that the fear of it shouldn’t stop me.
Writing fiction—or anything you want to do well, for that matter—has a way of hijacking your life.
During the class I was reminded of interviews with published authors who juggle day jobs. Many of these authors talk about giving up virtually all their other pursuits in order to write. I also often thought of Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours rule,” which holds that it takes about ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. No matter whether his rule per se is true, I believe focus and deliberate practice is definitely required to become really good at something, and spreading oneself thin is the opposite of that. In a more general way, I think it had been long enough since I’d take a fiction workshop that I forgot just how much work goes into it. It’s not just about writing your own stories. You also need to read everyone else’s and give them thoughtful critiques. My classmates were a truly talented group, so that made it easier, but the work was still incredibly time-consuming. As for my own stories, even though I considered dropping the class on a number of occasions since I’m not even sure I want to write fiction, I found myself kept from sleep because my brain was spinning out story ideas, I would skip yoga and running to spend more time at the computer, and I generally resented anything else I had to do, you know, like that pesky job thing. One of the other women in the class put it bluntly when she said, “I haven’t gotten anything done at work since this class started.” All in all, I was reminded of the sheer amount of time that writing fiction can take and how it can, because of that, crowd out so much else.
“Six stories in Six Weeks” is now in the rearview mirror, and I look on the experience with great fondness. Since I write for work, it took me a while to get out of nonfiction mode: A couple stories sounded like personal essays, even though they were made up—and my reading too much David Sedaris during that time probably didn’t help matters. And in hindsight, I would change my approach in a few different ways. Still, I feel like I came away with a lot. For example, for our last story (400 words), I wrote something that actually made people laugh, which I assure you has never happened before, since when I write, I am compelled straightaway to dive deep for the dark places. I wrote another story I actually liked, and that I’ll have to look at with fresh eyes soon and possibly even send out (which I’ve never done!). Even the first one that got torn apart has potential; key facts were way too subtle but they’re very fixable problems as I am clear what I was trying to do with it. And last but definitely not least was what I learned from other people. The instructor’s critiquing of both my own and others’ stories always gave me new things to think about, and it was a pleasure to be in a class with so many talented women. Also, because everyone was working so fast, we really got insight into each other’s strengths and working styles, which was really interesting in and of itself, and it was fascinating to see how one prompt could create such widely different stories.
Unfortunately, I didn’t walk away feeling that the “write fiction or not?” question got answered for a number of reasons that I will write about soon, but it largely comes down to the saying, “You can do anything, but not everything,” and the difficulty in facing that truth. Still, I got a vivid reminder about the importance of pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and how I am guaranteed to learn and grow from the effort.
- Haruki Murakami on Running and Writing
- On the Difficulty of Staying Focused During Writing
- Why We Still Need Real Books
- To Kill a Mockingbird and a Problematic History