What You Think Is On The Page. . .Isn’t

June 23rd, 2005 · 1 Comment
by Booksquare

We have survived Tod Goldberg’s class! Our brain is stuffed with useless pop culture trivia and ear worms looping really bad songs from the seventies. Really bad songs. “Sylvia’s Mother” bad. We’re quite sure that within a week, the entire class would have been tortured with snippets of “Seasons in the Sun.”

Now, it wasn’t all fun and games. Between sets, Tod engaged in what we believe is known as teaching. Because he is the sort who could always use a little ego boost, we will oblige: we learned new and exciting things over the course of several months and critiques. About writing (in case there’s any doubt). We would strongly recommend the class to others. Also, we would be remiss if we neglected to mention that Tod’s short story collection, Simplify, will be hitting the shelves in September. He was too modest to mention this in class more than once or twice or so.

But this isn’t about Tod Goldberg; it’s about Karen Palmer. Karen is the author of All Saints and Border Dogs, a frequent commenter here and on other blogs of note, and teaching Novel III at UCLA Extension during the summer quarter. We persuaded her to talk with our readers about her class and the benefits of taking a writing class. As she said at our Novel II class’s closing party, very often, what writers think they’ve put on the page isn’t really there. This is where trusted readers come in. Writing classes offer that sort of feedback with the benefit of bringing together writers from a wide range of genres and styles.

Read on to learn more and when you get to the end, you’ll note that we’ve helpfully provided a link to the UCLA Extension website (oh sure, we’d love to link directly to the correct page, but the !@#$ site doesn’t work that way. Select the drop-down for the Writer’s Program, click on Courses in the right navigation area, click on Creative Writing, click on Fiction II, then Novel III, then scroll down to add the course to your study list — no, we’re not making this stuff up.). Space is filling quickly, so sign up now.

Those of you who read these pages regularly know that Ms. Square is winding up a fiction workshop over at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program with novelist, blogger, and all-around good guy Tod Goldberg. The program is well-regarded nationally, and participants do go on to publish in a variety of genres. Novel-writing courses are structured in a sensible level I-V scheme, with prerequisites and ever-advancing goals, as might be expected: Novel 1, you bring in your glimmering of a brilliant idea; Novel 5, you’re poring over Jeff Herman’s guide to editors, publishers, and literary agents. Ms. Square may be one of those Southern Californians who prefer to spend July and August out of school, lolling on the sands at Zuma (even between the hours of 7 and 10 p.m., which is when most workshops are offered), but if she were to take this summer’s Novel III class, she’d find herself with a choice of two instructors — one of whom is myself.

So, in the dual interests of public information and gentle promotion, she’s asked that I spout a little about workshops in general and my approach in particular.

First, I should disclose that I am not the product of an MFA program. I took no undergraduate creative writing classes, and didn’t start writing seriously until my thirties, which is late, as these things go. For years I went it alone. I had no idea how many people come up through the programs, or the part they play in some writers’ success. By the time I finally got it, I was so far into the process I couldn’t afford to worry about whether I had hurt my chances of ever publishing by not getting that degree.

It’s not, however, as if I worked in a cave. In those years, I was living in Boulder, CO, where everyone is either a world-class triathlete-in-training or a published (pre-published, even!) author. Along the way, I’ve dropped in and out (mostly out) of writers’ groups, met some very talented people and made wonderful friends. But I doubt I would’ve ever written a book like my first novel, All Saints, if I’d been in a formal program. I would’ve been scared off from roaming so far from “what I know.” Likely, the use of dialect in the book would’ve been discouraged, my right to speak from another culture’s perspective questioned, and my fondness for the properly placed gory detail termed gratuitous. So, all in all, ignorance was a blessing.

The complaint most often voiced about MFA programs (and I tend to agree) is that they have a flattening effect on some writers. Two years in the company of like-minded aspirants can lead to fiction that’s competent but workshoppy, composed more to please other people than anyone with an ego would ever care to admit. If your personality and talent are strong enough (obnoxiousness helps here, although I’ve always loved the image of Flannery O’Connor at Iowa, sitting in the corner for two years, barely saying a word), this can be side-stepped. Self-knowledge is crucial here.

And yet, at some point, all writers need readers. Because the single biggest problem most of us face is the fact that after slaving away at our fiction for days, weeks, months, and years (and god help us, for some people it’s decades), what we believe is on the page . . . well . . . isn’t. We need readers to tell us this, intelligent readers who aren’t spouses or friends. And, especially early on, it helps to have a fearless leader to lay down the basics of craft where necessary (structure, character development, POV, setting, etc.), while also guiding discussion away from the misuse of commas, or petty name-calling — though frankly, that can get interesting. What writers really need to know is whether the work captures something true about life, whether the characters live and breathe, and why or why not, whether the story is coherent and has drive, and depth, whether the whole of it — the gestalt — prompts a response in the reader: emotional, intellectual, celestial, gastronomical. Whatever. A response. That’s what all writers are looking for.

And I sincerely believe that until you are published, with an editor and an agent, and, if you’re lucky, a handful of writer-friends whom you trust to look at your work, you have a better chance of running across the right sort of reader at an adult education program, like UCLA’s.

In Extension classes, people come and go at will. Unless you choose to be graded, no one can fail you. With less to lose, you have exponentially more to gain. Your classmates are generally a wider (and wilder) mix. The instructors are professional, working writers, rather than traditional academics. I taught undergraduate fiction workshops for a year at CU Boulder, and read dozens of stories about clueless parents and getting drunk and throwing up in the dorm. Believe me, a little life experience goes a long way toward improving the group dynamic. The opportunity to read and analyze different types of fiction is a boon, as is thinking about craft in a deliberate way. It’s so much easier to see a story when it’s not yours. You’re not sweating, your heart isn’t pounding. And if you put effort into your critiques, you’ll learn more than you ever expected. Then the quality of your own work improves, sometimes dramatically. When it is your turn to be up, if it falls out that no one “got” your submission, or that the critiques were all stupid and aggravating, I still guarantee that there will be at least one comment that rings a bell. Something important that you would never have thought of on your own. Ninety percent of what you’ll hear in a workshop is of no use whatsoever, and you need to develop an ability to discriminate, but a piece of right-minded criticism can make you feel like you’ve been struck by lightning. That alone is worth the price of admission.

I know where I’ll be this summer on Thursday nights. If you’re free, and the beach at night scares you, and you’ve got 50 pages of a magnum opus, and you want readers and a fearless leader, and there’s nothing on TV that you absolutely must view — come on down. I’d love to see you in Novel III.

File Under: Tools and Craft

1 response so far ↓

  • Lorra // Jun 24, 2005 at 6:52 am

    Boy does this essay hit home; my “magnum opus” is currently with readers who are themselves writers, not related and, lucky for everyone, living over five-hundred miles away.

    But omigod is it ever scary waiting for their “honest” (which I’ve demanded – foolishly) comments.