I’ve always been a firm believer that you can’t teach someone to be a writer. Sure, anyone can be taught the basic mechanics of writing, but talent is something you don’t gain from a book or by attending a couple of seminars taught by the guy who scripted Airbud IX: Check-Mutt. A class in creative writing can’t transform a wannabe into a writer, but it can make good writers better by providing them with constructive criticism and, most important of all, forcing them to write and thereby improve their craft.
I met my writing partner Paul in a college-level creative writing class run by the campus’s resident madman, a colorful, charismatic, endlessly amusing former artist who had been afflicted with writer’s block so severe that he hadn’t written a word in over ten years and who, after leaving the teaching profession, descended into a state of paranoia that necessitated anyone trying to reach him execute a complicated dialing procedure (phone, let it ring twice, hang up, re-dial, let it ring twice again, hang up, then dial again) in order to signal the “all clear” and get him to pick up. Students were required to produce a minimum of three stories over the course of the semester that would be critiqued by the rest of the class and then re-written and submitted for marking. We usually did our writing on weekends, then made copies for the rest of the class. Back then (sometime before cell phones but well after Eisenhower), photocopy machines were a priceless resource to be jealously hoarded from the likes of imbecilic students and fly-by-night substitutes, so all non-staff members were required to use the ditto machine, an archaic Edison-era contraption that required the story be typed onto a special carbon paper, then inserted into the machine and hand-cranked to create multiple copies with lurid purple type. I remember our teacher running us through its operation, letting us all have a go at the crank, informing us: “It’s hard not to get the ink on your fingers. Rub them together. Feel that coolness? That means it’s already reached your liver.” Between stories about God-fearing alien-sighting truck drivers named Sal, randy grandmothers, happy-go-lucky little snow-fort builders who get their forearms taken off by passing snowplows, and adventures in sock world (that extra-dimensional pocket where the odd sock disappears to when you toss them in the dryer), we did read the occasional good piece of fiction. But, sadly, these were few and far between. It’s hard enough trying to get someone who can write to actually produce something of merit, much less someone with all the talent of a television reviewer for Entertainment Weekly. To this day, I still wonder about some of my former classmates. Whatever became of that woman, the big Stephen King fan, who wrote that mystery tale about the woman with the unpronounceable name (Oylees, I believe it was). Or the guy who wrote the allegory detailing the facile misadventures of his protagonist, Christian Mann. Are they still typing away in their spare hours, still chasing the dream? Have they landed a staff position on that new David Milch series? Or, more than likely, have they given up on the notion and long wondered what could have possessed them to take that lame creative writing class.
Years later, Paul and I were being interviewed by a local program. We were informed that the field reporter was going to ask us a few questions about working in television after which we would cut back to the studio where, in a pre-taped out, the show’s hostess would tell the audience: “If you want to learn more about writing, you can consult your local library or check the newspaper for information about upcoming seminars.” As the interview progressed, I couldn’t help but think of all of those students who wasted their time in that creative writing course when they could have instead been studying Contemporary Sexuality. If only someone had been straight with them from the get-go and saved them the trouble. “So, any advice for anyone at home interested in becoming a writer?”the reporter closed the interview. “Sure,”I replied. “Write! That’s how you become a better writer. The last thing you want to do is consults your local library or attend a seminar.” And back to you in the studio, Helen.