Saturday, July 29, 2006

A touch of class.

I don't give a damn about my bad reputation, apparently.

Both Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein have been connected to a quote that states that the very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. This quote, in addition to being funny, pretty much summed up my experience in writing classes up until this point. I'd go in wide-eyed and hopeful that perhaps this would be the time that I would connect with someone who could help me hone my craft, create better pieces, and I don't know, learn something. I'd leave annoyed, bitter, and convinced that my time would have been better spent at home with a blank WordPerfect page, a cup of tea, and my copy of The Elements of Style by Shrunk & White (or even a good game of computer solitaire, in some cases). My experience has been dismal, so I'm largely self-taught. I can name about 5 writing teachers, since the time I was first able to put a story together, who I can say have had a positive impact on my craft, whom I genuinely respect to this day, and whom I am entirely grateful to.

The rest? Well, you know that old saying about how those who can't do, teach? They're talking about you.

I've gotten some shitty advice from the so-called experts. One told me that I couldn't possibly have my own voice already, and that I had to imitate other authors to find mine. This led to an argument that nearly left the both of us in tears of frustration. This instructor was a green-as-grass grad student (and not much older than me) who really had no clue how to instruct. In one class she set up what were basically arts & crafts stations that we had to run between on a timer. To this day, I have no idea how this was supposed to help me develop as a writer. Still, I suppose it sounded good on the lesson plan.

Another tormenter (who was a hippie burnout straight out of central casting) told my class that if we could picture the universe in our minds, and draw a teacup without lifting our pen from the paper, we were in the correct "philosophical place" to begin to contemplate how to begin writing. That was a loooong semester, let me tell you. Had I not just finished reading Michael Chabon's marvelous Wonder Boys the semester prior to that one, I wouldn't have been able to find a sliver of humor in the situation at all.

Those were some of the worst, of course. There were the couldn't-give-a-damns that would shove group work down your throat for days on end (Um, hello? I'm not going to learn a damn thing from my peers - they're in this class to learn, same as me. Get off your overpaid, lazy ass and TEACH us something. You're the one with the degree! thanks), and the ones that might have been good at what they did once upon a yonder, but were now way past their expiration dates.

Of course, there were the good ones, the great ones - the ones that encouraged me, that gave me constructive criticism that I could actually USE to better myself as an artist, and who genuinely cared about what we were learning and how. They, as previously mentioned, were painfully few and far between their unsatisfactory breathren, and usually too nice to say anything against them. Well, there was ONE snarky individual who would, but I'm keeping that individual's identity protected, as this is a person who should be teaching writing often, and to large groups, and I don't want ANYTHING interfering with that.

Most of the time, I wasn't sitting in the back of the room, quietly seething. Generally, I was fighting these piss-poor instructors tooth and nail, challenging their gassbag rhetoric out of sheer frustration. Writing was something I knew instinctively - I didn't need lectures on voice or endless examinations of process - I needed to know how to make my characters three-dimensional and compelling. I needed to know how to build a story arc that wouldn't collapse, and create a plot with minimal holes in it. I needed tools; I got toolboxes instead.

Since I graduated and happily hightailed it out of academia, I've kept up my writing, and have been pretty happy with what I've been pumping out (sometimes in fits and starts, but it's still something). Still, with literally everyone, their mother, and their step-uncle-twice removed who've decided to take to writing as partially a paint-by-numbers hobby and get-rich-quick scheme, a novel is no longer enough. You have to build some sort of a following, and get noticed in some other way. Granted, it's not so easy to do any more, but if you can get a few publication credits under your belt (in an academic quarterly, for example), it doesn't hurt.

And therein lies my achillies heel: I suck at short stories. They're either overpacked or flimsy. I've never once had a genuine handle on the structure - I've written a few in my time, but I never thought they were terribly good. So, when my friend Jessica mentioned that she might be taking a writing course in the fall, it got some wheels turning in my head, and I did some research.

There's a short story class being offered at one of the learning institutions that my friends are studying with. Actually, there are two, but one was eliminated after the course description alone made me want to run screaming into the night. The class I was drawn to seemed to offer what I was looking for. I googled the instructor and read some of his work, and I liked it. I'm just trying to decide if it's worth it.

Some questions in my mind:
1. Would it be better to put the cost of the course towards a new laptop?

2. Is it going to be worth missing Veronica Mars every week? I'm not being totally facetious here - the class is from 8pm-9:50pm on Tuesdays. In the world of Sharon, that's pretty frigging late. I'm not even sure that this will work for me, as I have to get up for work around 6:30 or so every day, and am a person who needs rest. Even my parents suggested that this period of time is not my best - and I may not get the most out of something that starts so late, and will then require at least a 30-35 minute commute home.

3. My history with writing professors, as explained above.

4. The fact that Freelancer is going places again, and any coursework that would be required for a writing course would potentially interfere with this.

I have a little while to figure this out, and will probably attend the open house they're holding this week to help my decision. It's tempting to wait until the Spring semester, but it's equally tempting to go ahead with this, too.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

a little, quiet corner.

One of the great things about living here in Park Slope is the plethora of places that one can go to for the sole purpose of creativity. I just spent most of this afternoon dividing my time between two such establishments, working on my novel. Which has started to get going again, in a major way. I have some more plot arcs to work on. I can see places where I'll have to develop more on the first revision. But I'm very excited at the prospect of actually being able to FINISH this thing by the end of the year. That's the goal. But, I digress.

I was always dubious of the whole "sitting in a coffee shop/diner working on my book" thing, until I tried it. I armed myself with my notebooks and headed out in search of food, tea, and a place to work. My first choice had been unavailable (totally packed) and I had completely forgotten about another place I'd wanted to try, I wound up at a little diner on a corner of 7th avenue that I happen to like (and know isn't crazy busy).

I settled into a booth, ordered, and set about working. All was grand until some mother brought her three whining, shrieking brats in. They weren't the ONLY children in the place, just the most disruptive, ill-behaved ones. There was another family with two adorable, well-behaved children that I barely noticed until the hellions arrived, but it became clear that despite a previously peaceful half an hour, I was going to have to get the hell out of dodge. I paid and left.

I tried the 7th Avenue Tea Lounge next, but uncomfortable couches and lots of conversation gave it only a slight edge over the diner. That, and a large, caffienated tea made a walk necessary.

I'm debating starting a list of places in the immediate area for this purpose. Secret, of course - I don't want to turn this into some kind of "Find Sharon" scavenger hunt, and I *do* have to get some work done, but I'm still hopeful I can find something that I can go to fairly regularly to get what I need.

What I need is somewhere close, and relatively quiet. I know that if I wanted near-total silence I could go to the library, but I would prefer a place where I could have food and a drink if I wanted one, and a comfortable level of noise - perhaps the sound of clicking laptops and the hum of quiet conversation. Tables (and a lack of toddlers) are a definite plus.

Stay tuned for the results of further research.