Writing took on a whole new meaning for me from the moment I stepped foot in Professor Rice’s classroom for Introduction to Fiction Writing. It was my first creative writing class. I didn’t know what to expect when I sat down in the front row of desks, choosing the seat next to the air conditioner by the window, eager to learn but too intimidated to sit in the middle right in front of the teacher. I regretted my choice after only five minutes in that air conditioner’s icy blast radius. But I stayed put, feeling too awkward to change seats. Our professor arrived just a minute before class was scheduled to start, making a beeline for the table centered in the front of the room. He sat before us, his balding head and glasses both catching the fluorescent beams of light from the bulbs above and reflecting them back. He stared at us, his expression hard and calculating. He stared. And stared. And stared some more. Only until everyone felt sufficiently awkward did he proceed.
He talked about how we are all going to die. He had cancer, so he was certainly going to die. He talked about how if we had multiple windows open on our computers (Facebook, Twitter, E-mail, etc.), we would never be writers. If we didn’t read, we would never be good writers. And not just any type of reading would suffice. If we read garbage, like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray, we would never be good writers. He deemed E.L. James the devil, and Harry Potter as merely “readable.” My first impression of this man was that his gift, his calling in life, was shattering everything you believed to be true in the time span of an hour and fifteen minutes. And he enjoyed doing it.
I left on that first day of class stressed, intimidated, and feeling completely unprepared for the upcoming thirteen weeks. Up until that point, I had been an Accounting major. My only writing experience consisted of fan fiction (horribly written fan fiction, I might add), a half-finished novel (also horribly written), and research papers on subjects that hardly peaked my interest. The five-paragraph essay, that generic, formulaic spew of loosely tied topics that somehow connected to my thesis in the lamest type of way, had been the only form of academic writing familiar to me at that point. And in those essays, I found it difficult not to come off stale. Passionless. More boring than Ben Stein doing a lecture on voodoo economics in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. No wonder I felt so unprepared for a creative writing class. I had been studying and writing essays for over a decade, and I still hadn’t even discovered my own voice as a writer.
During this class, I found myself forced to see my own ignorance. And it was an ugly sight. Not prioritizing reading, I learned, was my biggest mistake. Rice had assigned a book of short stories, of which he chose selected pieces as our reading assignments. First of all, some of the stories were just plain hard to read. I was not accustomed to reading literary fiction. My brain could not seem to follow the transitions or the story — most likely because it wasn’t laid out on a platter for mindless consumption like the young adult fiction I normally read. But what baffled me more was our class discussions about the pieces. Sometimes, we would spend the whole class just discussing one or two sentences. Not the piece as a whole. Sentences. Words. What might have caused the writer to choose one word over another? It was slow. And deep. “You all read too damn fast,” Rice said. “You need to slow down and see the beauty.” It took me a while, but I began to see it. Eventually. Nestled within each sentence we dissected, whether a short, clipped statement or a run-on monster with no commas and no end in sight, there was beauty. And purpose. And skill. Skill that I could only learn from reading. A lot. I remember thinking that I could not possibly read this slowly. Or this much.
Not only did I need to read a lot, I also needed to write a lot. A paradox if I ever heard of one. In the third week of Introduction to Fiction Writing, Rice brought a stack of our first assignments to class. We waited in anticipation for our work to be returned to us, but instead of doing that, he sat at the front, the pile resting on the table in front of him. He picked up the first story on top of the pile and began to read aloud. He read from the fourth page of a five page story, and when he finished, he jabbed at the paper with his index finger. “That is your starting point,” he said. I watched the student who wrote the piece, noting her forlorn face at the news that she needed to cut her first four pages and basically start her story from scratch. I learned that it takes a lot more than five pages of writing to turn in a five page piece. Sometimes it takes ten. Or twenty. Because writing is work. And it’s hard. And you need to do a lot of it, because even the most gifted of writers don’t spout out genius on the first try. The only way to find the right words is to keep writing, letting more and more words out onto the page until that perfect one slips out and brings it all together. I used to be afraid of writing shit; I guess I didn’t realize that shit was inevitable. Sometimes it is the only way to get to the good stuff.
I left Introduction to Fiction Writing wounded, the harsh realities of writing and what it entailed still settling in. But as time passed, I realized how much I gained from it. I was no longer ignorant. I could read the 40,000 words of the novel I had already written and tell without hesitation that ninety percent of it was shit, destined for the Recycle Bin. Before, I might have felt depressed throwing away all of that work. But I know now that it wasn’t a waste of time, but an integral part of the writing process. Without it, I would not have learned what I really wanted to write about, which didn’t come up in the first draft until Chapter 6. And because of it, I knew my characters well. I knew my setting. And my message. All that’s left to do now is figure out how to put it all together. One word at a time.