How to Get the Most Out of a Writing Class
By Michelle Seaton
A writing class is a serious investment of time and money, but it’s also a great investment if you use the experience wisely. Here are a couple of ideas for doing just that.
Take critiquing seriously. You’re a busy person. This was the week your dog had the flu and you had that big deadline at work and you just didn’t have time to read every story and put comments in the margins. However, critiquing someone else’s work is the easiest and least stressful way to improve your skill at building narrative. Why? Because you are working to solve problems in a story where the stakes are pretty low for you. And that’s when you are thinking most clearly about why something works or doesn’t work. When you revise your own work, the stakes are high and that’s when you are going to struggle to figure out what’s working and why. Critiquing the work of others is the purest form of self-improvement. The solutions you find for your classmates are the lessons you keep for your own work. When you cheat on this, you’re cheating yourself.
Stop ranking everybody in the room. Oh, yes you do. Don’t deny it. We all do it--all the time: in yoga class, at work, even in traffic. We tell ourselves, ”Well, I’m not great at this, but at least I’m more together than she is. “We do it because we feel insecure and exposed, and nowhere do you feel more insecure and exposed than in a writing class. We do it because a screaming voice inside is telling us that we are unworthy of our dream. This voice is inside everyone in the room, including your instructor. (No blog post will remove this voice from your head; I’m just asking you to be aware of it.) I sometimes hear students say, “I’m the worst writer here,” or “I’m so intimidated in this class.” This breaks my heart, because it implies that we should feel shame while we take the necessary risks in our work. It ignores the reality that every artist who works hard experiences a breakthrough—that sudden, stunning improvement. You just don’t know when yours is coming.
Show up on time, every time. It seems crazy that I should have to say this, but I do. Resistance comes in all forms, and the most pervasive is avoidance. If you are the student who shows up 35 minutes late to every class, if you are the student who misses three out of six classes, then you aren’t just busy; you are avoiding the class you paid money to take. And you are avoiding your classmates, who are your only audience. They miss you, and they want to see you every week.
Tell your instructor what you want. Yes, this one is a little self-serving. Writing instructors come to class with our own personality quirks. Some of us are a little too groovy, others a little too reserved. Our task is to turn 12 strangers into a community, even though class members have wildly different skills, fears and ambitions. Class norms develop for critiquing and discussions, and these may not fit you. If you need help speaking out in class, say so. If the critiques offered aren’t specific enough, say so. Two lines in a friendly email can make all the difference.
Having said all that, I know I don’t have to remind anyone to have fun in class. It’s important, but it’s something Grub students know how to do already. Sure, you’re working hard and taking risks and sometimes feeling confused, but you are also joking and laughing loudly and obviously enjoying the high of having written something that’s solely yours.
Michelle Seaton’s short fiction has appeared in One Story, Harvard Review, Sycamore Review, The Pushcart Anthology among others. Her journalism and essays have appeared in Robb Report, Bostonia, Yankee Magazine, The Pinch andLake Effect. Her essay, “How to Work a Locker Room” appeared in the 2009 edition of Best American Nonrequired Reading. She is the coauthor of the books The Way of Boys (William Morrow, 2009) and Living with Cancer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), and Change Your Schedule, Change Your Life (HarperWave, 2018). She has been an instructor with Grub Street since 2000 and is the lead instructor and created the curriculum for Grub Street's Memoir Project, a program that offers free memoir classes to senior citizens in Boston neighborhoods. The project has visited fourteen Boston neighborhoods and produced five anthologies.See other articles by Michelle Seaton