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Nothing Written Nothing Gained

January 30, 2015 5 comments

A creative writing course? Parisian croissants sound less flaky.

The Writer’s Studio is a one year continuing education course at SFU. It costs real money – a trip to Hawaii kind of money – and the bulk of time is spent with a small group of students, workshopping material.

Seemed like I was signing up to pay a lot of dough to hang with strangers that potentially knew less about writing than me – difficult, but not impossible. Yet the glossy marketing brochure showed smiling groups of academic people sitting around a boardroom table, and the course reviews, by all accounts, were excellent. Especially on the back of that brochure – positively glowing, life changing remarks.

Like comments on book jackets, the course reviews provide the ending punctuation, should you be intrigued by the title. I held my breath and dove into Saturday lectures and Thursday workshops, the lull and promise of narrative and words more seductive than the sugarcane fields and hibiscus of Maui.

Rarely do words in glossy text live up to their promises, but these ones did.

The first day of class I was nervous. Of course, I learned later, everyone was, filled with similar apprehensions and doubts, but hoping for the best. And by best, I mean visions of Hemingway and the Lost Generation mingling in French cafes, together at last with like-minded creatives. Substitute East Van for the Left Bank.

Nine people comprised our fiction cohort, all from various backgrounds, different sizes and shapes and professions. It took one short session, however, to realize despite these differences, our shared passion for stories, dedication to telling them, and unwavering devotion for literature, would bind us like Crazy Glue.

For our first short story submission, my fellow students set their narratives in India, Singapore, Scotland, Turkey. My story took place in Whole Foods. I panicked, emailed our instructor, fearing I was a fish out of water. This salmon was fledgling on sandy shores instead of the ocean’s depth.

Diplomatically, she assured me we all had our own voices, mine was just more local. Soldier on, she advised.

I did, and I’m grateful. For in my group, I met my tribe.

By critiquing their work each week, I not only watched them become better at their craft, but my own writing improved. In their hands, my stories came to life, my characters became three dimensional. My protagonist rose from the page and I could see her, smell her, understand her better.

Writing is hard, lonely work. Some days, my computer screen may as well be made of mud; murky, brown, senseless. Astonishingly, my group reads my submission, and find the sparkle, however buried, that I was aiming for. Their comments and insights help me to remove the debris and sediment that stand between the story and its heart.

There are words. And then there are the right words.

Besides personal growth, it’s been more inspiring and emotional watching my group evolve. Within a year their prose became more colourful, their stories riskier, characters more vulnerable. Witnessing these tranformations was worth the price of admission.

A short, parallel story.

As a little girl, I dreamed of running a marathon. I ran and ran, won a few ribbons, acquired a few injuries. Every time I increased my mileage, muscles tore, stress fractures occurred, my spirit broke. Man. I wanted to run a marathon, but my body didn’t seem equipped. Finally I joined a running group, and four months later I ran the Vancouver Marathon. In fact, I ran the entire race with a woman who had never ran a step before our first group run.

Well, until mile 20, when she left me, the veteran runner, in her dust.

When a common goal is shared, collectively, we are better. Together, the bar is raised. Winnie the Pooh says it’s so much better with two. With nine, even more so.

Our course is finished, we had our official ceremony this week. (Notably, the keynote speaker was a TWS graduate, Arleen Pare, 2014 winner of the Governor General’s award for poetry, who started writing at age 50.) Our group continues to meet every other Thursday. We’ve traded fluorescent lighting for soft living room lamps, swapped lattes for wine, but kept our format the same.

The three hours we spend discussing story are among my favorite of any week. We are many things, readers and writers first, unlikely friends last.

 

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Facing Fears

February 3, 2014 5 comments

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I’m sitting in a classroom, trying to slink underneath my desk so that the teacher won’t call on me. I sit amongst my clique, my fiction group. The poets are in the front of the room, young adult genre and non-fiction groups occupy the left side of the room. Three weeks into our year-long course and alliances have formed, we gravitate quickly to our own kind. A familiar feeling from twenty-five years hence. It’s high school all over again.

Actually, it’s the Writer’s Studio at a downtown university, my year to study creative writing. The crucial word here is creative, also known as my personal nemesis. By throwing tuition into this course, I’m banking on acquiring some. Or at least chiseling away cliched layers of assumption and habit to reveal whatever lies at my core. I’m hoping to find a garden planted with seedlings of inspiration, but fear a black hole.

The people that surround me are so brimming with creativity that I’m terrified into submission. A girl, wearing a hand-knitted toque, reads her reaction to a homeless woman she encountered during our break with such emotion in her voice that we fall over her words, and into stunned respect for her gifted prose. Sweet Caroline, I think, don’t make me read my vacant observation next.

We are each handed a blank piece of paper and asked to create a three dimensional sculpture to illustrate our currently writing. My heart sinks because in a pinch, I can pull an unusual adjective out of my pocket, but this requires imagination and craft. I fold and rip my piece of paper so that it opens inwards, like my protagonist, while other students produce works of origami, sculptures of mountains, vessels with twirling rudders attached, and a chess board. With dread and reluctance, I stand to show the room my crude structure.

This course not only inspires me, it terrifies me. And it’s the terror that tells me it’s the right thing.