The Formed Writer and Academia

Me, writing outside St. Peter's Basilica
From Masha, last week:
I realize I didn't really add much to the 'discussion' aspect, so if you have nothing much to add, feel free to boil it all down and just write on [what] you think the benefits or detriments a College writing program would be for you as a writer right now (as a more 'formed' writer). Do you think a program now would be more beneficial or more frustrating for you?
Owing to an immense deck-painting project, along with some time-sensitive editing work, I'm more than happy to keep the blogalectic simple this week. Masha's question is interesting, even though there's next to no chance I'll be enrolling in any kind of school any time soon. If the answers interest you, read on.

The short answer: I don't think I'd get enough out of undergrad to make the cost worthwhile, except in the case of a superb student/teacher relationship. I would probably enjoy grad school, provided that I got along with the professors. But wouldn't you know it—they make you go to undergrad first.

The long answer:

As Masha pointed out, I am a "more 'formed'" writer. That is to say, I've developed voice, direction, and some degree of reasonable confidence in my own work. I'll go on developing, naturally, but the course is set from here.

When 'formed' writing runs up against an academic editor—and I do speak from a certain level of experience—what happens depends a lot upon chemistry between the work and the academic in question, as well as upon style guide loyalties. Regarding the latter, I get marked down a lot for not using the Oxford comma in unambiguous lists; also for believing that if I follow the basic rules, my artistic choices for comma placement are all perfectly defensible. That's all in good, if sometimes annoying, fun.

Regarding the former, the factors are many and the ensuing decisions befittingly complex. I've faced editorial remarks with a list of questions something like this:
  • Is this the sort of thing this reader would read for his own enjoyment?
  • How thoroughly does the reader seem to grasp what I'm attempting to do?
  • What does it mean that this remark seems to come from a different perspective on [insert aspect of writing] from my own?
  • What might I learn from this comment/this reader?
  • What is the risk to my work if I take this comment at full value?
  • Why is everything about writing so damn subjective?
That last one is not quite a joke. One of my readers refers me to a popular novel as an example of technique, and another regularly shreds that same novel as truly pathetic storytelling. My first scene with A.D. delights some readers and baffles others. True, not all of these readers are academics in the creative writing field, but that sends me dangerously close to my old query regarding who has the right idea about how to write a good novel. Is it the dissonant schola of literary professors, or the great inharmonious chorus of readers who read for pleasure and escape and a mile's walk in another's shoes?

Which raises a further question: just who am I trying, ultimately, to please?

My sister had a writing professor whom she loved for his wise instruction and generosity toward his students. I've heard him speak, and I'm a bit envious—I think I'd have loved learning from him, too.

On the other hand, a friend of mine had a writing professor who, as an exercise, had the class create a poem in which the sounds and not the meanings of the words mattered. The professor read my friend's resultant work and said "This is about menstruation." I think my head would've exploded, right there in class.

A creative writing program, for me, would be all about the relationships. I'd learn, one way or another, but I learn anyway, and I will go on learning as long as I have my faculties. A good professor could easily be worth every dime of tuition. An industry connection or two, likewise. But tuition is expensive, and critique partners work on an exchange rate, which is all I can afford right now. For the time being, that settles the question.


  1. I just read a murder mystery the other day wherein a writing instructor was the main suspect. I'm not sure how that's relevant to your post but just thought I'd mention it. :)

    1. HAHAHAHAHAHA! Well, that would be creepy. But then, murder mysteries generally are. I just saw the first episode of a certain Sherlock Holmes adaptation, and now I'm afraid of English cabbies. :)

  2. Haha! I loved this! Especially about the poem exercise..I had a professor who wrote "sex?" with an arrow pointing to random lines in almost all my thesis poems, NONE were about sex, none referred to sex..But he was determined. I think my grade was based on a complete misreading of all the poems, but fortunately, he really liked poems about sex. :)

    Enjoy deck-painting!

    1. BAHAHA!! I am going to be snickering about this for a week. At least you got a good grade on it.

      I'm not sure anyone enjoys deck-painting, but thanks. :D


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