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Where does rain come from?

July 30, 2007

An old warehouse on the banks of the French Broad River provided the space needed for a creative non-fiction class—specifically, the art of personal essay. Why, personal essay? Because I wanted to learn where rain comes from. What does rain have to do with writing? I’ll explain it later.

Not surprisingly, to me, most of the writing class of a dozen students consisted of retirees currently working on book length projects. This intimidated me for a few reasons. One, they’ve had more time to read more fine, high literature. Two, they have cultivated more experience with which to write a personal essay. And three, they’ve had a lot of time to write.

The first week, of a five-week writing course, the class was instructed to generate ideas for a personal essay with a freewriting exercise. Freewriting is a technique of generating new writings—writing that focuses on putting words on paper in a limited period of time. It is a process of writing toward publishable material rather than writing a first draft. To use a painterly metaphor, it is the doodles and sketches that led to Rembrandt’s De Nacht Wacht (The Night Watch). For example, the class was instructed to write about a topic that consumed our thoughts. Write in the form of a list—a list of words relating to a topic or subject—is one way to begin. Also, stream of consciousness writing and/or word association is another literary technique to assist freewriting. And then write for 10 to 15 minutes—no more, no less, and no editing. From that freewriting session the class was to select one idea and compose a first draft essay to hand out to the class and instructor the following week.

It became clear to me by the second week that I came to the five-week writing course with a different agenda than the majority of the class. I wanted to learn where rain comes from. I wanted to learn the art of personal essay. I didn’t have a memoir that I wanted to publish as was the case with several classmates. I didn’t come to class with a book length project ready to share with the class. I came for the purpose of writing new material. So when I submitted my first draft to the class, it was raw. Compositionally, emotionally and grammatically it was intellectual nudity.

The manuscripts from several writers in class seemed so polished that I suspected they must have spent all week writing and revising and writing some more and revising even more before they came to class with a ten-page, single-spaced essay to hand out. I was shocked—numb, actually. What was I doing in a class with these seemingly professional writers. My three-page, double spaced first draft looked so silly.

(to be continued)

  1. July 30, 2007 10:39 am

    This is interesting to me. One of the things that I don’t like about taking classes (for almost anything really) is the people who fall over themselves to impress the instructor and can’t follow instructions.

    I’m willing to bet that you are correct in your assessment of their efforts for the week, but I bet you got more out of the exercise than they did.

  2. July 30, 2007 11:02 am

    Matt, “seemingly professional writers” are the keywords here.

    It sounds like your classmates are taking themselves too seriously. And that’s fine; everyone has a different agenda when taking a writing class. However, please don’t be intimidated by what they are writing, or they’re seemingly over zealous 12-page contributions.

    Speaking from experience, I know exactly what you’re talking about. Finn brought up a good point, there are students who fall over themselves trying to impress the instructor (and by the way, the instructors know this) and God knows, there are those that simply can’t follow instructions to save their lives. However, I believe that the majority of people there are just like you – they simply want to learn the ins and outs of the craft and ultimately become better writers.

    I used to get very impatient with the writers who went overboard, such as the ones you described here. To me, that’s defeating the whole purpose of taking a class. To me, it’s like over watering a plant just to see if it will grow any faster. It ultimately suffocates the plant and it dies.

    That’s how I see writing. The purpose behind taking writing classes (and again, it varies from person to person, but I believe this is a summary of the real reason) is to follow the instructor’s guidelines, tips or hints, if you will, and see where they lead you in your own personal writing. Taking a writing class is like taking a cooking class, you can follow the recipe but what makes the end product really stand out are the experimental ingredients you threw in to see what would happen.

    It sounds like some of the students in that class already have a preconceived notion of what they want to achieve in that class. Great. But I’m betting that some of those over zealous writers are over killing their contributions because they DON’T know what they are doing. Does that make sense? They are spinning around trying to make heads or tails of the street signs so they can decide on a direction.

    At any rate, have more confidence in your writing abilities because, my friend, and I’m speaking from experience here, judging by what you’ve contributed to this blog so far, you are well on your way to becoming one of the greats.

  3. Tammi permalink
    July 30, 2007 11:47 am

    I’m sure that your essay didn’t seem silly to the professor. The instructor gave a specific assignment and I’m certain that the person who developed the assignment was looking for raw intellectual nudity. The polished pieces are jumping ahead of the process and undermining your teacher’s efforts.

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