“Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” E.L. Doctorow
As the semester unfolds in my community college creative writing course, I’ve made a few discoveries. First, I view the world differently from my younger classmates. No surprise –there is a generational divide that is sometimes too wide to cross. The small group discussions of class reading assignments are entertaining because I get to see the world from their perspective. However, at times, they view me as a visitor from a parallel world, not quite understanding the cultural references I make. When we exchanged pieces in critique groups, I found myself explaining what I meant when I wrote “my mother found her rosary in the pocket of her good wool coat.” The quizzical looks on my classmates’ faces asked, “Aren’t all coats good?” I realized that these students grew up in a world that no longer recognizes that a coat may be worn only on special occasions and Sundays.
Then, there’s the instructor. I had expected more writing in class, but most of the semester has been spent deconstructing other writers’ work. His taste in literature is vastly different from mine, opening up new writers for me to explore. The short stories and essays he assigns for reading are often quirky, thought-provoking, enlightening, but, sometimes, merely annoying. He has the course broken into creative non-fiction, short fiction and poetry. We’ve just completed the first two sections.
Tomorrow, I must turn in the first draft of a short story. This short story assignment led to my biggest discovery: Sometimes, writing about what I know feels wrong.
I have been wrestling with my short story for the two weeks since it was assigned. I mulled over ideas for almost a week, but none jumped up and down shouting “Pick me!” I finally started working on a story based on a real life tragedy involving friends. It was an idea that had been ticking away in the recesses of my mind ever since the events occurred. Perhaps that is why I’m struggling, because it’s too personal and the events are too recent. I feel like a vampire sucking life from someone’s grief. I’ve worked and reworked the story, changing details here, eliminating characters there. I will only share this story with my classmates and the instructor because they don’t know the people involved. This is a story that will stay buried in a drawer when the assignment is done.
Many good writers take inspiration from the lives around them, and produce wonderful fiction. “Write what you know,” is the axiom drilled into every writing student’s brain. But how do you distill the essence of those lives into a story without feeling guilty for using them? That’s what I still need to learn.