Maybe I’m not a writer after all

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.

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6 Responses to Maybe I’m not a writer after all

  1. Kyra Bandte says:

    In response to the title of your post – of course you’re a writer!
    I agree, writing from what you know can be difficult, and comes with a whole bunch of issues. My advice would be to fictionalise your non-fiction experience as much as you can. Draw from the real, but transform it, add to it, change the situation, distance yourself. It may be that you’ve tried that already, but I’d try to really really push the fiction element. Maybe take the situation, but change the characters, or the time in history that it’s set, or the age the characters are. That way the story can be based in truth, but you’ll have made it something else, something that (hopefully) you’ll have freedom to play with. You’re the writer, you can make the story whatever you want (and that’s the way it should be!). And if you still feel guilty, then maybe that’s a sign that this story isn’t quite ready to be told…

    • barb ristine says:

      Kyra, thanks for your thoughtful comments and suggestions. Normally, when I write something, I want to share it to hear what a reader thinks. I don’t feel regret that I’ve written it. But this piece feels different. I have played with the story while trying to remain true to its essence but right now I feel it is trapped and needs to be set free for awhile. I think my problem lies in trying to spin a tale on a deadline. That pushed me to use an idea that wasn’t fully formed. As you stated, perhaps this story isn’t quite ready to be told.

  2. denice says:

    i think you are most definitely a writer – i look forward to your posts! just keep writing!

    • renobarb says:

      Thanks for the vote of confidence, denice. I needed that push. I finally got my creative non-fiction memoir piece back from the instructor today. I’d altered the structure of the piece in response to the peer reviews, because the kids couldn’t follow the story in linear form. So what was the instructor’s comment? “You should tell this in chronological order- otherwise it gets too confusing.” Sigh. Oh, well, carry on.

  3. foxress says:

    Oh, I think you’re definitely a writer. I wouldn’t put too much stock into the peer reviews. They’re just little kids. What do they know?

    • barb ristine says:

      Thanks, Linda–but don’t forget those kids are the next generation of potential readers! Last night, I did see a glimmer of hope. I was working on my peer reviews of two short stories from classmates and my daughter started reading the stories over my shoulder. She then grabbed a pencil and started correcting the students’ grammar and punctuation. “Mom, I can’t believe these usage errors. They would flunk my honors English tests!” I guess she’s been taught well.

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