Series (Stories): Go West Or Go Weird

Creative Writing Class

I was lured into the hellish, hardscrabble hobby of writing when I was 16 years old. And due to brain damage, I’ve stuck with it.

In my junior year of high school I attended a creative writing class. My teacher’s name was Mrs. Utt. But we called her Mrs. Nutt. And sometimes, Mrs. Butt, and a few other things. She had a name we students could get very creative with. But I preferred Nutt, because I thought she was nutty for teaching creativity. How can anyone teach anyone to be creative?

She’d give us assignments to write about this, that, or the other thing, and I’d always turn them into something nonsensical. My purpose was to get laughs, while showing how much fun it is to break the teacher’s rules.

Mrs. Nutt would always dock my grade for straying from her assignments’ guidelines. And I would argue that you can’t be creative if you stay in a box. She never saw it that way.

I think there are two different kinds of writing: creative writing and journalism. And I think Mrs. Nutt was mixing the two up.

One day she asked, “Tippy, do you think you have a talent for writing?”

What a stupid fucking question. And I wish I had responded that way. I thought at the time that this was a matter of taste, so only the reader could make that judgment.

But I wondered if she was finally willing to admit she was wrong for docking my grades. So I answered, “I dunno.” But she just dropped the subject.

Looking back, I think a good answer to Mrs. Nutt’s question might be, “Hell yes! Everyone does.”

This is kind of nebulous. So let me put all my bullshitting skills to work, and explain what I’m trying to get at:

I believe that anyone who opens themselves up and bleeds all over their keyboard, has a talent for writing. Or at least, creative writing. And by bleeding, I don’t mean getting all emotional. That’s possible, but too much sentiment can make readers nauseous. What I’m really getting at is life. Creative writing is about finding your life within, and letting it gush forth.

It’s that which interests, intrigues, and excites you. It’s the life that is at the cutting edge of the progress of your soul. It’s the next step through your path down the vast unknown of eternal existence. You must capture this, and figure out how to articulate it.

And anybody can do this. Creative writing is not about skill, except perhaps the most basic of skills. If you can write, “See Spot run. Run Spot, run,” you can be a creative writer. Because it’s about talent, not skill. A talent we all possess, deep inside.

It doesn’t much matter your depth of vocabulary, grammatical skills, or syntax ability. So fuck you, Strunk and White. It’s about getting inside your heart and breaking it open. This is hard to do, but I believe when you accomplish this, you have as much talent at creative writing as anyone can ever possess.

Mrs. Nutt finally answered the question herself. She gave me a B in that class. But my fellow students gave me an A. The A came from all the laughs I got, whenever I was asked to read one of my short stories aloud. They might have been laughing at me, rather than with me, but that A was enough to lure me into the hellish, hardscrabble hobby of writing. Because all you have to do is laugh, to encourage me. Be warned.

A few years later I enrolled in another creative writing class, as a college sophomore. I expected this experience to be different. I was looking forward to a professor who would give me free rein to write whatever and however I wanted. A real pro, who knew creativity couldn’t be taught, but who could teach me a few techniques that might help express my creativity more effectively. After all, she was a college professor, for gawd’s sake.

Mrs. Mushroom. Or a reasonable facsimile.

But no. I got Mrs . . . Mrs . . ., aw hell, she had a very forgettable name. But she had a fungiform shape, so I’ll call her Mrs. Mushroom.

Just like Mrs. Nutt, Mrs. Mushroom gave us assignments, and expected us to confine our creativity to the bounds of those assignments. As if we were journalism students. I never did. And like Mrs. Nutt, she always docked my grade for straying out of bounds.

One of her assignments required us to write about a very intense, personal, emotional experience. Boy did I have fun with that one. When she graded my paper, she scribbled her little comments at the top. But before she handed it back, she made the near-fatal decision to read it to the entire class.

During this reading, Professor Mushroom started to giggle. She suppressed it. But a few paragraphs later, the giggling erupted again, a little louder. She tried to suppress it again, but to little avail. It just kept building louder and louder, while interrupting her reading more and more frequently. Suddenly she exploded into hysteria, like an inmate at a sanitarium.

Trying to suppress laughter can be dangerous. Mrs. Mushroom began to choke. Some of her saliva had apparently been sucked down the wrong tube, from the involuntary convulsions of her ribcage.

She choked and coughed and gagged and hacked, while her face turned redder and redder from anoxia. Finally she rose from her desk and rushed out of the classroom.

We got about a 20-minute break, from this tussive medical emergency, as we waited for the professor to apparently search for some water to treat her coughing. Or find a restroom hand dryer, to air out her wet panties. Or do whatever the heck she was doing.

We even speculated that maybe she was choking to death and dying, somewhere outside. But nobody bothered to check. We were too busy socializing with each other.

It was nice getting that break. Her class was usually boring.

Finally she returned, looking disheveled. She composed herself at her desk, the best she could, shakily picked up my paper, and slowly and carefully finished reading it while keeping her face as straight as possible.

Then she handed the paper back to me, with the comment she had superscribed, before her decision to read the paper to the class. The comment read, “Not sure if you were trying to be funny, but if you were, the humor didn’t come across. B-”

I didn’t argue with Mrs. Mushroom and accuse her of hypocrisy, because then I’d have to admit that I didn’t follow the assignment. And that I really was trying to be funny. And if I did that, she might have changed the grade to an F.

This illustrates why I consider creative writing classes to be a joke. To be successful, a creative writing class must be taught by someone who truly understands and appreciates creativity. Someone who doesn’t mistake it for journalism, by meting out rigid assignments.

But how could such a teacher give any grade to anyone, except an A? After all, how do you judge creativity?

If you want to write creatively, don’t attend a creative writing class. Just write. And write and write and write. You’ll probably suck at first, but after awhile you’ll figure it out. Sooner or later, when you penetrate deeply enough into your own heart, you’ll naturally know what to do.

Don’t worry about grammar, syntax, or any other bullshit rules for writing. They’re not necessary. There’s a lot of classical literature out there, whose authors threw those rules right out the window.

Mrs. Mushroom made us acquire Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. We were supposed to read this hallowed old tome cover-to-cover, and that was supposed to make us into great writers. Sadly, most of the students bought that shit and struggled through Strunk and White, trying to decipher the arcane answers to the great mysteries of creative writing.

I even tried Elements of Style, myself. But I found the going to be as thick as that time I tried to force myself through the Book of Mormon. But I still brought it to class every day, and set it on top of my desk, just to impress Mrs. Mushroom.

It must have worked. At the end of the semester she ended up giving me a B. So thank you, Strunk and White. That’s the most you’ve ever done for my writing.

After surviving Mushroom’s class, I kept writing. Because the memory of her laughter and, most importantly, her choking, still echoes in my brain. It’s the greatest encouragement I’ve ever received.

Most of the shit I’ve written has been for no one in particular. Over the years, I’ve occasionally been struck with a sudden inspiration, and acted upon the afflatus by putting pen to paper. And eventually, keyboard to software. And for the past decade, post to blog.

About nine years ago I compiled a collection of what I considered to be my best short stories, into a book. I put it on Amazon. It sold three copies. Yeah, this is what I mean about a hellish, hardscrabble hobby. If I still believed that only the reader can judge talent, I’d have to admit I’m a goddamned lousy writer. Which may be true. But I choose to live in my personal fool’s paradise, by going with the lengthy justification I presented above, explaining why everyone has talent.

I’ve decided to donate this book to the common cause of creativity. I’m going to share it on my blog, in a multi-part series, and make you suffer through it. It’s over 40,000 words long, so this series will take awhile to complete. I hope you’re not easily distracted.

After I’ve shared it with you, I’m going to assign it a Creative Commons license, and give it away to a general public that refused to buy it (except for those three very decent saints with exceptional taste).

Some of my short stories are serious, and others are an attempt to be humorous. I hope you will enjoy them all. But if on any occasion you don’t think I’ve succeeded at being funny, I must warn you. Please, do not read the story out loud to anyone.

Because you may want to live, to read another day.

178 replies »

  1. This is a great story. I agree that everyone can write creatively, but not anyone can tell a good story. I think there may be a little talent and skill involved. When I re-read some of the stuff I wrote years ago, I cringe.

    It was my college art history teacher who first introduced me to The Elements of Style. Since I was close to in love with her, or at least found her very desirable, I fell in love with the book by association. I still have a very old, very marked up copy.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I cringe at some of my old stuff, too. But some of it stands the test of time, with a little rewriting. At least in my view. Writing just takes practice.

      We men are so easily led by the nose, when we deal with desirable women. I’d probably slog through the Elements for a pretty art history teacher, also.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Sorry, TG. I think you’re giving people too much credit. Some people are dreadfully inept at conveying even simple ideas. Almost anything they write would be a slog to read. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say: I’d rather read The Elements of Style cover-to-cover (all 78 pages!) than suffer through a single sloggish paragraph written by “them.”

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hmm, maybe there actually is duller literature than Strunk and White. I’ve met a few folks who were quite proud of their works, and wanted everyone to read it. It’s torture to be friends with these types. And difficult to get them to reassess their writing abilities. Perhaps its best to wear garlic around your neck when around such writers.

      Liked by 2 people

        • It was a quiet snicker, but yes I did get the last laugh on that one.

          Scratching out that comment and changing the grade would have been a sign of class and humility. But also a sign of her own imperfections, and I doubt she was ready to show that.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Great Post! i had a similar experience at school with art. I was always top (or close) of class in Art but, when I took my finals exam, I received a Gr9 (lowest possible). The grader/marker was at another school so totally impartial). I retook that exam a few months later, using an adaptation of my original painting … and passed with a Gr 1!

    Like you, I cannot understand why teachers put limitations on a creative subject (other than to teach discipline … but that is inappropriate in a creative area). I also cannot understand why a supposedly trained/skilled educator cannot understand the subjectivity of any creative art form.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I love the poetic justice of Mrs. Mushroom being the first near-fatality of your writing. Here’s to many more!
    I wholeheartedly agree with you. It might take 10,000 hours of practice, or 1 million words, or some other arbitrary measure, but I firmly believe that perseverance and creativity will lead to good writing. I look forward to reading the next 40k words.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Leaking brain . . . I like that way of looking at it. I think my brain has been leaking for years.
      Editing is almost always necessary. I think I spend more time editing than writing the original.
      Glad you had fun reading the story.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This blog should be pinned up in teachers lounges nationwide!

    I took a humor writing course from someone who rarely got my jokes. Like your experience, the other students did, thankfully. Still I learned several lessons (including if you can’t take a joke, f you!).

    I’m reading but not commenting often. I look forward to your stories!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. First of all, I am a well published author. You can find much of my work on the website of the company that I work for by looking for the spec sheets and user manuals of the products that I develop. The company has a style guide, so you will find very little creativity in my writing, but it is better than the boilerplate they put on the front of the manual. But, if the think you want to read about the operating regulation and load capacity of one of the voltage rails of my product, then it could be considered to be great literature.

    Second, at one time a few years ago after seeing a tiresome argument on an internet comment section between a couple of high-ranking officers of the self-appointed grammar police, I began to wonder – “who makes all the rule of speaking and writing American English?” I searched a few places on the internet and I was able to read what people wrote on this topic thanks to the authors using a common style of writing that I could understand. The answer seems to be: publishing houses of the 19th century. You cannot, in fact, be arrested and fined for things like subject-verb confusion or using the word ‘I’ as the object or ‘me’ as the subject in a sentence.

    Me enjoying read you’re blog. Has an well day.

    Liked by 3 people

    • So, I guess you’re a technical writer. I think that’s great, since you don’t seem to be Chinese. Any product manual that I can easily understand, is great literature as far as I’m concerned.

      Although that last sentence looks like typical stuff I find in many product manuals, so you may need to work on your elements of style.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I seem to be the guy who gets told to write user manual material. I originally thought that it was because of my obvious strong command of the English language. But, maybe they all snicker behind my back about how they can sucker Jason into doing this work. Next time I am going to see that this task is assigned to the Hungarian guy.

        Speaking of books, on a lark I bought this book about “absurd scientific advice for common real-world problems”. I want to share it with one of my daughters who will find this amusing. It’s a fun read and it might appeal to your sense of humor.

        Liked by 2 people

        • So that’s what happens with those manuals. The Hungarian guy has to write them.

          Sounds like a good book. Maybe you can dally in some other subjects on your blog, besides photography, and write a book review.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. The Ms. Mushroom story was great — I can’t believe her hypocrisy.

    Now as far as everyone has talent — I can’t get on board with that. People can improve their writing, but if you’ve got a low ceiling, not much can be done about that — you’ve either got it or you don’t (it’s why I stopped pursuing drawing after high school — a low ceiling). I tell a decent blog story, but as far as creativity goes, man, I’m way down the ladder.

    I remember getting a Strunk and White’s in college — can’t remember what class it was for. I’m not a grammarian, but I eventually had to buckle down and get somewhat proficient at it as a copywriter.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Never took a creative writing class. Worked as a journalist for 5 years — now that’s some creative writing. Trying to tell logical, compelling stories about this fucked up world takes either a lot of creativity or willful blindness. Most journalists have both. It sucks, but it’s better than state controlled media or no journalism at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I think for every writer there is a reader. It’s just a matter of finding the right person to appreciate your work. It’s hell some days to push through and keep writing when no one seems to give a damn about the thought, heart, soul, and sometimes blood and tears that go into our stories, but at the end, creating something from within gives a sense of satisfaction like no other. To me that makes it worth it every time. I greatly enjoyed this post and look forward to more from you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. I agree with you. Creative writing is a way of communicating from deep within. And it feels frustrating when no one reads or responds to it. Communication is one of the hardest things in the world for humans to do, in my view.

      But there is satisfaction in at least trying. Thanks for your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. This was a really entertaining and refreshing post.

    “To be successful, a creative writing class must be taught by someone who truly understands and appreciates creativity”. Yep!

    I love writing, but I don’t love some of the wank I encounter when looking for writing advice/ tips. We all have different things to say in our writing, and different ways to say those things. Of course, some writers have a style that I appreciate as having “literary merit” ( in that a certain amount of technical skill is present), but they can still bore me shitless if there’s no originality or personality present. That’s just me; I’m pretty biased towards the weird and imaginative. I also enjoy authors that have a unique and identifiable voice- as opposed to writers that “write well” but whose styles are indistinguishable from a billion others. Again, like personal creativity, that’s something that can’t really be taught.

    Look at ee cummings. He broke so many literary rules, yet was so damn interesting and memorable as a result.

    Anyhoo, thanks for making me smile today. Avvagoodwun!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ve been a part of three different creative writing classes, each of which I joined reluctantly. I thought, Maybe? Maybe this is worth my time? – But to be honest, I had a much better time just talking with the students than doing the assignments. We’d all read each other’s crap, laugh, and then get serious about what we really wanted to write about. It’s a shame you had two teachers who felt they were in a place to judge creativity. On the other side of the spectrum, though, you’ve got a teacher who’s so loose in her curriculum that it leaves you wondering if creativity should even be mentioned in the same sentence as “class”. Great post. I’m gonna follow you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. Teachers can provide tips that can help enhance writing. But I believe creativity itself is something that comes from within. It often requires a lot of soul-searching and ripping out of one’s guts. And I can’t see how that sort of thing can be taught.
      Thanks for the follow.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Agreed. There can certainly be perspectives they can offer. But because of the grading system, it’s very difficult to find a teacher who can judge work properly (as opposed to the “creativity” of the student). And you’re welcome. Looking forward to what you come out with next.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. In some university technical class, the instructor described the making of wooden barrels and how they worked (cooling iron shrinking, wet wood swelling, etc…) Then we had something like two-minutes to write down every possible use we could come up with for a barrel. I think I came up with maybe 20 or 30 things a person could put into a barrel… even cutting one in half and planting a tree, or using it as a big bucket. But there were a couple of people in the class who produced longer lists suggesting things like using one for the safe storage of teenagers until they recovered from the temporary hormonal brain damage, or taking the barrel apart and using the hoops for Hula-Hoops, and the staves for skis…

    After everyone read their lists, the instructor pointed out that as science/engineering types, we would tend to get stuck in “convergent” thinking, always seeing a particular purpose, making the calculations for fits, using the “style manual”, following the rules. But the brilliance of great thinkers, the Einsteins and the Elon Musks, and the Steve Jobs… is that they are also “divergent” thinkers, seeing the bigger picture, re-purposing, finding alternatives, taking things apart and putting them back together in different ways, breaking the rules. I don’t recall much else from that class, but that moment actually changed how I think and what I appreciate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sounds like a moment of enlightenment. I like the idea of divergent thinking. It’s not the sort of thing that’s often appreciated in a stodgy, conventional setting, like a university. Maybe because it’s hard to quantify and grade. Seems to me like you had a good instructor.

      Liked by 1 person

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