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.