Sometimes while looking for a community or mentor, you strike gold. Other times, our fellow writers can be as alienating as the most soulless corporate setting.
Toward the end of my college career, I decided to take a writing class. I didn’t major in anything related, so it was a new experience. The class was described as a place where Writers (published, fancy, mentor-types) would talk to us about writing. They would discuss the process of writing, works they’ve produced, and so forth.
Yes! I thought to myself. A writing class! I can always learn new things! O joy! O rapture!
The first day of class was a disaster. Three hundred would-be writers stuffed themselves into a lecture hall to listen to the prof review the syllabus. So far, so good. Certain phrases wafted up to me like sewer fumes.
“Your assignment is to fall in love with a novel this quarter [from a prescribed list].”
Then the prof read four poems to us. Four poems she wrote. She read them at a slow cadence, rising and falling with practiced gravity. They were not poems about her life. They didn’t tell any stories. There were no orgasms nor depths of despair. There was no fist bumping, fist pumping, nor tears of joy and pain.
As she poured her lexicon down over our heads, and her artistic sludge filled my lungs, I started to suffocate. Flailing did no good. Her premise was too thin to swim through. I’m going to die, I thought. I’m going to drown in bombastic overwrought remembrances of “the parlour games of Tolstoy as a nine-year-old boy.”
What the fuck happened to ‘write what you know’? What happened to ‘tell the truth’? Or ‘drown your darlings’? We must have been darling indeed, for her to murder us on the first day.
After the intellectual water-boarding, she asked us if there are any questions.
I asked if we’re going to talk about the business side of writing. How do we find an agent? How do we get published? She said that there’s no money in poetry, and I bit back the urge to say, “I can see why!” or “that’s not what I asked you.”
She went on to say that we’d have guest speakers — published authors from the community — come in once a week. We could ask them those types of questions. After all of this, our homework assignment was to “discover a haunting, arresting moment, and write it down in your journal. Nothing really developed, not a full idea, just the seeds of a notion.”
We also had to memorize three poems [from a prescribed list]. I was pretty pissed about this. Up until that class, the only poem I’d memorized had been Jabberwocky and I was really proud of that fact.
Continuing in the angry vein, we went on to do ice-breakers in small groups. With a partner, write your name, year, and major on an index card. On the back, write two reasons you think writing is important. I wrote:
- Writing is an important outlet so that you don’t pick up a tire-iron and brain someone.
- It is a document to prove that we were here.
Reason #1 is Lewis Black’s explanation for why there’s no such thing as bad language. Reason #2 is a line from the Assemblage 23 song, “Document.”
The only person who laughed at the tire-iron joke was my partner, and she thought my name was Whitney. My name sounds as close to “Whitney” as the name “Katie” sounds like “Azerbaijan.”
“What?” I said to my classmate.
“I don’t know! I told you I’m not good with names!” said my classmate.
“Do you prefer to be called Whitney?” asked the teacher, confused.
“No, my name is not Whitney. I have no idea where she got that from.” I said.
She also didn’t know what year I was. Or what my major was. These were one-word answers that I gave her not two minutes beforehand. They were also written down, plain as day, on the index card sitting on our desk.
For the next three months, I was surrounded by poets who don’t laugh at my jokes or care to know my name. It’s on now. In the name of the Palahniuk, the Pratchett and the Bukowski ghost, I am not moving. I will continue to joke, and continue to be obscene.
I’m a writer too, dammit.
How have you tried to fit in? What did you do about it when it wasn’t working? Share your stories, you’re not alone.