Commentary: “Learning to Write”

I am taking a creative writing class so I can learn how to write. It feels funny to write this because I have always been a writer. I spent more than 20 years as a journalist, published a book and contributed numerous essays to the Signal Tribune.
But something happened to me about a month ago. I visited a performance of dozens of writers who read their work aloud. All of the readers were taught by Jack Grapes– an award-winning poet, playwright, actor, teacher, and the editor and publisher of the literary journal ONTHEBUS. Every piece of writing pierced my heart. Sometimes I laughed, sometimes I cried. Every time I felt something… deep. Jack teaches writers to find their unique inner voice. After listening to these writers read from theirs, I knew I wanted to tap into mine.
Yes, I am a writer. I enjoy writing and seeing my work published. I am also afraid of taking this class because I have to open myself up to something new. And that’s exactly what’s happening. The first class brought together several first-time students, me included, and many veterans. The new kids were given Jack’s book on writing. Everyone else worked from a different book. The veterans stood up one by one and read one of their stories. They were good. Their work was good. They had beautiful voices. Maybe this was meant to inspire the new ones. It did. But the rest of the class felt like hell. Jack instructed us to read the first few chapters and begin to write a journal, two pages daily. We were instructed to “write like we talk.” No fancy prose or extra adjectives, just write from inside, like you talk. And don’t plan anything. See what comes up naturally.
I am struggling with this. I like to plan. I don’t sit down and write without knowing what I’m going to write about. My writing technique includes some life experience that will push all my emotions around. This jumble of emotions leaves me with a feeling that there is a story here. I sit at the computer and a title comes to me. I write the headline and the story flows. Like this one, “Learning to Write.” I write out of the headline, a bit of guidance from a college journalism instructor 25 years ago.
Jack’s guidance is to write what isn’t in your plan, to see what comes up, because, he says, that’s where genius lives. That’s scary and it brings up a lot of worries. What if it’s no good? What if people don’t like it? What if I’ve lost my skill? These are my worries. I can hold them in check when I have a plan and I can be reasonably calm about the worth of my essays. Jack says there’s nothing wrong with this approach. But that’s not where your genius lives. That’s where good work resides. You can always be good, secure in what you can accomplish, expecting a particular result. But, can you be brilliant? Can you take my breath away? I know the answer¬– no.
It’s hard being in the free fall, writing two pages without a script, and I’ve been doing it for a few days now. I haven’t re-read my work. I am just letting the words flow, catching myself when the writing doesn’t sound like me talking. I’ve stopped worrying if it’s good. Maybe that’s the point of this exercise– get out of having to produce good work in order to find what’s underneath. I hate this part. I feel uncovered and bare. Maybe that’s the point. Next class I have to select a page from my journal and read it to the class. I’m afraid. And I am ready.

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