Oberlin Blogs

Creative Writing: The Most Terrifying Application

October 14, 2009

Aries Indenbaum ’09

You have to want to be a creative writing major. It doesn't just happen. It's not a lark. You have to want it.

How? You have to apply for each upper-level class.

...Yeah, this is a good thing.

The Application
On campus, the application is one of the most widely-known, feared and discussed aspects of the Creative Writing department. Students worry, quite loudly, and question the reasoning here.

The application itself is simple, and more or less the same, for each class:

Part 1: Name; relevant classes, goals, why you want to take this class and your favorite authors.

Part 2: 12 pages of your best writing.

There are two things in question here: skill and drive.

re: Skill
Much like dance, acting, or music classes, workshops function best when folks are at similar levels. An quartet with a Conservatory-trained violist and a beginner cellist isn't a group you want to listen to. It doesn't really work. Similarly, a workshop at all different levels doesn't really work. If you're very new, you also won't get that much out of it. If you're experienced, commentary isn't as effective as it could be.

The more work you put in, the more help you receive. Putting in more work in the past makes learning easier in the future. If you'd like to try writing, there are two Intro classes that help you build a portfolio. Even if you've never done a significant amount of writing in high school, those classes really get you on your feet.

The hard part is that most writers are not great at everything. I, for instance, SUCK at writing poems.

I love reading them! I think they add so much to the human existence and how we conceive of words and language! I love Philip Larkin, ee cummings and Charles Bukowski!

But I'm not a poet. I will never be.

So applying for 201, which requires poetry as well as prose, was pretty hard. My poetry was at the end. I mashed up some stories and added some line-breaks. It wasn't great, but it was there.

re: Drive
Writing is like anything else. To do it well, you have to do it regularly. Say, for 10,000 hours, if you like Mr. Gladwell's theory. (I guess there are some writers who can sit down and, out of nowhere, crank out the Great American Novel, but that doesn't seem to be the trend.)

Classes attract students who have a lot of passion and verve for the subject. The amount of work requires that commitment. If you don't want to be a writer... you're going to be doing a lot of writing anyway.

Other majors do similar things with different approaches. If you can't pass Organic Chem, or Analytical Chem, you shouldn't be a chemistry major.

Effect of The Application:
- department-wide insecurity,
- perpetually updated portfolios,
- no big egos,
- highly motivated students,
- high quality writers in classes,
- understanding that writing is for an audience,
- paradox: a non-competitive environment.

What if you don't get in?
First, don't write yourself off. Ask a prof if they can explain what they were looking for and keep that in mind when you apply next time.

(In case you missed it: APPLY NEXT TIME.)

Second, it's a lesson on the reality of writing. Writing, much like romance, is all about rejection. While no one loves getting rejected, it's the rules of the game. Would you ever play if you could never lose? Often, it's not for reasons of personality or talent, but because there were 100 submissions for 2 spaces. Applying for internships and jobs, or getting your work into a literary magazine is similarly dodgy.

My high school teacher took me aside once, after I said I wanted to study creative writing, and said: "Someone is going to love your work. Someone is going to think it's total crap. There's not much you can do, except write as best you can, and try to make friends with as many people as possible. If they can hear your loud, annoying voice when they read your work, they'll probably like it more."

Third, there'a lot of places to write on campus. Grape, Review, Wilder Voice, Fearless and Loathing, or Drivel. Plum Creek Review, Spiral, In Solidarity.
You can take a Rhetoric and Composition class, or write an Oberlin story.
Keep a blog, make a journal, keep going. I use a tumblr to stick my media finds that make me happy and curious. Story starters just need time to grow.

Fourth-- Crying for weeks or transferring to another college is not a good choice.

Fifth-- Being a Creative Writing major does not guarantee later success. Most humanities majors involve lots of writing and give you strong skills.

Truth? Creative Writing turned me down once. I got into 201, the first application-needed workshop. I liked it. I did well. And then when applying for 300-level classes, I only applied for one. Poor choice.

It's like when you have a crush on a pretty girl. Other folks like her too, but you know that you like her the most. And you make eyes at her in dance class, and check her facebook profile, memorize her favorite bands. (Modest Mouse. Death Cab. Arctic Monkeys.) She's whimsical, but intense. An idealist. You like that.

Then, you see her at a show! It's late, and she's not with anyone! You walk her home, talking about why she might like you. You like good authors. You've got a good grasp of rhetoric. You work hard; you'd make a great partner.

She yawns.

You describe your range, your fluidity, your responsiveness to criticism! How much you want this!

She smiles. Then, she shakes her head firmly and shuts the door in your face.

Wrung-out, you shuffle home to your lonely, ambitious bed and weep into your pillow.

You spend the rest of the semester at the gym. Lifting. Training.

And at the end of the term, you meet one of her friends. You talk about your favorite bands: The Cure. Daft Punk. Man Man. She's pretty, but in a more forceful way. She thinks too much and sometimes stammers. She lives in the same dorm and right outside the door, you smile and kiss her hand.

And she says, she leans over and whispers in your ear, that she'll be your girlfriend.

So, after I got rejected; the next semester, I applied for different courses. And I got in.

Classes will be hard.
After the rejection experience, I took David Walker's Playwriting class.

My personal blog entries from that semester are variations on:

i suck. professor walker must think i'm stupid. i am stupid. angst-angst-angst.

Playwriting was an exercise in failure for me. I love plays, theater, storytelling, improv, acting, whatever. If it's on a stage, and there's a narrative, I'm pleased.

But making it... was a different thing.

All of my writer-muscles were all wrong for playwriting. I'm not really a descriptive writer, but the way I think about shaping character and building a scene... didn't seem to translate.

I couldn't make dialogue into scene. My scenes were shoddy. I was a miserable bucket of fail.

That said, I did finally put together a final project I enjoyed, by writing about the things I know. That is: robots, noir, relationships, friendships, abuse, and the creation of the perfect woman. For each character, I imagined one of my friends.

That said, I learned an incredible lesson from the class on the value and content of scenes. The syntax of playwriting can transfer to so many venues.

Even Creative Writing classes you're excited and "prepared" for are incredibly hard. They're time-consuming, demanding and... worst of all... you want to work on them all the time.

Taking my attention away from my novella class last year was really hard. All of my readings were awesome. I loved my project. It was difficult and involved forging new patterns of writing and organizing than I'd ever done before. The relationships in the novella changed as I made different choices... my style altered... I'm not very happy with the finished project, but I learned so, SO much.

What do you do with it?
That's always the question. Well, some alums become writers.
i.e.: Ishmael Beah, Tracy Chevalier, Carl Dennis, Michael Dirda, Myla Goldberg, William Goldman, Bill Irwin, Fred Kaplan, Michelle Malkin, James MacBride, Thisbe Nissen, Gary Shteyngart, Thornton Wilder, Alison Bechdel.

Many go into publishing, radio, and journalism. There are a lot of those--too many to name. My instant thoughts are Lisa Jervis (founder of Bitch), Jane Pratt (founder of Jane), Robert Krulwich '69 and Jad Abumrad '95 (hosts of RadioLab on NPR). There are Obies in every major publishing house and news site.

[portrait of Alison Bechdel by Liza Cowan]
I really want to be Alison Bechdel when I grow up.

What can you do after graduating? What skills do you have?
I've done a lot of writing, editing, and planning. I'm comfortable leading and participating in workshops. I give clear presentations. I can analyze how, where, and when writing doesn't work. And, when I write, I know what I'm doing.


What do writers and clowns have in common?
- Ancient Proverb


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