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Creative Writing: The Most Terrifying Application

October 14, 2009

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.

Comic panel 1: Person at a door: Hey you! C'mere! C'mon inside! (door creaks). Panel 2: Take a pew: I have something to tell you! (gestures toward chair)
Alison Bechdel '81



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?
Failure.
- Ancient Proverb

 

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Responses to this Entry

Strange, that I would tweet this mere hours before your post.
http://twitter.com/MadcapBeatitude/statuses/4848259408

Whether it was your intention or not I was quite amused that you listed "Michelle Malkin" under notable alums in a post about creative writing.

Posted by: Brett on October 14, 2009 6:59 AM

I have a LOT to say on this subject. First of all, of the famous alums you listed, not all were involved with the relatively new Creative Writing department. Also, a lot of the professors in the department operate on ego, so saying the application has nothing to do with it is patently untrue. Third, I have had more success with my writing outside of Oberlin than I ever did in the school's Creative Writing department.

The same summer I was rejected for 300-level poetry, I got into a New York poetry workshop taught by Billy Collins. Right after I was rejected for 300-level playwriting, I had a play done at a professional Chicago theater. All of these things make me question the use and legitimacy--not just of Oberlin's Creative Writing department-- but of Creative Writing programs in general.

There was a great NYT article about the ambivalence of CW programs called "Show and Tell" that appeared last summer. I wanted to link to it but for some reason am not able to submit this comment when I include the address.

Also, as the daughter of teachers, I have long thought Creative Writing departments should not be separate from English departments. Billy Collins agreed, even though he had taught Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence. The failure of Creative Writing departments, he said, is that "they don't make you read."


One last thing-- after my rejection from 300-level poetry, I asked Kazim Ali to meet with me to discuss how I improve for the next round of applications. We made three separate appointments. He failed to show up for all of them.

Posted by: Hope on October 14, 2009 7:17 AM

Ma'ayan's photos are down! Disaster!

But I still love this post. Especially the wizard angst macro. I wish you'd majored in every major so you could speak at such length about them all! Alas.

Posted by: Kate on October 14, 2009 2:17 PM

Recognized the Fun Home panel right away :-)

Posted by: Amy on October 14, 2009 3:00 PM

I have to say that my primary frustration with nearly all creative writing workshops, including those at Oberlin, is the shuffling-under-the-table that goes on about bias. Professors of creative writing certainly had to work hard to get where they are and they have a lot to teach, but they are also a product of a style, of a lens, of a school, and when that background doesn't mesh with yours, it is nobody's fault. However. When people pretend that background isn't there, that there is some nebulous omniscient definition of good writing, that they really can say who absolutely deserves to be in 201 or whichever workshop you go onto from there, it is extremely frustrating and fake. From application process to classroom, I felt that desperate shell game going on with bias at Oberlin (where's the bias where's the bias keep your eyes on the bias nope not here) and it nearly turned me off to writing altogether.

Your post was still very well worded and upbeat and will hopefully deter those students who do not fit into what certain professors' backgrounds encourage them to consider skillful... from believing they suck at life and giving up.

Posted by: Rose on October 15, 2009 12:25 PM

@Hope

As you know, all of this is my personal opinion, not official doctrine.

re: "big egos"
I actually meant students, in this case, not professors (though I've found professors to be incredibly modest). I know of one major who was a dweeb about it (there's always _one_), but it was never a trend. In classes, professors don't talk themselves up, or act like they're so much cooler than everything.

re: alums
You're right -- they aren't all writing majors, because the department is new and (for a long time) was so small. I meant to discuss larger writing communities, but found that my post was already hella long.

Given that most of the other bloggers are involved in campus publications, I think the writing-beyond-CRWR is clarified elsewhere.

re: major itself
I've followed the debate for a bit. I find the difference between a writing and an English class pretty vast. In college, I've never found myself in a lack of classes to read for, be they English classes or politics.

The argument is well-made, regarding reading. But I think there is a merit to having your work picked apart by your peers and a professor.

Most writers double-major and I think that's a good cure. I don't think writing is the only thing to life, but a good way at clarifying/examining certain issues. That said, I read, and as a student, I studied a lot of monumentally different things.

The question of How One Writes or How One Becomes a Writer... is not one I can answer. Am I a Writer now? No, but I'm closer than I was 4 years ago.


re: case basis
That seems really odd to me. I've not had that problem with a professor, and Kazim has an awesome reputation. That said, people make mistakes. I very strongly doubt he acted with malice.

Posted by: Aries on October 15, 2009 4:12 PM

@Rose

To be clear, when I got the "Nope, sorry!" email going for 300... I did believe that I sucked at life and I should die in a hole. A lot.

And I shouldn't.

I've never been in the room to hear teachers discussing applicants. I don't know what the deal is. But I don't really know what their agendas would be. Good Writing is indeed, a nebulous concept, but I don't think there's a tremendous bias against any style. People in my classes had wildly different kinds of writing.

Posted by: Aries on October 15, 2009 4:37 PM

I am a freelance writer and when I say freelance, it is in the truest sense of the word. I understand where this is coming from and can really be hard. When you said wanting it, I felt that it really is something that is considered a "dream." I really want to be a musician at heart and it is as tough as anything. But having a way with words compliments notes. Enhanced writing whether adults or kids, would be helpful. It really is a matter of wanting it and utilizing it the best way possible.

Posted by: Jean on November 5, 2009 2:06 AM

@Jean

Thanks! I'm going to be needing all of that energy pretty soon. Freelance writing is really exciting to me, but also really scary.

I totally agree, about the combination of music and words. I love my favorite bands often because of their lyrics

Posted by: Anonymous on November 8, 2009 6:27 PM

Re: Hope
There is no use or legitimacy in shutting people out of the program at all. While Aries is right that a class of mixed ability levels would not be the most productive, providing classes for only the students that the department thinks is the most talented doesn't help anybody either. There aren't exactly any idiots to weed out if you made it into Oberlin, and everyone should get a shot at developing their creative side. It's an important part of a balanced liberal arts breakfast...I mean, education.

This is the problem with the Theater and Art (and in a different way, Biology) departments at Oberlin as well. They need more classes and more professors to teach the classes. (I know Theater and Creative Writing have been making efforts to do this with the resources they have.) Why aren't there more classes when there is such a demand for them?

(Cinema Studies, however, is awesome, and I give them props for being small AND accessible. I was able to take an upper-level course my senior year having only taken the intro class my freshman year. And you know what? I did pretty well.)

Posted by: Hillary on November 11, 2009 7:36 PM

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