Oberlin Blogs

Some comments on the Creative Writing Major

March 6, 2011

Zoe McLaughlin ’11

A while back, I wrote a post about how I picked my major. At the time, I was just a biochemistry major. I mentioned my creative writing major, but I hadn't declared it yet. Well, I've definitely declared it now, and I'm (obviously) very close to finishing the major, so I think perhaps it's time to talk a little bit about the program. Aries has already written some very good posts about the Creative Writing Department, but I figure more perspectives are always good, right? Right.

I've been writing my stories down since I first learned how to write back in elementary school. At that point in my writing career, they were riddled with spelling errors, but they were also probably my most creative. I had no idea about the rules of writing, so I felt free to employ such experimental techniques as ending a chapter in the middle of a sentence. This was supposed to heighten suspense.

At any rate, I continued writing, not because I necessarily had thoughts of becoming a published author some day, but more because I was doing what came naturally: I thought of stories; I wrote them down. And so my life progressed. In a way, I guess I was lucky that I didn't over think the writing thing too much. I just wrote.

Of course, as I got older, it became harder and harder to find the time to write, because I was also supposed to be doing things like calculus--things that I was also good at. That's probably the single biggest reason that I decided to major in creative writing as well as biochemistry. I wanted to have the chance to write and not feel guilty because I was supposed to be doing "real work."

I took my first creative writing class the spring semester of my freshman year. It was Technique and Form in Fiction, a 100-level class that you don't have to apply for. That's right--you have to apply for all the upper-level creative writing classes. This is less scary than it sounds, though if anyone at the time had told me this, I would have told them they were crazy.

There are two of these 100-level classes--fiction and poetry--and as Aries says, they're a good way to build your portfolio so that you can apply to the upper-level classes. Meaning that I probably should have taken the poetry class instead of the fiction one since, especially at that time, poetry and I were not the best of friends. But I didn't take the poetry class. And the fiction class was just as useful. It was my first glimpse of how writing could be taught (a concept that I still find a bit weird), and I really enjoyed it. I actually got serious about my stories in that class, and started thinking about things like what makes a good story good and the proper way to end stories.

After that, I applied to 201--the poetry/prose workshop. The application, again as Aries says, is pretty simple. It basically consists of samples of what you consider to be your best writing. Depending on what class you're applying to, this is poetry or prose or a combination of both. Mine was mostly prose, for obvious reasons. I applied, and I didn't get in.

I wasn't too pleased with this development, since I knew that I had only one chance left if I wanted to finish the major and still graduate on time. As a dancer and a musician, I'm used to not getting into things; I've been through more auditions than I can count, and most of them rejected me, especially at the beginning. That's the takeaway message here too. Over the fall semester of my sophomore year, I worked on my portfolio some more, and then I submitted it again. And, lo and behold, I got into 201 that spring. It helps to say that you're really interested in becoming a major.

201 was my first real experience with a workshop-style class. We'd sit around in each class and discuss each student's piece--what was good and what needed work. It was an adjustment from other classes, but it was also extremely helpful. Getting feedback is the easiest and most effective way to improve your writing. Of course, you also have to learn how to sort out useful feedback from not-so-useful feedback, but that's part of the point.

201 also got me writing poetry. It was a weird, sometimes painful process, but it was a good one. I still won't tell you that I understand poetry, and I still won't tell you that I take my poetry very seriously, but I enjoy writing poetry now, at least on occasion.

After 201, I applied to a lot of workshops. Not all of them, since some (Playwriting and Screenwriting) really didn't interest me, but most of them. I got into Fiction, which was great. Unlike 201, where we met twice a week, this class met once a week for three hours. It was intense, but it was the best way possible. I was writing serious stories about things that actually mattered to me. (Mainly ballet and the Japanese occupation of Malaya.)

After that class, I again applied to multiple workshops. I really wanted to get into Nonfiction, but instead I got into Poetry. Though it wasn't my first choice of workshops, this turned out to be a really good experience anyway. Like I said, me writing poetry doesn't really make sense to me. This was a great way for me to play around with it some more. That's the thing about workshops: they offer a safe environment in which to experiment. And if I did do some prose poetry on occasion, well, it happens sometimes.

That brings me up to last semester, when I finally got the chance to take Nonfiction. It was awesome. As I may have mentioned, it was definitely a weird adjustment to writing something where I couldn't lie whenever I wanted. It was a fun adjustment, though, and it got me thinking about things like what the definition of truth is anyway and where the line between nonfiction and just a story really lies.

And all that brings me to right now, as I sit writing this blog post instead of working on a story for my capstone. As I've probably already mentioned, working on my capstone is really great because it basically means that I write stuff, meet with my adviser to talk about it, and then write more stuff. This is also very taxing for the exact same reasons.

But, in conclusion, the creative writing major is not scary. Or maybe it is scary, but only as scary as any other major. Yes, you have to apply to almost all of the classes, and yes, sometimes you don't get in. However, if you continue to demonstrate interest and keep working on your writing, it will all work out fine. Better than fine. All the professors are amazingly supportive and--as I've already said--the application process is not as intense as it may sound.

And my mission of being a creative writing major so that I don't feel guilty when I write? Definitely accomplished.

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