I originally posted this about five years, seven or eight books, and a bunch of classes ago. I believe it’s still relevant and may be of interest. When I first declared myself a writer, long ago, I had no idea what the future held, but I never would have thought I’d also become a teacher. Since then, I’ve come to love that role nearly as much as I love writing. This may help explain why.
Breathe in. Exhale. I just finished my first, multi-session course on fiction writing. And now I’m not sure if I’m a god or a slob. Could go either way, I suppose, depending on one’s viewpoint.
My class was titled “Creative Writing.” I went into it feeling confident in my knowledge of the craft. I’d written nine novels and countless short stories. I’d been through the publishing game, the agent game, and the conference game. I’d hobnobbed with great writers and commiserated with the not-so-great. I’d known the aggravation of selling my work only to have the publisher go belly up before my stuff slithered through the press. I’d been anthologized, awarded, nearly awarded, and ignored. In short, I had a lot of experience to share. I’d seen it all. I’d done most of it. Hell, I had a fan who’s not a blood relation! What could possibly be asked of me that I wasn’t capable of handling?
In a word: non-fiction.
Okay, that’s probably more than a single word; it’s hyphenated. Geez. How was I supposed to know that half my class would come from the world of memoir writing? I got my journalism degree almost 40 years ago; that was the last time I wrote non-fiction. And suddenly, half — HALF! — my class is smiling at me, pens poised, waiting for me to tell them how to write their life stories creatively.
Holy. Fricking. Moly.
I read non-fiction. I sure as sin don’t write the stuff. My last feature article was about a blind taxi cab dispatcher who directed me to a pick-up forty-something years ago when I drove a hack to make ends meet in college. (Sadly, they didn’t. But that’s another story.) It was a great feature article. My professor loved it. He wanted to run it by some of his old pals at UPI before the service went belly up. We’re talking profound. And I should know, I edited my college newspaper. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in a position to market the story and had to settle for a good grade in a journalism class instead. There are times when altruism sucks. Trust me on this.
Anyway, returning to the present — and half the expectant faces in my class — I’m talking about 7-point plotting (thank you Algys Budrys, Kris Rusch, and Dean Wesley Smith) while my students are thinking about the latest and greatest on Ancestry.com.
Holy. Crap. Time to get seriously creative.
I’m scrambling, trying to find common ground for the fiction and non-fiction folk. And there’s this guy sitting there, smiling at me. He’s somewhere in his 70’s — slender, quiet spoken, probably ex-military; he’s obviously seen a lot in his life.
“So,” he says, “an opening ought to have what, again? A person, in a place, with a problem?”
“Exactly!” I say. “That way, readers experience some sort of conflict — whatever the problem might be — and they know the writer will probably deliver something worth reading.”
“And that’s where you start to tell a story?”
And suddenly, the pressure was off. It turns out there’s an amazing amount of cross-over between fiction and non-fiction. People are interested in things that matter. Conflict matters. The things we remember in our lives are almost certainly rooted in conflict. It’s the absolute essence of storytelling.
That wonderful man and I have since come to call each other friends, and I welcome his patience, wisdom, and experience, for he has many more lessons to teach me. And I look forward to them more than he will ever know.