Learning to Steal, Fabricate, and Create: What I Learned in Fiction I

After enjoying College Writing far more than I thought I would, I realized I could not see myself not writing the following semester, even if it wasn’t built into my grand, four-year plan. It was one of those rare classes where, nine times out of ten, the act of doing my homework made me happier (weird, I know). Remembering an old mentor’s advice that doing what makes you happy will rarely steer you in the wrong direction, I decided to check out the courses offered by the writing department.

Unsure, however, whether I was capable of writing anything more creative than the real world, I met with my College Writing instructor. She and I ran through a few different options before she convinced me to switch things up and take Fiction I with Professor Klimasewiski (Note: for brevity’s sake, I’ll refer to him as Marshall for the remainder of this post).

Now that it’s over, I could not be more glad to have had the opportunity.

Because I have said it before, but I’ll say it again: the prepositional phrase “with so-and-so” is more significant than the class it describes. You could give me a course on the geopolitics of potato soup, and if the professor is passionate about the subject and invested in his students, I will still find it entirely worthwhile. For me, at least, Marshall has been one of those professors.

Marshall strikes me as unorthodox in a few ways, but perhaps this has been most obvious in the detailed writings he’s given us. Almost every day this semester, he wrote up a sheet for next class’s assignment and discussion prompts; often this sheet extended three to four detailed paragraphs in length. And after I had my story workshopped, I got 4 single-spaced pages of feedback from him. When I asked him last week if he could give a new scene of mine a look-see, he responded the same night with a page-long e-mail of comments. And for his final feedback on my revised story, he gave me three solid pages of the most helpful advice I have ever received. Of course, all this could be characteristic of writers in general (my interactions with them have been rather limited), but I think the more likely explanation is that this is a teacher willing to go far beyond what is required of him for his students.

It really has made a difference.

Before taking Fiction I, I knew fiction was a bear of a writing form. I knew it demands a certain measure of irreverence to stumble onto the same journey that so many before you—the Mark Twains and Vladimir Nabokovs and Virginia Woolfs—have strutted with grace and style. And because I knew those things, I did not have the moxie to so much as set foot on the path. But that’s the beautiful thing about taking a class like Fiction: it forces the issue. Even if I found it sacrilegious to try writing, I just had to do it. And Marshall tossed us headfirst into the craft, asking us to write character sketches or draft lists or analyze short stories and discuss their various elements in class. It was always challenging, always fascinating, and always helpful—I truly read differently now, not only with a greater appreciation for everything the author puts into a piece but also with a greater awareness of what I am watching unfold. It’s art.

Even if you aren’t much of a writer, Fiction I—or any writing class, for that matter—will teach you a great deal. Here’s a sampling of takeaways I gained from Marshall’s Fiction class:

  1. You will fail at some point. Give it a whirl anyway. On the last day of class, Marshall came with a box full of literary journals and two manila folders. At the end of class, he asked us to gather around and flip through the books, then he opened up the manila folders and showed us the rejection letters he’s received over the years—yes, he’s kept them. And even in class, I think you get a glimpse at the feeling of failure when you submit your workshop draft. Presumably, it’s the best thing you think you could’ve produced. And now, you get to listen to your classmates and instructor discuss all that is wrong with it. Which brings me to #2.
  2. Humility can do you no wrong. If you get into the mindset that you’re brilliant, you’re going to struggle with the feedback you receive. This applies not just to writing but to life in general. Anticipate that you made some mistakes along the way. Be prepared to take a hit or two. Even Hemingway fumbled here and there.
  3. Dishing out criticism respectfully requires tact. Learn it. This was a hard one for me. You can’t tell someone he wrote a magnificent story just to make him feel better; alternatively, you can’t tear a person apart, but you need to let her know what you think. You have to be honest, but constructively so. This class taught me how to navigate that terrain, better if not perfectly. A valuable skill regardless of what you want to do in life.

Though I could go on, this post is long enough already. But really, Fiction I with Prof. Klimasewiski was one of the better decisions I have made since coming to WashU. 10/10 would recommend.