Breaking Bad Online Habits with…Online Writing Classes

In a desperate attempt to break my writer’s block (most notably my inability to sustain anything without getting sucked into the wormhole of the Internet, Googling phrases like “medieval brassieres” and “who is Demi Moore dating now?”), I signed up for an online writing class.  I was skeptical at first–thinking that it would be some kind of scam or that the writers would be fixated on vampire fiction, but happily, the experience has been extremely positive. The class meets online once a week for ten weeks and costs $450. The one hour chats are focused on a particular reading and on questions of craft. Students chime in with their thoughts via electronic group texts. I thought the conversation would be awkward or unwieldy, but the classes are small (only ten students), and we have a teacher who leads the discussion, and comes to each session with specific questions meant to focus us on reading like a writer. If you happen to miss the class, the instructor also posts a transcript of the whole thing in our electronic classroom.

Additionally, every Saturday, we have a two page writing assignment due, focused on a reading of fiction or poetry (Jane Smiley, Alice McDermott, Mark Halliday to name a few). Since we are all working on the same exercise and read each other’s work, there’s the added bonus of getting to see how other writers approach the shared challenge. For example, this week’s task was to model two pages of writing on Tony Hoagland’s poems “Benevolence” and “Mistaken Identity.” Both poems tackle the idea of writing about someone significant in your life who has transformed into something else. In “Benevolence” the narrator’s alcoholic father has turned into a dog drooling for a whiskey ice cube and “Mistaken Identity” has a stay-at-home mom turned into a biker lesbian. Our assignment then was to do the same–think of someone of significance in your life who has returned in another guise. The range of approaches is great–a bad boss returning as a donkey, a nun morphing into a male prison guard, a blind date bearing an eerie resemblance to the narrator’s dead tabby (that was mine).

We are also asked to comment on at least three of our classmates assignments; just as you would in a live workshop, but more manageable, because the assignments are short (never longer than two pages) and you only technically have to do three peer reviews (or more if you’re an overachiever like some people I could name). The teacher gives feedback on all of the pieces, so you are guaranteed feedback from her, along with at least two or three of the other students. As in real workshops, the student feedback varies–some are praise-filled and offer little to improve, and others pinpoint places where the writing could use work.

Lastly, the quality of the writing from the other students in this beginning craft class is uniformly good (no one, so far, has ended with “it was all a dream…” or made any of the other fledgling mistakes you might see from new writers. This might be because they are individuals who are paying to take the class for no credit; not bored undergrads wanting an “A,” or dabblers with a passing interest in creative writing. Most, I believe, would consider themselves serious writers who want to get all they can from the class and clearly spend time on the assignments, pay attention during the chats, and offer concrete feedback to others. The teacher is also good–she always has an agenda for the chats and her exercises are thoughtful and challenging.

Two downsides exist. One is that because of the truncated length of the weekly assignments, it’s difficult to work on a full length short story. For poets, this may not be a problem–two pages seems manageable for a poem, less so for a short story unless you’re focused solely on micro fiction.  However, if your goal is to get writing, you will emerge from the class with nine beginnings–nine opportunities to start on something new. The other downside is that there’s no guarantee that it will crack your writer’s block. You still have to maintain Nora Robert’s number one rule of writing (“ass in chair”) and since the class is for no credit, and there are no consequences for not doing the assignments, you could easily slip by without doing the work. This, thankfully, has not been the case for me. I am writing. I don’t know if what I end up with will turn into longer pieces, but the weekly deadlines have pushed me out of my Google funk and focused on the page.