It only took a half century for me to take a bona fide writing course. I am now officially taking English 268; Writing Creative Nonfiction, and at a university no less. The point being that I have never even had enough nerve (or I’ve been too arrogant; take your pick) to take an adult education or lifelong learning course or some such. The last time I had any kind of writing instruction I suppose was when I was in high school.
The strange thing is how I finally ended up here. When I decided to go back to school, I never considered majoring in creative writing. (OSU doesn’t have an undergrad major like that anyway, only a MFA program.) It really boiled down to which major was I closest to earning, based on the hodge-podge of courses I had already taken over the years. My choices ended up being English, which didn’t surprise me, and history, which did. But what really surprised me is that I chose history, and why I chose it: English (which would have been primarily studying literature) really really did not appeal to me at all.
So I began taking history courses, beginning with what they call a gateway course, an introduction to historical research, for which I had to receive at least a C before I could declare a history major. No problem, I thought. I could not have been more wrong. The teacher made us write a precis of every chapter of Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft, one of the most difficult books I have ever read, much less written summaries of. And then there was the fact that I did not have the slightest idea how to write a precis, not to mention the fact that the style of a precis is about as antithetical to my natural style as night is to day. I was shocked when I got my first precis back with a big fat D on it: the first one I have ever received on a writing assignment in my life. My only hope for redemption was that the teacher let us write them over. It wasn’t until my third precis that I finally “saw the light”–and it was literally a revelatory experience: until then I just couldn’t grasp what I was doing wrong, let alone how to fix it. (Here I feel I must confess that without my husband’s help, I don’t think I would have ever figured it out, or not in time to redeem myself.) After that I redid all the substandard precis and ended up with an A for the course.
Similar things happened in my other history courses. I was surprised but also pleased to discover that how one writes is considered as important as what one writes about in the field of history, even though the standards and styles were all new (and somewhat more serious and dry) to me compared to the kind of writing I had been doing before. But I think the discipline was good for me: I learned a lot about structure, thorough research, and succinctness. I also began to see my worst habits, the way I meander and indulge myself, fail to come to the point, and leave parts of the story by the wayside, all unacceptable practices for the writer of history or the presenter of research. (Although I’m sure I’m doing it now!)
Then, last quarter, I signed up for a senior symposium on “Hollywood and History” which meant to examine the problems that films have in presenting historical accuracy. The end product of the course was to be a 25-page paper in which we would first review a book titled Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, edited by Mark C. Carnes, then write a short piece about the difference between historical accuracy and historical authenticity, followed by in-depth analyses of two historically-based films of our own choosing, and concluding with a summary of how well the films we chose met the standards of accuracy/authenticity.
Well, I got off to a rocky start. I wasn’t doing well mentally for some reason and bungled my first two rough drafts. The teacher didn’t record our grades–they were just meant to be guidelines–but mine weren’t good. Then I got really sick, physically sick, and not only couldn’t go to class, but couldn’t finish my second drafts on time. I worked really hard on them and when I finally did get them turned it, I thought they were practically in finished condition. I was wrong. The teacher had lots of criticisms, and still graded me badly. By this time I was so frustrated between still being sick and trying to figure out what the hell he wanted, I wrote him an email and pleaded with him for something to keep me going. He finally deigned to tell me that “my writing was better than most,” I was “by far the most enthusiastic student in class,” I had a lot of important things to say, and to not give up. Then he asked me if I had ever considered taking any creative writing courses.
Not really. Well, actually, yes. Of course. All I’ve ever wanted to be is a writer. But subject myself to that kind of scrutiny? Wait, what was I saying? What had I been doing for the past year in my history classes? So how could it be any worse to subject myself to it in yet another class which just happened to be an English class? At least I wouldn’t also be expected to be learning about certain periods of history at the same time and would be freer to write about topics that might be closer to my heart. (Or whatever.)
So I mustered up my courage and registered for this Creative Nonfiction course and I’ve been to three classes now and done one of my assignments and so far it feels like a perfectly natural fit. If I had tried to do it a year and a half ago, or any time before now, I don’t think I could have handled it. But everything I did up to now prepared me for this moment. And now, the ironic thing is, I’m beginning to think that I’ll hold off getting my bachelor’s so that I can take more creative writing courses and then graduate with a major in history and a concentration in creative writing but then apply for entrance to the MFA program in Creative Writing (maybe). Or maybe I will have made enough contacts and received enough advice to help me find my own direction as a writer. Either way, I think this would be a lot smarter for me than to graduate with just a major in history.