Tag Archives: college

Why It’s Okay to Write for Fun (Part 6): The Importance of Learning from Our Past

Missed Part 5? Read it here:

“The Importance of Learning from Our Past”

Early on the morning of January 2, 2017, when I should’ve been fast asleep like a normal person, I sat at my desk reading every short story I had written in high school, trying to figure out my roots. There were seven stories in total, most of them just episodic installments of a larger series I had intended to finish but never did, and I had spent my later “knowledgeable” years thinking they were garbage and worth forgetting.

To my surprise, however, I discovered they weren’t that bad. In fact, I might’ve even learned something about myself, my history, and my personal character arc (a fancy term writers use to signify growth or change) through reading them.

What I’ve learned from my old stories is that, even if we don’t enjoy literature—reread my first post in this series, “The Importance of Literature” for more on this—we still understand the basic conventions of storytelling and know when a story adheres to it, maybe thanks to all of the movies we watch, but also because we inherently know what a hero’s journey looks like when we see one. For that reason, there’s a good chance we set out on our writing careers with decent stories in mind, even if we don’t exactly know how to approach telling them.

This is why we must be careful about what we do with our inherent knowledge versus our acquired knowledge when we choose to learn new writing methods to improve our craft. We should never forget that reading the types of works we want to write is almost as good of a teacher as listening to a seminar on how to write. Reading will enforce our intuitions and help us to decide whether the education we’re getting to improve our work is actually good enough, or even accurate, to get us to our goals of becoming excellent authors.

Consider this reality: after rereading what I produced as an uneducated high school bibliophobe, I started to wonder if learning how to write was actually perilous to my journey to becoming a great author. Food for thought?

I realize this bears explanation, especially to wannabe writers who think taking a writing class is the answer to all of their needs. I know my 1998 self would challenge this statement, as I believe I learned everything I’d ever need to know (because isn’t college supposed to teach us everything we need to know for success?).

So, let me elaborate:

I have a Bachelor’s degree in English. I took the majority of my relevant courses at UCF from 1998 to 2000. I had three and a half years where I couldn’t afford to finish, and then in 2004, I went back to finalize my degree. With the exception of screenwriting, my 2004 classes were largely elective, and really just there to get me to the finish line. I had done my core coursework prior to my financial breakdown in 2000. And for my creative writing track, I had to take mostly creative writing courses to fulfill the requirements of my degree.

Pretty obvious path, right? Take a fiction or poetry class, write three or four works for that class, workshop them (that’s when you sit in a circle among your classmates and listen with a smile as they rip your work to shreds, and you’re told not to interfere with the process by explaining your intentions), then revise your baby based on the feedback. The common joke of writing workshops, of course, is that all of you are learning the same principles at the same time, so anything they point out to you, you should already know, and if you’re wrong, chances are they are, too. As much as I liked my writing workshops, I definitely agree they are flawed, at least based on the conditions they provided.

For anyone reading this who has not taken a writing class before, let me break down the system for you. Forgive the slight tangent. I’ll get back to the point momentarily. But I feel this is important to any aspiring writer who doesn’t know the creative writing college climate:

The first few weeks of class is spent going over writing exercises, like scene setting, character sheets, dialogue, etc. Microscopic rules for storytelling are explained in the process, such as show don’t tell, make sure the reader can visualize the hero, etc. Sometimes we’re given an assignment to read something published to get an idea what we’re aiming for. Then the rest of the semester is spent going over the works we’ve written for the class. This leads to the workshop format that I wrote about above.

Terms like conflict and resolution might come up in the course of a semester, but they certainly don’t get the full attention they deserve, which I honestly think should be dedicated to a course in of itself. And structure? Forget about it. What’s that? The only course that touches on the three-act structure is screenwriting, and that’s because screenwriting doesn’t work without it. Oh, and in a screenwriting course, you’re only going to write the first act. There’s no time to go over the whole thing.

So yeah, that’s a college writing track in a nutshell. I’d imagine the Master’s program would cover more ground than the Bachelor’s, but I think that’s because the foundations are already set in an undergraduate program, and graduate programs tend to be more independently focused than class focused anyway, so I’m told.

So, how does all of this relate to the seven short stories that I wrote in high school and the self-reflection they afford me moving forward in my ongoing growth as an author?

Well, let’s return to the beginning of my story and draw a line to see if my educational path was straight.

The only creative writing I had done for a grade prior to college had been for an eleventh grade creative writing class and for various English assignments from seventh grade on. None of these classes taught me the essentials of story. They were fun, yes, but they just focused on presentation, entertainment, etc. at the scene level, much like college did. In theory, I shouldn’t have walked away knowing anything about story form given how these high school and college classes were designed.

And based on my writing from about 1998 to 2005, I’d argue that I graduated knowing nothing about story form. When I should’ve gotten better over the years, it turns out I might’ve actually gotten worse.

Now, this isn’t to suggest that the stories I wrote in high school were any good, or that my instructors were bad at communicating the elements they did have time to teach. In both cases, they weren’t. But, when I went back and reread my “magnificent” seven, I found that I had understood the concept behind story structure in those days, or at least the conventions that make a story entertaining, better than I had in my college years, years later.

So, I actually wonder if my college education had sapped me of the fundamental knowledge I’d already had going into writing. It could be that I was simply writing a different type of story in those days. There is a clear division of style between my early works and my current works, the latter which is derivative of my college and post-college writings. But that, too, may be a result of my college education because there is also a distinct difference in the level of imagination I had put into those early works versus the ones I put out in college, and by proxy, today. It seems I had taken greater narrative risks in those days. One story in particular, about a ninja attempting to save a carnival from a madman, has an entire segment where the hero is trying to get out of a well, and his progressive complication is that the rope breaks, then the townspeople start jumping in with him (they think he’s throwing a party down there), making his ability to call on them for help diminish by the second, and at the last minute, as he’s finally about to ascend the top of the well, an explosion at the carnival knocks him right back in and throws mortar on top of him. Even as he manages to get out using his ninja climbing skills and confronts the madman responsible for the destruction, who is now wielding a bazooka with limitless ammo (I was probably 17 when I wrote this), he has to deal with the fact that the whole town is now on fire. How does he deal with it? He retrieves the bazooka from the madman, blows enough holes into the earth that the town itself sinks, and celebrates as the underground river puts out the fires, and the wreckage.

So, is it stupid? Yes. But is it innovative? Yes!

My ideas in those days were weird, certainly, but they weren’t boring. As a 40-year-old man who enjoys well-written fiction and knows something about it now (I’ve been reading a lot in my years following college), I honestly thought I’d hate my old works. So, you can imagine my surprise when I actually found myself not only laughing at them (because they were funny, not just because they were bad), but eagerly anticipating the next scene, and even getting mad at my 17-year-old self for never finishing the later installments. I don’t think I could capture that same level of imagination today, not after all the ways I’ve sanitized my thoughts over the years. I actually want to know how “Engine Man and Groovinator Enter the Future Dome” would’ve ended, had I ever finished the story. But I remember the other problem I had as a 17-year-old with limited access to his neighbor’s computer. I got bored quickly. I probably didn’t think the story worked.

And that’s too bad. That kid was more intuitive to what made a story enjoyable than the adult who followed him. I’ve spent the last ten years unlearning everything I learned in college just to make my stories fun again.

I never thought I’d say this, but I think I need to go back and write a new Engine Man and Groovinator story, even though the characters are cartoonish and the situations surrounding them are basically Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles meets Cheech and Chong. But then, isn’t that the kind of thing we readers want to read? I know I do, and as I said in “The Importance of Managing Fun,” I am my first reader.

So, should we continue to learn from teachers and experts? Yes. But, we need to do so with caution. Reading, or even watching movies, is essential to understanding, inherently, whether a story works. When we fill our subconscious with stories that do work, we begin to sense whether or not our instructors are teaching us things that don’t work. Of course, I’ve proven that that’s not true in of itself, so we also have to train ourselves to ask the right questions of our instructors, and the right questions essentially come down to whether or not the methods we’re being taught are the same methods that the masters used to create their works. If the answer is “no,” then maybe we should be wary of the instruction we’re receiving.

At the end of the day, the masters write books that we, hopefully, have fun reading, and part of writing for fun is to make sure we have an audience who reads us for fun. Again, we can figure out whether we’re on the right path by reading our older works and comparing them to our newer works. Are we getting better or worse at it? If we’re getting worse, then we need to chart our progression into the hole, figure out where we slipped up and fell in, then correct our course for a path of actual learning. Next week, I’ll share some of the rules I’ve learned to help me keep to a better course.

Next Week: “The Importance of Knowing the Rules of Writing and Storytelling”

SMH = Shake My Head

September 11, 2014:

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting a college campus building devoted to business classes, when I noticed a flier on the wall that featured a still of Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort from the movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, staring back at me. In the photo DiCaprio was holding a note of tender in his hand (I forget the denomination, but I doubt it was a George Washington) and a big smile on his face. Under the image was a quote from the movie about how there are hundreds of millions of dollars out there ready for the taking and only a few who are willing to go out and take it. Under the quote was an invitation to join the sponsor’s business group or seminar to learn how to become successful in business. It was clear that only “serious business-minded people should apply.” It followed with contact information and the frills that photocopied fliers made from movie screen-captures and a quick text-plaster on Microsoft Word would usually offer the casual life-improvement seeker who happens to discover it.

I don’t know if I even need to go through the trouble of explaining how stupid this is, but I will anyway:

1. Promoting your business through a movie reference says nothing about what you’re actually trying to accomplish. If anything, it will portray the exact message you don’t want to convey.

The story of Belfort’s rise to riches was cluttered with shady deals, pressure on potential investors to invest in various stocks, and a general disregard for federal laws involving securities fraud. According to a synopsis on his biography (posted at http://www.biography.com), he pressured companies into buying stocks to inflate the market, which he could turn around and profit from. He also urged his employees, who trained to be sharks, not to release potential investors from a phone call until they made an investment (making him rich, of course), regardless how it helped or harmed them. And like many people who gain obscene amounts of money way too quickly, he turned around and invested his money into various personal addictions that didn’t really help anyone (except maybe sports car salesmen, helicopter salesmen, and drug dealers). Yes, these practices earned him a lot of money, toys, and illegal substances. But they also, eventually, earned him a hefty, hefty fine and a prison sentence. His activities had gotten the attention of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which did its part to reverse his fortunes in less than a decade. He’s since had to change his business model to earn his fortunes in more legitimate ways.

2. If you’re going to show your ignorance, at least do it far away from a college campus. The last thing a college needs that is focused on promoting critical thinking skills is to have a bunch of fliers posted around campus that proves just how much farther it needs to go to fulfill its mission.

Even without doing the research, it’s clear to see how Belfort’s practices are unconventional to the way most businesses might work. It’s like comparing yellow bananas to brown ones. Not hard to see which one is the better one to eat. And, it’s easy to criticize the institutions that raise children to become free-thinking adults when these free-thinking adults fail to make such a simple correlation between pop culture and reality. But, there’s a point when institutions have to stop taking responsibility for an individual’s failure to grasp simple concepts. At some point, the individual, whether taking business classes or not, whether starting an entrepreneurial endeavor or not, needs to read between the lines and say, “Hey, I probably don’t want to lure people into my new business model by comparing myself to a guy who made his fortunes cheating people and was later arrested for securities fraud.” But I guess that part comes later, after he’s lived out his opening line, “Hey, Leonardo DiCaprio made a movie about getting filthy rich, so I’m gonna take and share his character’s advice with anyone willing to show up and listen!” I kinda wished I had called the number just to see how much the guy would charge me to attend his seminar.

3. Most people are smart enough to learn business through experts who have taken their knocks, developed their skills in the field, and have later become paid consultants or instructors whose job now is to teach the next generation how to continue to spin the world around.

Sure, there are mavericks like Jordan Belfort who enter the wide world of oceanic moneymaking where the income washes in much harder and faster than any one institution can handle, and following his example can make you rich. There’s no denying that. But, to embrace a cliché, at what cost? Capitalism works, whether it’s obtained legally or illegally. But do we really want to obtain it illegally? More importantly, do we want to give potential clients the idea that we make our money illegally? Even if capitalism works—it is, after all, just the disbursement and intake of money with the intention of encouraging wealth—not all businesses work it properly. Belfort’s first business, Stratton Oakmont, lost its credibility and eventually its status as a solid company—it was liquidated to cover the price of Belfort’s “business-savvy” ways—in spite of its early ability to make capitalism work. In case the correlation between pop culture and reality has not yet come to light, and the ability to see the dirt under all those dollar signs is still a bit weak, let me remind you how Belfort’s old business is doing today: It’s not really making anyone money nowadays. Be smart: if you want to teach people how to become successful in business, market yourself; don’t market a character that Leonardo DiCaprio played in a three-hour movie about sex, drugs, greed, fraud, and enough F-bombs to send Hollywood back to a wasteland. What do you really expect to prove otherwise?

In the words of those who communicate only through text messaging, SMH.

*The information on Belfort’s background referenced in this journal can be found here: http://www.biography.com/people/jordan-belfort-21329985#synopsis