I’m learning things. And it hasn’t been all that easy.
I’m in Week 7 of my first 10-week graduate course in English/Creative Writing at Southern New Hampshire University. When I finish this class, I’ll have three credits of the 36 I need to graduate with a Master’s Degree.
I wonder if I’ll go to graduation. We could take a road trip to New Hampshire. I could get measured for a cap and gown, and march to Pomp and Circumstance with all the kiddos who will give me high fives because I’ll be so gray and so cute. I’ll tape the number 72 on the top of my cap so the entire stadium can be inspired.
I think about graduating but only fleetingly. It’s hardly the point. The point is just the doing. It’s a peculiar hobby. And I really love it.
So in seven weeks, I’ve learned a lot. Here are the high points:
Theme: The theme of a novel or an essay or a poem is what the piece means in the broader scheme of things. Theme isn’t about topic. It’s about meaning. This reminds me of a writing teacher I had long ago who said, “The most important thing about writing is to have something to say.” I’ve been right on this one for a long time.
Point of View: From whose point of view is a story told? Is that entity part of the story or outside of the story? And how much does that entity (the narrator) know about the characters? It struck me, studying this, that my stories are always told from my point of view and that is both liberating and constraining. I only have so many stories. But other characters could have hundreds. I need to meet some new people.
Diegesis and Mimesis: How many times have you heard the writing adage, “show, don’t tell.” Diegesis is telling – telling how characters think and feel. Mimesis is showing – demonstrating through characters’ action and speech what they think and feel. This is tricky when a person writes a lot of memoir because so much is telling how one felt, explaining one’s interior life. But pushing the writing means finding the ways that feelings can be made visible. I do that and will do that more.
Dialogue: Today I wrote a piece of dialogue for class that was supposed to depict tension that was focused on something that was not the real issue, like a married couple fighting about doing the dishes when the real issue is their marriage falling apart. So the challenge was to set up the dialogue so it doesn’t include a lot of descriptions of scenery. No backstory. Just two people’s words and minimal extra narration. Takes discipline and care to construct. I love that.
Setting: I skip setting almost all the time. It seems irrelevant. But it isn’t, because setting, place, history define people in wonderful ways. Two books that I read for this class: Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson, and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, are full of place. They sweat place. Reading these books made me think about my own writing and how, so often, I’ve made it place-neutral. Place can make things fuller. I learned that.
The Work: The class has a weekly routine and it is demanding. The questions asked are substantive and require research and thinking. I have to pay attention, read carefully, write carefully. Proofread! Be careful. I haven’t done that for a long time. Too smart for that, already educated. That doesn’t work here. I am the same as the other twenty students. No one knows me from Adam. I am as I appear on the page. I love that.
The Grades: What I do is being judged, evaluated, graded. The feedback is specific, fair, and yet kind to me as a writer. I check my grades. I don’t obsess about them like I used to years ago when I was in graduate school the first time. It doesn’t matter what grade I get (as long as I keep a 3.0) but I still want to do well. I care about doing well. I love that.
So that’s my report. So far so good.