Recollections From Writing Classes I Tried To Hide In

As the degree was coming to an end there were electives to choose and some of those would have to be outside the course of study, as I had taken all the strictly relevant classes that were offered by this point. From memory – and memory tends towards the hazy at times like this – postgraduate degrees were structured this way on purpose, so that students would do a couple of slightly different things at the end of their degree and perhaps be able to bring some of the skills and experiences to those different (but perhaps related) disciplines.

It was a history degree, my degree, and when the history options were exhausted it seemed like a good opportunity to take some writing classes. I wondered if I had any writing ability, suspected that I did, but wasn’t sure how much, and frankly, was just a bit curious about how classes from the Professional Writing program might be conducted. I’m sure I had read about the experience of people in graduate writing programs overseas and, well the opportunity was too good to pass up. Although it should be noted that this was motivated much more by curiosity than by any burning desire to out myself as a writer or learn from what the teachers or the class might have to pass on.

On the first night I went to the wrong class. It was the right subject but the wrong classroom and the teacher was a man with a very soft voice and gentle manner and he told me, and the other two or three students who had made a mistake, that we were in the wrong place and we should leave now in such a gentle and polite way that I really wanted to stay, I think. I also wanted to disappear into a hole. As a rule, during my academic career, I didn’t get class locations and times and teachers wrong, so this was highly embarrassing. The man had a non-fiction book out at the time, a sort of travel book and memoir and meditation on the differences between Western and Eastern cultures, and I think he wrote sometimes for the Fairfax press, and I haven’t got around to reading his book yet, even though another one has come out since, and I really must get around to doing something about that soon.

In the correct room, which mercifully wasn’t quite as full of students as the previous room, there were people of all ages and from a range of backgrounds, as I was to learn from what they wrote over the next Semester. History classes were tiny and now this room had about twenty students in it, which was overwhelming in the beginning. It took a while to become comfortable in this environment, and I never really was able to get comfortable, because although the rule that it is easier for a shy person (like me) to hide in a crowded classroom remained true, when the class was a writing class that means students will read their work and talk about each other’s work and the prospect that this could and would happen and perhaps would happen in the most starkly exposing kind of way, to me, without warning, meant that it was not really possible to relax. It was also true that everyone seemed to know everyone else, which wasn’t quite true, although the majority had been in classes together before.

So the group I was in was the very small group of historians who don’t know anyone and are too shy to talk to anyone and too embarrassed to really engage with the business of the class and who are terrified at the mere thought of reading something out in front of the group. This group actually had one person in it.

There were two writing classes: non-fiction writing and fiction writing. Neither forced anyone to read any of their own work, which was good for the reticent in the room. The non-fiction class allowed other people to read the two main pieces of writing we had worked on and write their comments and give feedback that way, and while in the fiction class there was reading out of the piece we were working on, we broke up into small groups and this did seem to lessen the terror of reading and made it easier to get involved in the business of making supportive and constructive and helpful comments about the work of others.

It was weird. Weird in a number of ways. Most of the students were older (I was in my mid-20s) and sort of serious and confident and practical and in a hurry. As if there was no time for stuffing around. Not in a brusque or curt or perfunctory sort of way, but they just wanted to get on with it, which is a good thing when you want time to read out the little exercises we had been given each week and you know a lot of others want to read out theirs too, and there’s limited time. But it was a hurry in a different sense as well. Like there was certainty about who they were and what they were doing and this was some kind of stepping stone to a career or at least a place in the literature industry. And that also makes sense. It meant that you were given feedback and helpful views on your work despite the fact that most of them didn’t really know who you were. They knew that the class functioned best when people contributed in a certain way.

The fiction class was a bit looser, and that could say something about fiction writing versus non-fiction writing, but it probably says much more about the individual personalities of the members of the class, and the teacher, who is the partner of a famous Australian author and who impressed me in so many ways.

It wasn’t really designed to cater for the shy writer who doesn’t want to take his share of the group’s attention, and this surprised me because there are writers, and good ones, who are just like that.

I did get a lot out of these classes though, despite being unwilling (or unable) to participate fully in them. And I wasn’t the only one – although loud and confident predominated, as they usually do. I became close to a few of my fellow students – close in that haltingly withdrawn and semi-coherent way that I specialised in then, and still haven’t entirely shaken off – primarily because they read things I wrote and liked them and asked about my progress and what I was working on and so on. I had also read their work, and was impressed. Everyone in the room – in both rooms – had talent. Some had more than others and I knew I wasn’t the least talented by a long way, and that was encouraging.

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Published in: on January 29, 2014 at 7:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

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