Creative Writing Retrospective

My thoughts on English 335, Creative Writing I at the University of Waterloo.

Last term, I was enrolled in English 335 at the University of Waterloo. This course was a workshop based course on creative writing. This course had a great deal of potential, but only partially lived up to my expectations.

The course is composed of three main areas of creative writing: poetry, short fiction, and drama (called “collaborative performance” in the syllabus). While I was most interested in the short fiction component, I also greatly enjoyed the poetry unit. For each of the first two units, two new poems or short stories were written and workshopped. One of each was then chosen to be thoroughly revised, and justification provided for the revisions. The collaborative performance was written and edited in groups, and was presented in class on the last day.

Possibly the best part about the course was the license to write. I not only wanted to write, but I was compelled to do so. The poetry unit helped me to think more deeply about the fundamentals of language, while the fiction unit allowed me to concentrate on narrative.

In contrast, the drama unit provided me with little value. The collaborative work was interesting, but there was little focus placed on revision after the presentation. This unit also took considerable time which I would have rather spent writing more poetry or fiction. The performance aspect of the work was also uncomfortable. My group read our script, rather than memorizing it. I did not have the time to spend memorizing a script. This is a creative writing course, not a drama course. Maybe this part of the course was more meaningful to others in the class, but I felt it detracted from my experience.

There was very little academic content in the course, which is expected for a creative writing course. It is listed as a workshop course, not a lecture. There are other courses which focus on the short story, and others which focus on poetry from the academically critical perspective. This course focused on creating and revising effective writing.

The workshop portion of the course was valuable, but also frustrating at times. The class size was excessive. There were over twenty people enrolled in this section of the course. When workshopping as an entire class, critiques of everyone’s work meant taking two nights to cover everyone. For the second piece in the poetry and fiction units, we broke into smaller, more focused groups, reading five pieces instead of twenty. In general however, there was not enough time to effectively critique the writing. If the class was smaller, more time could be spent on each individual piece, or each student could write another piece.

In general, I found the critique process to be poorly defined. The majority of the time was spent discussing what people liked, and what people didn’t. A particular phrase was often pointed out as being cool. It was more rare to hear a critique which focused on elements such as pacing or plot construction. The instructor frequently brought up the need to focus on characterization. This is a fault I was guilty of, in at least one of my stories, which I later gutted and rewrote from scratch.

Another frustration was having my work reviewed last in both the poetry and fiction sections. I realize that someone always has to be last, but it’s no more fun in creative writing than it is in high school gym class.

The pacing of the course seemed excessively slow. Over twelve weeks, we wrote two poems, of which one was revised, and wrote two pieces of flash fiction, of which one was revised. Added to this was the writing, editing and performance of a collaborative drama. Five pieces of original writing, and two revisions. I was expecting more writing in the course, and ultimately found the level of workshop discussion unsatisfying, primarily due to the lack of time for individual reviews.

I think this course would benefit from a bit more structure in the critique process. What sort of things should be looked at during a critique, for example. A simple list of some of the basic elements of fiction, such as plot, characterization and effective dialogue would have improved some of the reviews. By the middle of the term, I was getting rather tired of hearing the phrase “I really enjoyed this story” prefacing a simplistic review.

The instructor also has a bias against genre fiction, although it was allowed in the course. This can be understandable, as it is much more difficult to assess work in a genre in which one has little experience. From my perspective, it’s much easier to write in the genre in which I read. Without knowing the conventions of a particular genre, it can be difficult to determine if a certain phrase or concept is typical of the genre. The instructor primarily reads literary fiction, I believe.

I’m not sure if I will enroll in the advanced creative writing course. I think I need to spend some more time to absorb the experience of the first course, before I come to a decision.