I thought that each tutorial I'd have my stories and poems ferociously torn apart by my fellow scribblers and my faults laid bare in revelatory fashion (possibly with evocative jump-cuts between me and the other students). Or perhaps rather than cowing to their superior knowledge, I would go on to argue a devastating Gregory-Peck-style case for why I’d written what I’d written. Then next week I'd help do the same for their writing. We would appreciate our conflicting views and fierce arguments, and come away ready to confront our writing in new and risky ways.
Like I said, I was young.
Also I'd watched too many films involving writing workshop sequences.
So as we all sat quietly around the table each week, tentatively murmuring "That was good, I like your images," and "I was interested in how you changed tense halfway through", I started to wonder what I was actually going to learn. I wasn't going to learn to critique others, and I wasn't going to get critiqued in the way I’d hoped for if we were all going to be so goddamn nice all the time.
But actual assessment would be different, I thought. My tutors were writers I admired, so obviously I would get the sandblasting I wanted. I’d get opinions about which bits of my writing were the written equivalent of Roquefort, which bits were Tasmanian Heritage camembert, and which were Kraft 'parmesan-style' vomit flakes that come in a shaker you don't even need to keep in the fridge.
I would think hard about their opinions, possibly while ordering a cheese platter, and then decide for myself what I thought.
My assignments generally came back looking like this [circa 2004]:
The ‘big tick scenario’ could have meant three things.
1. It could have meant that I was an absolute freakin prodigy at 19, and should have just quit uni and waited a couple of weeks for my first publishing contract to land in my lap. Obviously this one was correct. Ahem.
2. It could have meant there was just so much wrong with what I'd written that the tutor saw no point even starting a detailed critique because she was only paid a flat fee for marking, not per assignment and certainly not per hour.
3. It could have meant she was being sensitive about possible (but non-existent) neuroses about having my writing criticised. I’ve never been overly attached to creative pieces I’ve written, once they’re finished. I’ll rework pretty much anything, especially if it gets me a paid publication. As Jim Rockford once said: “There’s two things I won’t do for money. I won’t marry for it and I won’t kill for it. Other than that I’m open to just about anything.”
Anyway. What I wanted was for my habits to be trampled and bloodied and my awkward writing structures to be cracked in half over my head like Anne Shirley in charge of a slate. I wanted to be pushed and confronted and hurt.
But at the end of each semester I got: A Big Tick.
I gave up on university creative writing classes after a few subjects.
My writing habits varied enormously over the next ten years. In undergrad I wrote masses of poetry and letters and essays and mated flies and inoculated agar plates and finished my BA and BSc degrees. I didn’t eat much and I didn’t sleep much and was probably a bit nuts a lot of the time.
Then I quit English/Philosophy Honours after a month, graduated with what I had and studied for a library degree full time (night classes) while also working nearly full-time during the day. Assignments (and – kill me now – group assignments) were done very early in the morning and all weekend. This is not recommended. My husband will attest to my sleep-walking and talking at this time. I graduated.
Then I stopped reading, and only worked and watched films. Think I was a wee bit burnt out.
Then I worked and read and the only writing I did was book reviews and I'd accepted I probably wasn’t going to write creatively ever again. This lasted a very long time. Every now and then I’d force a poem out from between the cracks, because that was what I was supposed to be doing. But mostly I edited up my old stuff and that was the stuff (some of it 10 years old) I was submitting to journals. It felt horrible and I felt useless and if anyone tried to talk to me about creative writing I got defensive and pretended it didn’t matter to me. Did it fuck.
Then I got wonderfully, deliberately pregnant, had a baby, and what happened in that following year was…hmm? What? Can you hang out the washing? I’ve just been pooed on.
Then as my kid got older I read more, reviewed and judged writing awards more. I was busy. I didn’t write much poetry, and I didn’t write any fiction and I kept pretending it didn’t matter.
Then everything went to complete and utter shit for over a year and I went a bit nuts and didn’t eat or sleep but I wrote more than 200 poems and over 80,000 words worth of stories in 6 months. Don’t try this at home. Seriously. It means you’re mental.
Now I'm just trying to keep writing because I think if I stop I might never start again.
Conclusion: I tend to be all, or bugger all. How I do one thing is how I do everything.
But I did in the end learn something from writing classes at uni. I learned that I want there to be different streams of classes, to cater for different needs. It would have made me feel a bit less mental, then and now. In my pretty dream uni (where the coffee is free and Union House doesn’t smell like dead fish and feet), there would be one creative writing stream for people who want encouragement, gentle constructive pointers, and to have the good things they do firmly acknowledged.
And there would be a second stream for those who want the extreme version – the all or bugger all. To be let loose to argue and criticise without fear of slamming their feet into the kidneys of someone’s dream-child. To get into the messy details and debate single words in single sentences, and be able to say, essentially: This bit is awesome, this bit is parmesan-style vomit-shaker.
And it would be clear-cut – you’d volunteer for your stream, not be assigned. Tick a box, choose your crits.
I don’t actually think either stream is ‘better’, by the way. I hate the idea that being able to ‘take’ criticism is an indication of strength or superiority. Some writers don’t read reviews because they write better without them. Some writers do read reviews because they write better with them. If some form of counsel helps your improve or makes you want to improve your writing, then it works. If whatever it is doesn’t help: screw it. Ignore it. Avoid it.
But in terms of creative writing classes, the cautious and nice approach doesn’t work for everyone, just like cheese doesn’t always make an appropriate analogy for writing. (I initially was going to link my cheese imagery to how marking at Melbourne Uni was done on the bell curve, but then I looked at the words ‘cheese’ and ‘bell curve’ in the same sentence and decided against it.)
I’m not completely inhuman; I do like praise. I like a big fat tick on my assignment as much as the next scribbler. But I like it explained, or not at all.
Is it a Roquefort tick?
Or a Tasmanian Heritage camembert tick?
Or a tick that means “just put that vomitous parmesan-style shaker back in the cupboard”?