I took a creative writing class in college about three decades ago. I knew I wanted to be a writer and hoped that this would help me. The class was often frustrating. If anything, though, it taught me that great writing cannot be forced.
The teacher would often choose two or three stories to read out loud during class. He would read through them and then we would critique them. I was often impressed at how my fellow classmates would weave together their ideas, often tying symbolism into their stories.
One day, as I walked through a park, I suddenly felt inspired. I knew what my next story would be. I would write about an aging woman and somehow tie her character in with the changing seasons. As she grows older, the air grows colder and eventually the trees are barren and the woman is dead. It was brilliant. Poetic, visual, and profound! Who could resist it?!
I spent the weekend carefully crafting my story and the next time we met in class, I approached the teacher and asked him if he would read it. He did and when he finished, I braced myself for my classmates’ comments. The class grew silent and no one raised their hand. “Anyone?” the teacher asked.
Finally, one woman raised her hand and said stiffly, “It was boring, dry, and uninspiring.”
I was crushed. Did she not even appreciate the way I crafted my story to include great symbolic descriptions of the changing seasons? Unfortunately, everyone agreed, including me.
Nearly one month later I decided to write a much different kind of story. This time I wrote about a man who writes horror fiction. His main character, Jenny Freeman, was a twisted psychopathic nurse with flaming eyes and skin as white as snow. Jenny begins to appear to him in his dreams. In the end, he dreams that Jenny carves him up and hangs him from the ceiling. The next morning, they find his body hanging in his room, carved up. The story was in the style of Freddy Krueger before I had even heard of Freddy Krueger. The teacher read the story to the class. I sat back, smiling to myself as my classmates squirmed and gasped at the graphic content and outcome of the story. I’m afraid I went overboard this time, but at least no one could say it was “boring.”
In the first story, I was trying too hard to create something that just was not my style. While I was desperate to amaze my classmates, my heart was really not in the story. I had a much better time crafting the second story, although I will admit that horror is not my area either.
In my novel, Berlin Dancer, I fell in love my characters. I was fascinated by the history and intrigued with a culture that was so different from my own. I took my time writing and researching it. In fact, the story took on a life of its own each time I sat down to write. I never knew what would happen next. It was always a surprise. The reviews speak for themselves. The lesson for me is that the best writing cannot be forced. It has to come from the heart.