Ed. Note: Two caveats before I start this column. 1) This could and probably should be titled “What It’s Like To Take A Writing Class As A Normal Human Being,” and 2) You could probably extend this subject to include all manner of arts classes, whether they are visual, musical, or whatever. However, my own experiences are with writing classes, so that’s what I’m drawing from here.
I took a few business classes in college, mostly stuff just to fill electives. Those classes were full of frat guys and cute sorority girls. As a group of students, it was great. The room was full of normal, likeminded people. It was relaxing and comfortable. Of course, for me, the actual class was miserable. I hate math. I hate math-related things that aren’t baseball statistics. In fact, as far as doing work goes, I pretty much detest anything that doesn’t allow me to make up whatever I want. Writers (of the fiction and comedy variety) are inherently lazy people who tend to rely more on natural talent than effort. Even when we write long, intricate, impressive pieces, it’s still just all bullshit we came up with off the top of our heads for strangers. The next time you’re at the gas station, go up to the cashier and have a conversation with him for half an hour, in which you tell him nothing but lies. That’s basically how hard writing is. I guess there’s more to it than that, but not a lot.
That’s why I try not to take my writing so seriously, and I hate when I catch myself doing just that. It’s fun! Dick jokes! I’m getting paid to do it! Even when I wasn’t getting paid, it was still fun. Some of my favorite college memories are sitting around with a few brothers, drinking beers and writing sorority serenades, wondering if the girls would be laughing or crying by the end of it (usually both). However, not all people who consider themselves writers have fun with their work. They take themselves absurdly seriously, and if you’re working with them or around them, they make it a fucking drag. Unfortunately, those people tend to be the majority in college writing classes, and of course they’re nearly always GDIs. Worse than simple GDIs, even, they’re hipsters and artists, and GUHHHH YOU’RE TWENTY YEARS OLD STOP TAKING YOURSELF SO FUCKING SERIOUSLY! Ironically they’re the only ones in the room taking themselves seriously; all the normal people (all seven of them) think these people are a joke, and everyone else is too concerned with themselves.
As a Greek, I often found myself marginalized in these classes, either by the SUPER SERIOUS artists, or the professors, or both. Why? Because, “He’s Greek, and they have no respect or appreciation for deep thought or reflection, for art. They just get drunk and blah blah blah.” Those people then go on to write a story about how stereotypes are bad. I shudder when I think about how many terrible Trayvon Martin analogies were fawned over in writing classes across the country this past year. When I walked into my writing classes and was immediately judged, I didn’t want to care. “Whatever, go drink a PBR and write obnoxiously metaphorical stories about orphans wandering through an abandoned factory that’s somehow in the middle of a meadow,” is what I should have thought. It really didn’t matter what they wrote or what I wrote, or how good any of it was. None of us were being tangibly judged as to who was better than whom in these classes, and even if we were, there certainly wasn’t a prize for “winning.” Grades couldn’t be used as a metric, since everyone who showed up to class and turned in all their work properly formatted got an A. No one was truly judged on whether or not the material he or she wrote was actually good. After all, this was school, not the real world, and no one in school is ever punished for not having talent.
Though I should have, it was tough to let the marginalization slide. I’m competitive, and because of the small class size, the close proximity and constant interaction with these ass hats made it difficult to ignore the urge to ASSERT DOMINANCE VIA STORYTELLING. That, by the way, is like having a slap fight, except twice as petty, half as masculine, and somehow even further devoid of dignity. Whatever, it was on, because listening to these people talk two or three days a week was enough to drive anyone past rational thinking.
To this day, the classmate I despised the most in all my years at Mizzou was one from a writing class, specifically Playwriting II. I’ll take a moment to let everyone rush down to the comments and call me gay for taking that class…are we good? Did you get it out of your system? No? Little more? I’ll wait… Alright, and we’re back. So anyway, in the class I was writing this play about two young, strapping sailors coming to terms with their mortality and growing attraction to each other while adrift on a life raft after a U-boat torpedo sank their ship. They barely escaped the explosion, evidenced by the fact that the flames had burned all their clothes off.
Just kidding, but that is the type of story that would have gotten me an A++++++, as I’ll explain later. Anyway, the kid I hated in this class was the epitome of self-serious. If Vegas were putting odds on which people in the class went home, printed out their work, and made sweet, tender love to the pages, that kid would have been the safest bet.
This kid was the type of guy, who, when you offered him constructive criticism (criticism you were forced to offer at the behest of the teacher, no less) instead of taking it or at least nodding and ignoring it, he would rebut everything anyone said and start openly debating them as I tried to figure out how much effort it would take to slit my wrists with a Bic pen. They just didn’t get his work! He had to explain it to all the simpletons surrounding him, because clearly it was over our heads. There were a lot of people like this in all my writing classes, but this dickhead was by far the worst. That’s something I think a lot of writers don’t learn in college — how to take criticism from your peers. Sure, pretty much anyone will listen to the professor, at least begrudgingly, but everyone else is just “competition” (except not really at all) and everything they say is trying to tear them down!
I like to think writing serenades and skits with my fraternity brothers actually made me a better writer than a lot of the writing classes did, at least in terms of taking criticism. If I had a bad idea, they’d call me on it, immediately, and probably really, really rudely. There’s nothing like a series of devastating, unwarranted personal attacks in response to a mere suggestion to thicken your hide. Most people aren’t so, uh, I guess “lucky” is the word I want to use here. The majority of people in writing classes aren’t used to having ideas shot down or modified, so they get defensive and self-righteous. Meanwhile, anyone in a Greek organization who’s ever spoken at chapter knows what that’s like. So essentially, what discussions in these writing classes full of hipsters and artists boil down to are a bunch of people who aren’t used to talking about ideas in a group bickering until they’ve proven that, at the very least, the person criticizing them is more wrong than they are. That’s the best possible outcome, because it becomes apparent very quickly that no one is even close to right. I usually spent that time playing on my cell phone. I suppose you can call all of that a “learning process,” but holy shit was it painful to behold.
While sitting through that process is painful, what’s more painful is having to take criticism that is actually terrible. I know that sounds contradictory, considering everything I just wrote above, but it isn’t. I’m not saying that there isn’t bad criticism in these classes, there is, it just so happens that the self-serious douches fight all of it, good and bad. That sucks, because when you want to respond to criticism that is missing the point, you come off as an argumentative asshole, like everyone else. The most common type of terrible criticism I received was people, including the professor, wondering if two male characters who happened to be friends were actually gay. Why? Because automatically, gay characters = DEEP AND THOUGHTFUL STORY! Or haven’t you seen Glee?
Professor: The Brian and Greg characters strike me as gay. What do you think of that?
Me: They’re not. They’re friends.
Professor: Well maybe you should explore that. Could make the story more interesting.
Me: I’m gonna go ahead and say no.
Professor: How do you know they’re not, though?
Me: BECAUSE I WROTE IT! If I say they’re not gay then they’re not gay! And if I say that one’s a wizard and one’s possessed by a demon, then one’s a wizard and one’s possessed by a demon! They’re MY characters! Besides! What’s gay about two naked sailors adrift on a life raft!?!?!?!?!
It’s not gay if you’re dying at sea, you guys.
I’ve come to believe that the reason those types of themes were so often explored in writing class criticism, and not just criticism of my work, while things like story structure, the believability of dialogue, and the flow of scenes often went overlooked, is because the former is easier for people to debate. It’s a yes, no, or maybe issue. Meanwhile, resolving any issues with the latter three require actual thought and intelligence. It’s the same reason infinitely more people debate gay marriage than economic issues.
The smug look on my professor’s face when I pushed back against his criticism/suggestion told me what he really thought, that I was either too dumb to see what I had written or was trying to deny my latent frat boy homosexuality. I’m pretty sure if I had handed him the final draft of I Love You, Man and asked him to edit it as he saw fit Jason Segal and Paul Rudd would have been Frenching each other within the first thirty minutes of the story. And there would have been a lot of angst filled longing stares. This was a professor who also bragged to me about helping get Sigma Chi get kicked off campus as soon as he found out I was in a fraternity, so he was kind of a douche.
It’s often frustrating being Greek in writing classes, whether they be screenwriting, playwriting, creative writing, or whatever. In my experiences, they were not often Greek friendly environments, whether or not you flaunted it (which I didn’t). Plus, a lot of people around you suck so, so hard. That’s unfortunate, because they’re fun classes. My advice, should you find yourself in a similar position, is to say “fuck it” and do whatever the hell you want. Like I said, it’s pretty hard not to get an A in those classes, so have fun with them. Oh, and bring a stress ball for when the assholes start talking, or maybe bring a thermos full of G&Ts. I don’t know, but you’re going to need something.