Creative Writing 101

I stumbled into the writing game when a  freshman-English prof said I was good at it.

What did I know.

The prof told me that I didn’t belong in his class. Kicked me up to Creative Writing 201, upper-division night class.


Older students lounging around seminar tables. Beards. Sandals. Some chowing down on take-out. Prof strides into the room. Glares. Looks like Mephistopheles himself. I’m terrified. Prof says, “Too many here for a productive seminar. By our third session, guaranteed, half of you will be gone.”

And he was right. First assignment, “Due on this desk before I step into the room.” Second week, gut-wrenching feedback. Third week, nearly every other chair around the seminar tables—empty.

I survived. Later, a fellow survivor asked the prof, “Why were you so brutal?”

“The writing game is brutal,” he said, “Better to wash out now than waste years with little to show but rejection letters.”

Here’s the assignment that landed like a grenade into that long-ago seminar room:

Go to a location where interesting things are going on—a construction site, court  room, slaughter house.

  1. Simply sit and observe without thought or judgement for a half-hour or more.

2.   Now, write three double-spaced typed pages. Simple sentences only. Single syllable words. Active verbs. No adjectives or adverbs other than colors and numbers.

3.   First page, you’re filming the action with a movie camera. Only write what can be seen on film.

4.   Second page, you’re a participant in the action. Write what you see, feel, and think.

5.   Third page—you’re God looking down on mere mortals going about their business. You know what they see, feel, think, and their innermost fears, doubts, affections, and antipathies toward one another.

This assignment taught me eighty percent of what I know about creative writing.

Try it. Don’t cheat.