Class writing exercises: Are they good or bad?

After my last post you might think that I don’t agree with writing classes where the teacher comes in with an object such as a photograph, or a handbag and contents, and tells the students to write about the person in the photo or the owner of the handbag.

I don’t think they are bad. They seldom produce outstanding writing but I do not believe that producing a literary masterpiece is the object of such an excercise.

The aim is to make you write.

When you write you can’t sit around waiting for inspiration. Inspiration seldom comes while you wait for it, and your writing muscles atrophy from lack of use.

As a beginning writer you know that you want to write, but don’t know where to start, or even how, so you join a writing class. There in the class you come across other people who don’t appear to have the same problems as you. They can all write. They scribble constantly, even when the teacher is talking. You feel intimidated. Your confidence plummets.

The teacher puts a photograph onto the front desk and says, “I want you to write about the man in this photograph. 3,000 words. Bring it in next week.”

Nothing concentrates the mind so wonderfully as a deadline.

You sit around for six days and stress. You can’t think of anything to write. The deadline looms. It must be in tomorrow. Finally, the evening before the next class, you write. Anything, it doesn’t matter, just to get it done.

It gets easier.

By the end of the term you have learned the habit of writing to order. Good training for when you start your novel, if you haven’t already done so by now.

The other thing this type of writing does is encourage you to explore different ideas. The what ifs, the maybes.

I’m not really interested in this woman and her handbag, for instance, but that lipstick holder reminds me of the one my grandmother used to have.

I remember holidays at Gran’s. Her home creaked with the wind. We used to think it was haunted, and were terrified when Mum made us stay with her for two weeks when she had to go into hospital.

The story you turn out in this case is the story of the ghost, only peripherally connected to the handbag by a contrived ending involving the owner of the house finding the lipstick holder. It’s the best story you turn out all year.

You have finally learned to use your imagination to control what you write, rather than someone else’s.

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