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Even If It Hurts: The Cold Harsh World of Creative Writing

 At one of the many meals shared during Lions in Winter, Edward Kelsey Moore, an accomplished cellist, spoke about some of the differences between the music and writing worlds. Moore felt that writers tended to not take criticism very well. He recalled attending a weeklong writing workshop and hearing his fellow students call one of the professors “mean.” He had no idea what they meant. Compared to his music teachers, the professor had been like Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society.

One of Moore’s music professors regularly berated students in public. If a student did not perform to the professor’s expectations during a private session, the student had to give a public performance in front of the department several days later. The professor would stand in a corner, chain smoke, and look generally unimpressed.

Not one to believe the first thing I hear, I called Michael Towey, my younger brother and a percussionist at Central Washington University, and asked him about his worst experience with a professor.

As a young, impressionable, eighteen-year old fresh-person, Michael met with his Music Theory professor so she could do some quick evaluations before the class began. After the meeting, she told Mikey that she was shocked he had made it as far as he had, that he had absolutely no ear, and that his chances of succeeding in the music program were basically nonexistent.

And that was before the class even started. I asked Mikey if he had seen Whiplash. He had not because he was worried it would hit too close to home.

Michael will graduate with a B.A. Percussion Performance this spring, and he’s applied to several graduate programs, and he’s awesome.

Compared to the music world, Creative Writing workshops are like semester-long Caribbean cruises. Very few mean things are said. And when they are said, they are couched within layers of compliment-frosting. I’ve never heard a professor tell a student that she should give up on writing altogether. It’s usually along the lines of “I love the castle-setting, but maybe this story doesn’t need three pages of direct dialogue?” or “the conflict between the mother and daughter is really interesting, but I’m not sure I buy that the daughter would literally eat the mother’s heart while it’s still beating.”

Creative Writing workshops are really, really nice. And safe and cuddly. They’re the teddy bears of academic classrooms.

I’m not saying that Creative Writing teachers should be as mean as some of their musical counterparts. For one, musicians learn technical skills easily appraised by experts. Writers tell stories, which are more difficult to evaluate. To make it even more complicated, young writers tend to tell very personal stories. It’s easy to tune a violin. It’s a lot harder to tell someone that her main character, which is based on her childhood best friend who died of cancer, is totally unbelievable. One is a judgment on how much the person has practiced. The other sounds like a judgment on the person as a human being.

However, once I started sending my own work out to magazines, I realized how different the publishing-writing world is to the Creative Writing classroom. The actual writer-world is extremely competitive and almost entirely lacking in compliment-frosting. For publication, the stories can’t be pretty good, or the best story in a room full of twenty year-old writers. They have to be near-perfect.

We need to bridge the chasm between the environments of the Creative Writing classroom and the actual writing world, even if it hurts. Especially if it hurts.