I was a Creative Writing minor in college. Thankfully, my parents are the breed of supportive that allowed me to spend thousands of dollars on credit hours essentially devoted to people-watching and cramming as many metaphors that would fit into a single Word document.
In every class I took, whether it be Introduction to Fiction Writing, Food Writing, or Personal Memoir, the same thought would fester in my brain: Meta as it may seem, one day I need to write about this. This collection of contrived twenty-somethings and their musings on Emily Dickinson. This unique breed of college curriculum that convenes Tuesdays and Thursdays in the otherwise abandoned basement of the English building, always in that hour of late afternoon that sends beams of uncomfortable sunlight through the window for at least half of class. Classes my friends lightly made fun of, as they spent their days elsewhere on campus, unpacking the psychosomatic impacts of poverty or correctly identifying the microscopic parts of a plant cell.
Creative writing classes, in a nutshell, are some oatmeal-sweater clad, kind-faced woman in front of a chalkboard trying to teach how not to rely on cliches like "in a nutshell." They are desks intentionally arranged in a half-moon, so that every member of the group might be able to make eye contact with each person present.
Creative writing classes are poorly photocopied excerpts from Ralph Waldo Emerson, or sometimes if you're lucky something with some bite or levity. My favorite readings were always David Sedaris or Nora Ephron, though inevitably the classes in which we were assigned Ephron readings were always followed by classes in which my male classmates took great pride in dismissing the work for its "lack of substance." When I was nineteen I felt immense guilt for having enjoyed the "whipped cream" of the curriculum the best, but in years since, I look to my favorite essays with nothing but affection and knowledge that that criticism was rooted in misogyny.
Creative writing class, in my experience, was a collection of students plucked directly from Urban Outfitters ads or the crowd at a Nirvana concert. I always found it so hilariously cliche when I would walk by the library and saw a good two-thirds of the Creative Writing student base smoking cigarettes in the same tiny courtyard. I don't mean to make fun or try to seem holier-than-thou, but when they would shuffle into class in Doc Martens, smelling of stale nicotine and a need for approval, I couldn't help but make a mental note to jot it down later. Notably, this one guy in my Intro to Poetry class who, no lie, exclusively wore black turtleneck sweaters and Lennon-esque circular eyeglasses. It should come as no surprise to know he also had ragged blonde hair past his shoulders, that he would quizzically brush behind his ears as he would lean in and muse what exactly gave the author credibility to discuss mortality. Meanwhile the girl seated by the door with a sleeve of shoddily-done tattoos and a septum piercing would meaningfully nod and offer a "piggyback" comment.
I went to a university that, full disclosure, has an alarming lack of diversity. Most students I encountered were, to quote my mother, "very All-American looking," which is to say cut from the same cloth, later to be adorned with Greek letters. Every day when I went to pick up my coffee, the Starbucks barista would announce he had "an iced latte for Lauren," and anywhere from three to five blondes would approach the counter to intercept the order. There were very few unnatural hair colors or intentionally ripped band T-shirts on campus, so when all the self-prescribed misfits came to congregate in the same classroom, I guess it makes sense that a creative writing course would be the great unifier. For reasons mentioned above, it just felt like a brief visit to a parallel universe. After the professor dismissed the group from each session, the blue hair and unseasonable turtlenecks would disappear into a sea of American Eagle, only to come ashore again the next Tuesday.
I never thought of myself as better than anyone else in those classes; I'm simply reflecting on how silly it was for me to feel intimidated by my peers. I always did the assigned reading and turned in my essays on time, but I still felt like I belonged less than the other kids in my classes. I didn't read Edgar Allen Poe in my spare time and I liked Top 40 music, so I was convinced I was stupider or was less worthy of sharing my opinion. Most of my classmates took their notes in tiny leather-bound Moleskines, while I jotted down mine in a spiral notebook with Taylor Swift on the cover. For this reason, I'm sure my classmates were judging me just as I was judging them, coming to the conclusion that I was basic or vapid. It was only when we workshopped one another's drafts that I felt I deserved a seat at the table.
Because that's another thing about creative writing classes: With enrollment comes the unique opportunity of emotional bleeding in front of your peers, for a grade no less. Creative writing classes are best summarized by spending $9.75 at the library printing fifteen copies of your most recent essay to later distribute and receive back once they've been assaulted in pen by bright red question marks. In job interviews, I tend to reference creative writing workshops as an example of a time I've responded well to criticism. No one other than a practicing writer can describe to you the unique torture of sitting in silence for an hour while fifteen peers have a spirited debate about their merit on the page. Creative writing classes are truly, at their essence, paying to have fellow white children ask you to go into more detail about your most private trauma. An example that best comes to mind--and this is true--is that time this guy named Jack (clad, of course, in cuffed jeans, a button-up, and sueded boots) said to me in front of the entire class while I was rendered silent, "I mean, this is...a good start...but I was really interested in the part where your dad called you a bitch, and in revisions I think it'd be cool if you could unpack that further."
All that said, I wouldn't trade my formal creative writing education for anything. I got to read widely, better control my use of semicolons, and confidently take up space on a page. I was given this weird measured voyeurism into lives that have since drifted from my realm of awareness. I sat in office hours and asked my professors how I could best channel my feelings in poems, while my friends only got an hour a week to go over test corrections with their professors who dealt in concrete rights and wrongs. I started excavating themes I hope to one day get into an actual book. I was once, to borrow a phrase jotted on top of a portfolio by my Nonfiction 101 professor, "Best in class!"
I did a lot of judging, and frankly I didn't make any friends, but I got the degree and I got the experience to observe and turn it into something tangible later on. After all, writing is just committing the absurd to memory and reciting it later to a keyboard.