Writing Class: What I Learned From Michelle Richmond

Recently I took an eight-week online master writing class with Michelle Richmond. You know her. Author of The Year In Fog. And other wonderful works.

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I am a HUGE proponent of taking classes. I’ve been known to take music classes (piano, violin), art classes (both in college and after), and plenty of writing classes online. For God’s sake, I’ve been in the same wire wrapping class for the last five-plus years, and I’m not ever giving that one up.

It’s not that I’m stupid or dense. It’s not that I’m a stalker (although I felt that way at first with Michelle, because I have to be one of her hugest fans. I have almost all her books including the reference material and writing workbooks).

Life is a constant state of learning. Learning keeps your grey matter hopping. I can almost feel the electrons coursing through my brain when I’m in any class. I want to learn. I need to learn. And I’m not so full of myself that I think I can’t learn something new. The nice thing about being my age (finally! a plus!) is that you appreciate education and you’re in the class for your own benefit, not to score a grade. If you join a class, you are reaching out, for guidance, for knowledge. As I told my kids when they were attending college and experiencing difficulty, the instructor is there for YOU. YOU extract whatever information he/she has, whether he/she wants to give it to you or not.

Classroom situations are nice. You get to compare and contrast. You’re allowed to try and fail, and learn from your mistakes (or as they say in the jewelry world – design change). But if you’re a working adult, it’s hard to carve out time for a class for which you must physically be present. Online classes might not be the answer either. It’s tougher with online classes because you rarely see what the others are doing. At least with the master class, we had a once-weekly video meeting. It was so helpful to interact with the other students, to have Michelle offer her words of wisdom in real time, and to read other writers’ work.

To be a good student, you have to be able to listen to criticism, weigh it, and to make adjustments. This is especially true of anything having to do with the creative. I remember taking my first drawing class at the University of Minnesota. I’d always been so-so at drawing and painting, and hadn’t yet declared a major. Drawing was a class to fill my schedule.

My professor liked my work. He would stand behind my easel, his hand on his chin, and after a few minutes, offer a comment like “Try this.” or “Consider this.” Having only taken art classes in high school where it was a free-for-all, I was unused to constructive criticism. I learned then what a good thing it was to get input on your work from different eyes. I had always believed I was meh– not good enough. This professor actually convinced me to major in studio arts.

Now…for Michelle Richmond…

The first thing I learned? Read your email. Then reread your email. I missed the first video class because I somehow thought the meeting time was later than it was. (East Coast/West Coast mistake. Happens all the time, as my son lives in San Francisco. I love when he calls or texts me at 3 in the morning Eastern, just as I’m sure he loves it when I call or text him at 7 a.m. Eastern.)

The second thing I learned: A series of scenes does not a novel make. I’ve been working on various incarnations of this story for the last couple of years. I have a handwritten book full of scenes. I know what is going to happen – sort of. I really needed to figure out a beginning, middle, and end. Since I had three characters, I had to decide which was the protagonist. (I’d started out writing all three as the protagonist.) Through the weekly exercises, I learned who was the strongest and who was expendable.

I also learned there will be one common thread that draws the three characters together. Now I just have to weave the story line. I call this the “Story by Quilt” phase. Pick one thread and move it slightly to the next patch.

The third thing I learned: Don’t be afraid to do something out of the ordinary. Our last assignment was to write the final chapter. I hadn’t even thought of the final chapter, much less what I was going to do with it. What I learned in skipping over to the end was that 1. it was enormously fun to write, and 2. I’m going to rethink my original rather foggy plans for the end.

I also learned (also from a workshop at the San Francisco Writers Conference) that it’s preferable to have a title that depicts what may happen in the story. I’m not bad at writing a story, but I stumble at headlines and titles. (Remember, it took almost the two years I wrote Finding Cadence to finalize the title.) My new working title will be Bridging the Intersection of Truth and Casualty. Subject to change at any time, of course.

I needed those eight weeks with Michelle. I needed the kick in the pants, because my writer’s block was becoming a nuisance. I needed the camaraderie of other writers, to get out of my little cave. I needed to hear encouraging words from strangers regarding what I was doing.

Classes are learning experiences. They can also save your life.

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