Polanzak emphasizes that it’s not about waiting for that blast of inspiration. You can sit around for months, or longer, holding out for that right moment or mood to lightning-bolt your brain into writing action. But muses are elusive, and twiddling your thumbs waiting for a visit means a lot of time spent not writing. A writer needs to get to a point, Polanzak explains, where they’re not waiting to be inspired, when instead, they’re showing up every day to do the work. “When you put in the time and you finish something and it’s actually successful to your mind, something that wasn’t all the result of a blast of inspiration, something where you can say ‘I worked on that, that was work and it succeeded,’ then you start to believe in that effort.”
That’s not to say that learning a little about the craft won’t help. On a technical level, on a craft and sentence level, there are definitely things that can be taught, Polanzak explains. He says he often fields the same sort of questions at the beginning of a semester: how do you create a character? How do you come up with a plot? With people who are just starting out, “there’s stuff they don’t realize they need to be aware of, like point of view, time frame, tense.” Can you learn this stuff without a class? Sure, Polanzak says. It’ll just take a lot longer.
And it’s more than logging hours pen-on-paper, fingertips-on-keyboard. Turns out that learning to read as a writer is as crucial a part of the process as understanding the fundaments of developing a character. Christina Thompson, editor of the Harvard Review, teaches an advanced narrative nonfiction class at Harvard Extension School. She echoes Grub Street’s Castellani about the impossibility of turning a patently bad writer into a good one. That said, “There’s a lot of practical stuff I can show people,” Thompson says. Chief among this is “teaching them how to read. That’s a big piece of it. It’s the idea of how to experience your own reading.” So instead of reading along for pleasure or entertainment, you’re noting how you respond. “‘Now I’m bored. Now I’m irritated. Now I’m confused,’” says Thompson. When you’re aware of what sort of things an author is doing that elicits reactions in you, you’re better able to avoid (or adopt) those things in your own writing. Joan Didion, Atul Gawande, and Vivian Gornick are a few of the writers on the syllabus.
Thompson’s narrative class focuses particularly on the personal essay, and, like Grub Street and BCAE, draws a cross-section of students. In the summer sessions, she says she often has students from around the world. “I’ve had practicing journalists from Nigeria, Taiwan, Canada,” she says. The winter-term night classes draw more local folks. And Thompson emphasizes the chemistry of her classes. “The students bond with each other in the most amazing ways. They’re so helpful to one another, so kind.”
Tackling writer’s block
Classes aren’t a prerequisite for a writing career, Thompson suggests. But publication is. Sitting in a workshop be it creative in nature or more journalistic will elevate your reading and your writing more quickly than slogging away on your own. Either way, it doesn’t happen fast. “It’s important for people to understand that it’s a slow process.” And, she adds, there ain’t much money in it.