When Social Presence Failed in an Online Creative Writing Class

How I Got My Soul Crushed

I Was a Desperate Young Writer

Once upon a time, I took online creative writing courses. These were expensive, non-accredited courses with well-published authors. Most of them were great classes — the instructors cared, and most of my classmates were enthusiastic. This was back in the days when Facebook was relatively new, MySpace was still a thing, and GeoCities had not yet been taken down. We had no video lectures, and the only photos we saw were from the instructor bios on the marketing page.

Hence, our only interactions were through our assignments and typed messages. The discussion boards and feedback threads because the site of social connection, and I actually made a few friends this way. We were all creative writers — getting us to pour words across the screen wasn't hard.

Until this one course. It was a particularly expensive course — $500 for the "advanced" novel writing course. This was meant to help us through the long, arduous process of starting a novel. Eight weeks of fairly intensive writing and review, plus suggested reading and online discussions. I was a bit hesitant about the cost, but it sounded like exactly the kind of course I needed. And maybe it could have been.

The first day the course opened, I was excited. Maybe even thrilled. I went in early (something I almost never do) and posted the first reply to the instructor's welcome. I wanted to get to know everyone, find out what kind of writing my classmates did, hopefully find that enigmatic thing called a "writing group." So I tossed in what I thought would be an innocent conversation starter. "So what do you guys do for inspiration?" I asked.

Now, inspiration is a surprisingly touchy thing in creative writing. I was young — I didn't fully realize it then. But I had recently taken an incredible one-week Amherst Method writing residency with Pat Schneider. In that workshop, Pat led us through writing prompts, word association activities, and supportive feedback to provide an incredible sense of openness and motivation. In a word, it was inspirational. So when I asked my online course classmates about "inspiration," I figured I would get answers like "I search books for quotes" like Ray Bradbury, or "I write in coffee shops while my child sleeps in a pram" like J.K. Rowling. You know — I wanted to know how other impoverished authors keep themselves going.

Unfortunately, I never did learn what my classmates do for inspiration. The first response came from a classmate who felt far more secure than I did. "You should never wait for inspiration," he said. "You need to writing all the time."

I felt stung. Of course I know you should be writing all the time, I wanted to say. But it was too late — I felt as if I'd just been called a fraud, as if I was some dilettante simply waiting on "inspiration" before setting a word on the page.

Worse, the instructor agreed with my classmate. "I couldn't have said it better," she said. "Absolutely: to write a novel, you cannot wait for inspiration."

If before I felt stung, now I was crushed. My heart constricted. I wasn't exactly a confident writer — in many ways, I'm still too sensitive to critique. But to have a classmate and a published author call my entire sense of writing "wrong" and "misguided" was painful. They meant well, and they were polite, and they were worried that I was "waiting" on inspiration, but in reality I was building habits that foster inspiration. I'd been doing this for years — even before the residency with Pat Schneider, I read Writers on Writing, a series of articles from The New York Times where well-known authors explained their thoughts on writing. Then there was Stephen King's On Writing, his recollections of facing life and the challenge of getting words on the page. Plus the 18 credit hours of creative writing courses I took as an undergrad, and the nearly $2,000 I had already spent on outside writing courses and residencies. Yes — as a young writer, I was putting a lot of time, thought, and effort into this "finding inspiration" thing. Not to mention the dozens of hours a week I spent sitting at my keyboard putting words on the screen. And the 20-40 hours a week as a part-time banquet server and bartender.

So, yes, I took it to heart when this online class said I was "doign it all wrong." I pulled back from the discussion, not posting anything more until I got a sense of what my other classmates might say. I don't remember what they all said, but no one contradicted the instructor. No one mentioned their techniques for "finding inspiration" or other tricks they used to keep themselves creative.

Overall, that course didn't go well. But it's worth noting what I would have done differently, as an instructor. First, never dismiss something one student says because you agree with a different student. Instead, point out why different people believe different things. Ask for more information — get a better sense of what your student is saying. "What do you mean by 'finding inspiration," the instructor could have said. Or "We have to find a balance between waiting for inspiration and getting in enough writing time." Had the instructor asked for more details, she might have learned that I was already writing many, many hours of science fiction per week. And that I was struggling to pay rent as a part-time banquet server. But those conversations never happened — and I wasn't about to explain my part-time gig with that classmate who made me feel like a loser because I was "waiting for inspiration" rather than taking writing "seriously." I already felt like a loser — I didn't risk someone agreeing with my own assessment of myself.

So, yeah...not my favorite class. On the plus side, that bad experience (plus a few others) led me to believe that I could be a better teacher than that. In some ways, I was right, but in many ways I was wrong. Teaching is far, far harder than I would have guessed before I started grad school. But I have learned this much: as long as you listen to your students and respect their views, you can find ways to help them become better writers.

The distraction, the hours, and the pain of bleeding on the page. So, yes, I do believe it helps to make your own inspiration. Because what else will keep your fingers moving? Hunger alone is not enough.