Writing in 4D

I had a recent email conversation with Lizzie Simon, author of the book Detour. We talked about her experiences teaching writing; the next iteration of her online memoir-writing class starts on October 6 (there is still space available). Below is a transcript of the conversation.

Did anything in your undergraduate university experience prepare you to do the writing you’ve done after graduation, or to teach writing?

LizzieNot really, no. I went to Columbia University and majored in history. We did plenty of writing, but academic writing, which, obviously, is a different voice than memoir writing. I do remember, though, that in my junior year, I took to writing to my friends in the morning about whatever had happened the night before. Those letters were incredibly popular and I think, without knowing it, I was transitioning from journal writing, which I’d always done privately, to writing for an audience.

Teaching came about just after “Detour” was published in 2002, when I was invited by the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a writing workshop. I accepted, without having any clear plan. I didn’t think of myself as a “real” writer so it took me some time to gain confidence as a writing teacher. I asked a neighborhood friend and fellow author, Jonathan Ames, for help, and he gave me the nuts and bolts for that first workshop.

I wrote the first draft of “Detour” in about six weeks, while I was working a full time job, and it flew out of me as fast as I could type. At the time I didn’t understand how it was that I wrote, what mechanisms were at work, and it took me some time to tease out and translate what I knew about writing to the students I was teaching.

For your book you interviewed people about their own lives, which in many cases included events that were quite traumatic. Did anything in college train you to do this kind of field research, especially in how to connect with people in a way that makes them feel comfortable enough to share very personal information?

I’ve always been a person that people wanted to tell their stories to—my mom’s like that, too–I think we’re both naturally empathetic and genuinely interested in what make people tick. It’s an important skill for a writer, but not one I learned in college. There wasn’t any work that involved vulnerability—not my own, and not anyone with whom I did research.

In your online memoir writing class, do participants get the same practice and feedback that they’d get in a physical classroom? How do you give feedback, especially if the writing is not interesting?

There are some significant differences between my online class and the classes I’ve taught in a physical classroom. I think the biggest one is that I don’t believe that the kind of group dynamics that develop in a classroom help a writer. I think they make people self-conscious. I also don’t think that getting feedback from twelve or so other writers is helpful, for the same reason.

From my experience, feedback is its own art form. What most people who want to write personal material need is help with setting up a daily writing practice, guidance in how to get their voice to the page, and support during the very vulnerable-making process. From my experience, opinions and group dynamics are a distraction at best and at worst can stunt growth.

Are the people who enroll in your class different – whether in terms of motivation, personal circumstances, demands on time, etc. – than students who typically enroll in a creative writing seminar at a university?

My students are incredibly diverse, in age, in background, and in their reasons for taking the class. I’ve taught lots of stay at home moms as well as journalists and editors, some retirees, a few celebrities. I enjoy helping people who are trying to get a book deal as much as I do those who are just putting time aside in their lives to get their stories to the page.

Let’s take a hypothetical undergraduate student at a university where the tuition is $40,000 per year. We’ll assume that the university’s discount rate is 50 percent, so the student actually pays only $20,000 per year and is taking five courses a semester. That means the student pays $2,000 per course per year. Your course is only $325. I assume you usually get a group of individuals who are serious about learning how to become better writers. In contrast, we often see students who are emotionally and intellectually uninvested in their studies, despite paying much more money. Why is that?

I don’t really have the depth of expertise to answer that very important question! But I think a lot of young people aren’t focused enough to take advantage of the opportunity to learn and grow in college. In some ways, education is wasted on the young.