For my birthday last year Pink got me a writing class in creative non-fiction. I never ask for a specific present, but this time I had given him a subtle hint: a link to the enrolment page. The true present, of course, was that on six Thursday nights Pink put Pixie to bed by himself, while I had a blast writing, reading, and listening to stories. We found a sweet routine around the class: Pixie’s nanny brought him to the university at five in the afternoon, we had takeaway pad Thai and curry for dinner in the tea room, Pixie made sure anyone working late was well entertained. Then Pink took him home on his bike — “Daddy bite seat” — while I got ready for class.
On a typical night about seven of us students sat at small tables arranged in a long U-shape in the classroom. We ranged in ages from 19 to 62, and came from careers of all kinds: business writing, IT, modelling, maths. Our teacher Mark — a poet, nature writer, and author of writing books — looked the part beautifully, down to the well-worn leather bag which was never big enough for all the books he thus carried in his arms.
Even more striking than his looks was his superpower of real-time editing. Each week we were given a few prompts: phrases like ‘the real world goes like this’, or ‘we conceive’. For the following class, we wrote short pieces inspired by one of the prompts, and took turns reading them out loud. Mark listened as we spoke, scribbling hurried notes. He could smell cliche from a mile away. Feedback sounded like this:
“Oh, isn’t that lovely! Your first sentence is great. The word ‘tree’ is too vague, research and specify what kind of tree. The phrase ‘uncomfortable plastic chair’ doesn’t need the ‘uncomfortable’. Nobody reads ‘plastic chair’ and thinks ‘aah, that comfortable plastic chair’. ‘Sacrifice on the altar of’ is an old cliche, cut it.”
I haven’t learned so much in a class since the first time I took topology eighteen years ago. Some of the stories I wrote went beyond limits I’d assumed I had. I spent much more time on much shorter pieces than I had before, and as an unexpected side effect I now struggle with blogger’s block: I know I can write better than what I’ve been posting here, but I don’t have the time to turn out that quality of work at the rate I used to blog. Which was not a fast rate in the first place.
So I have decided that I’m still allowed to post sloppy writing here – sorry everyone. This is how it has to be if I am ever to post again. Hopefully I can still improve the overall quality by applying some easy fixes, but I will save my perfectionism for a bigger project or two.
In case you’re curious, here is a short summary of what I learned in class:
- To read my writing out loud. This was the first piece of advice given in the writing book. I’m not sure I’d have followed it, except that we had to read our stories out loud in class, and I wanted to practice for that. To my surprise, I kept tripping up over the same two sentences of my first story: they both looked fine on paper, but their rhythm was awkward.
- To focus on sentences and rhythm. I had previously thought of words as the building blocks of writing, and paragraphs as the units of logical structure. So I was surprised when in class we focused intensely on sentences. This shift changed how I edit my writing – for the better, I think. I learned to pay attention to the rhythm of each sentence, which is a lot of effort, but it does pay off. At the beginning of the first class Mark wrote on the board “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”. When I struggle with a sentence, I try to make it more like that.
- To use mostly short, old words. Because of what I was taught in kindergarten, I’d been paranoid of repeating words. I often used longer or more complicated words just to sound more literary. That’s apparently the opposite of what makes writing sound good: mostly short, old words that make English flow. A big vocabulary, and finding the word that fits perfectly is necessary and good, but substituting a fancy word for the right word is silly. The rule of thumb we learned is that any word longer than three syllables must justify its existence. And repetition is fine as long as it’s intentional, not sloppy.
- To ground my writing in place. This doesn’t come to me naturally: I am usually oblivious to the place that surrounds me, living mostly in my head, getting on the wrong train as I’m contemplating love, cake or maths. But when I force myself to write the place where a story happens, the story sounds more real. And… writing this down has just made me go back and put in that sentence about seven of us sitting in a U-shape around the classroom.
- To edit ruthlessly. Most pieces I wrote for class lost about a quarter of their length as I cut out the useless adjectives, rambling sentences that sidetracked the story, and phrases that didn’t quite work. I learned that writing tight, just like dancing tight, baking tight, or doing tight mathematics, takes a lot of time.
And finally, here is a story I wrote for class in response to the prompt “this is a story”. The previous week I had written something that felt like pulling barbed wire up my throat, so this time I was in the mood for something light and not serious.
This is a story
This is a story about learning to move. I was a limp baby: I lay propped up on pillows for the first sixteen months of my life. I talked before I crawled. My parents, holding their breath, took on the tedious job of helping me.
On our way to school each day, my father treated me to thorough explanations of the mechanics of efficient walking. “If you want to walk faster, you have to increase either the length or the frequency of your steps,” he would say.
We used an overpass to cross the airport road that separated our house from my school. I glanced at my father’s watch as we approached this crossing, and if it was later than 7:17, I braced myself for the fate of Winnie the Pooh as we ran down the steps: “Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin.”
On winter afternoons we skated in City Park. Had Degas spent time in Budapest, he would have painted this rink: on one side, a small castle stands, on the other, a long white building, beautiful enough to be a church, houses the change rooms. Further down a footbridge crosses over the ice, where walkers watch the figure skaters twirling in the centre. A small stand near the bridge sells hot cocoa, making the ice smell sweet and warm. It would have been perfect, if only skating weren’t terrifying.
I watched my brother, two years younger, bouncing about like a billiard ball. Running on the serrated tips of his skates, skidding, bumping, tripping, falling, getting up again as if it were nothing. Me, holding on to my grandfather’s hand, feet sliding in all directions, gravity too heavy. My grandfather nurturing my independence, holding the back of my coat instead. Falling. Failing.
My mother enrolled me in Kindy Gym. The program, like any educational venture in 1980s Hungary, was run military style. I don’t remember this—my brain must have blocked out the trauma—but my mother tells me I cried so desperately at the door, she let me stop going after a few weeks.
We saw a friend’s dance recital, and, suddenly hopeful, my mother suggested that I try ballet. She was on to something: it only took three years to convince me. The class was humiliating, but this humiliation was dressed in a tutu and set to sweet music—to which I imagined I was moving gracefully.
Two years in, our stern teacher, a wisp of an old lady, noticed that I was doing an exercise right. She called me from my usual spot in the back left corner to the front row, to stand next to the star student. Her name was “Katica”, a diminutive of Katherine, but it also meant “ladybug”: I thought it fit her perfectly. I stood up tall beside her that day, and danced the sequence, correctly, for the second time.