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January, 2008

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Class Action
There's comfort in numbers
By  Jennifer Edelson

riting classes are a little scary. We’re all creative enough to come up with any number of excellent reasons, and even more imaginative excuses, for avoiding them.

People will write better than we do. We might actually have to put a face to our work, and sometimes, even get up in front of everyone and read our work with feeling. We might have to be nice and not say "ohmigod-no-way," when someone who obviously doesn’t get our character’s deep-seated existential angst, complains that he, she or it is too whiny.

My own excuse has always been this; outside of teaching, when you get right down to it, I am just your basic anti-class type of person (not that I don’t have class, but well, you know what I mean).

Still, of all the lessons I’ve learned over the years, life taught me long ago that when I hide in my black hole of a closet, this gravitational abyss of mite dust and clothes and shoes just swallows me. Last time a square-toed pair of stiletto heels knocked me so far out I woke up still reeling. And as you might imagine, the experience really forced me to be more proactive in dealing with my writing anxieties.

Actions speak louder than words, and since the divide between “saying” and “doing,” when it came to my novel, kept growing, I swallowed my pride and did it. I signed up for a writing class, of all the stupid things. And I tell you, in the beginning, the dive wasn’t so easy.

You know that feeling? When a pain in your wrist or rib convinces your rational self that it’s dying of some rare tropical disease. Then you drag yourself to the doctor and wait in a jaundiced room with ragged magazines and matte "don’t do it" pamphlets for 10 bazillion hours before the nurse comes back with results confirming that yes, indeed, you do get to spend 50 more years worrying about the same thing (or in other words, nothing).

Well, you might say, that’s exactly how I felt before each class. Just before my classmates read or commented on my writing.

Though my brain supposedly made a “lets co-exist peaceably” pact with my ego years ago, during class, it went and copped an, "I don’t really care ‘cause I don’t need to be here" attitude on me. You know, just in case it turned out my writing sucked badly.

I quickly realized that my true intention in signing up for the class was really just to feel out my talent for writing. It’s not that I care much about whether my novel is a best seller in the making – I secretly just wanted to know if I could write well enough to make up for the terrible mess I am currently, possibly, making.

See, while normal people assume that when you enroll in class with a semi-finished product it’s a no-brainer – I’m still hung up on the semantics of writing.

A mind is like an assembly line. It passes thought through a line of convoluted singuli and grey matter and spits out a product. And once it’s gone through the process, stuffing an idea back inside and refashioning it into something sparkly isn’t always a cinch.

After your thousandth edit, it’s like going back to basics. Knowing you can write at all suddenly becomes a big deal. So, while my classmates wanted thematic feedback about their books-in-progress, I really only wanted affirmation that overall, I’m not totally embarrassing.

And when my classmates didn’t run from the room, their mouths open wide in a tight “O” like some Body Snatcher, I finally started to believe I might be on to something (they weren’t so crazy about my book, but they did like my writing).

So, last week, when our instructor asked us to go around the room and tell her what we had learned about ourselves as writers, it came to me. Though I know a lot about myself as a self-described “writer” – I am still hung up on this idea that I don’t know anything about writing. I told her I learned maybe my writing doesn’t suck, which means a lot in the grand scheme of things.

Then you know what, everyone laughed and shook their heads and confessed that they worried about the same thing. And just like that, despite all my ill-conceived stereotypes about writing classes, I realized I learned something else really important. The chance to meet other writers who write damn well and still suffer from the same neurosis’ and insecurities and idiosyncrasies sort of freed me.

It’s like I bought rose-colored writing glasses – I now see that writing classes can be a good idea. Next week I start a new class: writing for elitist babies.

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Jennifer Edelson is a Minnesota attorney and legal writing professor. Her writing has appeared on all the finest refrigerators in the Twin Cities. Jennifer can be emailed at:

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