I took my first (and only) Creative Writing class when I was 18. It was with a sensitive and gentle poet whose name I have forgotten. She always wore colorful headbands and looked slightly pained by our fumbling attempts to critique each other’s work. I want to say her name was Sharon Olds, but she wasn’t that Sharon Olds, and so maybe she just had the bad luck of being a lesser-known poet with the same name as a well-known poet. Or, more likely, I’ve got her name wrong.
I’m not sure what I expected from the class. I vaguely imagined I might major in Creative Writing, because it seemed so remarkable that I could do such a thing. But although I thought of myself as a writer, I hadn’t written much of anything at that point, and I was intimidated by how much more self-assured and productive some of the other students seemed.
I wrote a story and a very talented, prickly guy whose name might have been Travis (but I think it was something else starting with a T) told me that my story sounded like a bad rip-off of Kurt Vonnegut. Travis (although now that I’m thinking about it, his name was definitely not Travis) was a big Kurt Vonnegut fan, and I was a fan of Not-Travis’s stories, so I think that my story was more likely a rip-off of Not-Travis, because I had not and still have not read anything by Kurt Vonnegut.
I don’t want to make Not-Travis sound like a bad guy. He was smart, and he was eighteen, and he was kind of mouthy and tortured in an eighteen-year-old way. I had a conversation with him on the bus once, in which he said that our university was basically like a factory producing unthinking automatons. I thought he was joking and laughed and he mumbled that he wasn’t kidding and I said awkwardly, “oh, it was just the way you said it that was funny,” and he gave me this look of total disbelief and the conversation kind of petered out after that. We became a bit friendlier later on, after he realized that his drama-class crush was my friend.
Inevitably, those first year “introductory” writing classes full of late-teen kids who haven’t written much yet are limited in what they can offer. I wish we’d done more reading – about writing, and also just reading some good stuff and talking about it from a craft point of view, instead of only reading each other’s crap. In any case, what I got out of the class, my eureka moment, was Not-Travis saying of my story, in a too-loud, slightly anxious way, “There’s nothing original about this voice; it’s like a bad Kurt Vonnegut rip-off,” while Not-Sharon-Olds made a dismayed O-mouth.
I didn’t know any Kurt Vonnegut to rip off, but he was right about the first part, and I knew it. I had never thought about or heard anybody talk about voice – the idea that you should have one that was unique to you. I thought about that a lot in the ensuing years. I thought about the distinctive voices of writers I loved – how quickly I would recognize them from a handful of lines. And I remember my delight and my relief when, several years later, I started to feel like I had found “my” voice. It was such a simple idea, such an obvious thing, but it had never occurred to me until I tried writing a story to impress a bunch of people I didn’t know well, inadvertently copying the one I hoped to impress most of all, who presumably was copying Kurt Vonnegut.
Mostly I found the class awkward, and I felt like I wasn’t part of the “in-group” (there was one, of course). There were other, more appealing options to make up a full course-load the following year and so I never did take another creative writing class – maybe a shame, as I’m sure they got better. There were other kids in that class who struck me as really talented and interesting. Lee Henderson, who always made me think of the character played by James Urbaniak in Henry Fool, went on to publish a wonderful collection of stories called The Broken Record Technique (and I just googled him – a novel too, and a bunch of other stuff) and I remember being very impressed by an actress / poet called Dawn and a poem she wrote about somebody shooting a raccoon on the rafters of a big old barn (his belly “stippled with blood” and, disgustingly, the narrator of the poem stuck her finger in the wounds – but now I wonder, was it a raccoon, or something else?) but I don’t remember her last name.
It was the wrong thing at the wrong time, for me, and most of what I’ve learned about writing, I learned much, much later. But I learned about voice from Not-Travis, and it was the right lesson at the right time, and I’m still grateful for it.