Empty Pages – The Ill Fated College Course (Episode 3)

Empty Pages – The Ill Fated College Course (Episode 3)

Empty Pages
Image ©2021 by Ian MacTire, all rights reserved.

This podcast follows my journey from first draft to published novel and beyond. This episode talks about the creative writing course I took in college that ended up derailing me as a writer for years. Come with me as I tell the tale and what I eventually learned from it years later.


If you’re a return listener, welcome back, if this is your first time, welcome! I hope you find the information in these episodes to be useful. Also, if you are enjoying these, please leave a review and share with others.
This is Episode 3, where I will be talking about what happened in the  writing class I took in college. If you listened to the last episode, you will know that I made mention of a short story writing class I took in college that ended up derailing my writing for several years.

One of the questions that gets asked by a lot of people is whether they should take a writing class, or get a degree in writing. The answer generally seems to be that it’s up to you to decide. These days, there are plenty of articles, YouTube videos, and podcast episodes that will tell you the pros and cons of taking classes. If you’re wanting to know if taking one or more classes are for you, feel free to search these things out. In a nutshell, it’s up to you, but it’s not required to be  a writer, and when taking classes, take from them the useful information and discard the rest.  One piece of advice I can definitely give? Don’t let any teachers discourage you from writing,  regardless of whether you are doing it for fun or with an eye towards eventually seeing your stories published.

With that, lets jump into our time travelling DeLorean, or our TARDIS, or head to the nearest Circle K and get in the time travelling phone booth, and let’s go back to a time when Google , YouTube, and podcasts had yet to be invented. 

It was 1990-something and I had been out of the military for a few years. I decided that I was finally ready to go back to school, so I enrolled and began to get my learning on. At the time, you would have major sheets that would tell you how many credits in each discipline you would need, and which classes would count towards those, in order to graduate. To be clear, I never went with the intention of getting a degree in anything writing related, but I would find out that a short story class would count for one of my electives.

“Great!” I thought. “This will help me get my writing ability back!”

If you listened to the last episode, you’ll have heard me talk about how I felt as though I had lost my ability to write after being in the military. This class would be my ticket back, especially since it was being taught by a published author. I’ll admit right now that upon finding this out, I immediately set out to find her works so that I could familiarize myself with them, not so much as a way to get in good with the teacher as it was to see what she was writing and what I could expect. I found absolutely nothing. I don’t know if this was because her published work was some short story in some student newspaper or because I was just simply unable to locate it.  For all I know, it was some kind of travel guide. Her husband, who also taught at the college, was a published author whose claim to fame was a travelogue about great places to hike or camp or something in California. Certainly nothing  related to writing fiction. Back then, we had brick and mortar stores, and I don’t remember if Amazon was founded yet, but if it was, it had not yet become what it eventually would be. All I can say is that no bookstore could locate any author with the name of my teacher and self publishing was not a thing the way it is today.

So I showed up for class the first day, eager and willing to have a lost talent restored to me. The class was basically her talking about writing stories, and us students writing stories that we would share with the class. The class was made up of about seven of us, five women and two men (myself included). The other guy was younger than I was by a couple of years, and he was fresh out of the military. These details are important, so remember them for later.

That first week, we would listen to the lecture, then we would get time to work on our stories. We were given guidelines, and I was planning on writing a vampire story, but alas, one of the guidelines was no horror. Among the other guidelines was that it was to be a character piece, with the story being written from the point of view of that character, and it had to be outside of our own personal experiences. So basically, we couldn’t talk about being a high schooler, or for me and that other guy, someone in the military.  The goal was to learn to write to capture people’s imagination and make them believe  what they were reading while not necessarily being an expert in the subject.
I eventually chose  to write a story about a boxer’s last fight. The story took place in the locker room, right before the fight. He was past his prime, and he had one last shot. I described the nervousness he was feeling, the pressure to perform and make it as a champion at least once, and I used the word “fuck” one time, and that was the only swear word. It’s very important that you know about this one swear word, which will become clear momentarily.  Why did I choose this? Well, it was the furthest thing from anything I knew, and no one was going to mistake me for a down on his luck boxer hoping for one last win.

Eventually, it came time to share with the class. The five girls all came up with stories that were basically them in high school (they all set their stories in high school for some reason, despite being told not to), and the teacher praised them and told them what good writers they were. Not one of their stories was any good. It was almost painful to listen to as it was basically high school girl gossip, the kind of stuff you might read in a high school girl’s diary, complete with the valley speak that had become popular at the time. As each of their stories was read, I became even more proud of what I had written. It wasn’t because those stories were terrible, although they most certainly were, it was that in comparison, mine wasn’t really all that bad.  Maybe I hadn’t lost my talent after all!

When my turn came to read my story, I read it with pride. I also tried to put some effort at using my voice to convey the pressure and  the world weariness that this boxer felt. When I ended it, I waited for the teacher to tell me how well I had done. Instead, she told me that if I was going to pass her class, I would need to do much better, that she didn’t know why I was writing about a down on his luck boxer since I obviously knew nothing about that and that writer’s should write what they know, and that it was low brow to use swear words. “But Ian,” I hear you say, “didn’t she give instructions that it couldn’t be something you knew?” Confusing, I know. That being said, I felt so defeated that day, and just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, it most definitely did.

Finally, it was young soldier boy’s turn to read his story. His story was about a Vietnam vet, fighting in the Vietnam War, and literally every other word was a swear word. When I say literally, I mean it in the very definition of the word. As in, “the food will literally be hot when it’s fresh out of the oven”, not as in “My day was so tiring, I’m literally dead”.  So when I say every other word was literally a swear word, I mean it. If you stripped his story of swear words, it would be half the original length. So this guy proceeds to read this out loud, not censoring a single thing, not even the dreaded “c” word that rhymes with “punt”. As he’s reading this, I’m expecting him to get reamed even harder than I did.

He finishes reading this atrocity and the teacher just falls all over herself to tell this guy how amazing his story is, how she felt like she was right there in the rice paddies beside his character, and the other women in the class joined right in on it. I couldn’t understand it. How did my story suck so much ass, to the point where I was going to have to work harder in order to pass the class, that I was so low brow for using a single “fuck”, and this guy is getting accolades like he’s the next fucking Charles Dickens, all while using swear words to pad his story’s length?

I thought briefly about talking to the teacher about it, but then decided not to because I didn’t think anything useful would come of it. After all, if I was going to have to work harder, didn’t that just underscore the fact that I had no talent? I left class that day and unenrolled from the course and never went back.  And lastly, as a result of this? I literally stopped writing  for several years.

Was it a mistake to have done that? Should I have stayed with it and maybe have the next story possibly be lauded? Maybe, maybe not. To this day, I don’t think anything I would have done in that class would have made a difference. My point in telling you this story is to say this: Some people will love what you write, some people won’t. The people who will love it, will find the good in it. The people who won’t, never will. It could be the most amazingly written story that even the gods would be forced to glorify for all time and eternity as the perfect example of storytelling, and the haters will still find something to hate. So, if you do take a class or classes, don’t let anything discourage you. Take the good, discard the rest.

As for me, I have now embraced becoming a writer and write mostly horror stories these days. I write what I want to read, what brings joy to me. At the end of the day, if none of my stories find fans, or make any money, I’ll at least be able to die being proud of the things I wrote, instead of writing things that bring me no joy in trying to make the haters not hate.

That brings this episode to a close.  Stay classy, and write those stories!

If you’re a return listener, welcome back, if this is your first time, welcome! I hope you find the information in these episodes to be useful. Also, if you are enjoying these, please leave a review and share with others. 
This is episode 6, where I talk about my writing set up. just a quick disclaimer, I am not getting paid to plug any of the products that get mentioned, these are just the products I personally have discovered to work the best for me. If you find something that works better for you, rock on! Live your best life! So in case you are wondering what a writing set up is, it’s basically the workspace and tools you utilize to write your stories. This can range from something as simple as, say, a notebook and pen at the kitchen table, to an elaborate library complete with cozy fireplace and picture window looking out on some idyllic scenery while banging your story out on an iPad. Whatever set up you decide on, the most important factor, at least in my opinion, is whatever is going to set you up for success and not get in the way of your creativity.
For example, I don’t typically use a notepad and pen or pencil, simply because I can’t write as fast as I think. I used to think that all good writers wrote their stories by hand and only once it was done, did they type them out. I don’t know if that is actually true. It could be, back in the day, it was probably easier and cheaper than messing up on a typewriter and having to start the page from scratch.  All I know is that my hand would end up cramping up while trying to keep up with what my brain was telling me. To get a good visual for what I mean, imagine that I’m writing Star Wars: A New Hope. My hand would be writing the cantina scene with the aliens, but my brain would already be at the part where Luke Skywalker and Han Solo were rescuing Princess Leia from the detention level on the Death Star. It was extremely frustrating because it would often times derail what I was writing and my pages would often become a mess of hand writing that had become almost illegible and several things scratched out.  I eventually switched to a system where I would write until I couldn’t keep up, then grab a new piece of paper and begin writing where my brain was, but that just ended up resulting in a mess that I couldn’t figure out how to put together. This would eventually become moot when I stopped writing for several years.
Fast forward to when I started getting serious about writing again. I had no problem getting ideas, and I would jot these ideas down on any piece of paper I could find, and these I would carry around in my pocket. It got so bad that at one point, I found myself with my wallet in one pocket, and a stack of papers just as thick as that wallet in another.  During this time, I had resumed trying to write by hand only to run into the same situation as before. The final straw came when I left this stack of papers home one day, only to  come back to find out that my ex-wife had thrown them away, because in her words, “it was garbage and I didn’t need it”. Thankfully she had just thrown it away and I was able to retrieve it. This event would lead me to think of a way to solve this so that it didn’t happen again.
Now before I get into my set up, I will say that I am not claiming that my way is in any way original. I’m sure that there are numerous writers out there that either have the exact same set up, or something similar. I will also say that I don’t think my way is the right way or the only way, it’s just one way. What I want for you is to think about your own situation and figure out a solution that works best for you. Now then, on to my set up.
My basic set up consists of using the app Evernote for keeping my ideas in one handy place, a laptop that I  can type on that allows me to type as fast as my brain goes, and Scrivener, a word processing app that was built from the ground up with writer’s in mind.  
The first step was to figure out some way of being able to keep my notes in one place, that couldn’t get lost, and couldn’t get thrown away. I’m horrible at remembering some things, so if I had not been able to get my stack of notes back, I would have lost so many ideas. As well, having a stack of papers is not necessarily a good idea, because if my ex hadn’t thrown them away, it’s entirely possible that I might lose some simply taking the stack out of my pocket. Then there is the wear and tear itself as paper is folded, unfolded, folded again, etc. At this point in time, I was used to carrying a smartphone, and I used apps for several other things in my life. It was here that I turned to. The thinking was that my phone was not likely to be lost, stolen, or thrown away, and so keeping notes there would be a safe bet. After doing some research and downloading and playing with several different apps, I settled on Evernote.
Evernote allows me to access my notes from my phone, as well as one more device (under the free version). This I found to be excellent, because it turned out that Evernote had a desktop version that was compatible with Windows that I could link together (they also have it for Mac as well, though I don’t use any Apple products aside from an iPad and the iPod Classic).  This meant that I could be out and about, get an idea and put  it in Evernote, or work on an outline and even write, and I would be able to access it on my laptop when I got home. The free version also has limited amount of storage, but since everything I’m storing is text, I have never even come near the limit.  You can store more than just text, including pdfs and pictures, but I’ve just never needed to use this feature.
The next piece is the laptop. I don’t really think I have to go too far into this, because it’s a laptop, enough said. The most I’ve ever paid for a laptop has been a little over $500, but that’s because when I get a new laptop, it needs to be good enough to last for at least four or five years before I need to upgrade. If you figure that I spend $500 and it lasts for five years, the math works out to $100 per year, and that’s a good return on investment in my opinion. Now you don’t need to spend that amount. You can find deals for pretty decent computers  for less if you’re patient, or buy around holiday sales. I personally find that this amount works for me, and I’m usually able to get pretty good mileage with laptops in this range.
That said, with the laptop, I’m able to keep up with what was is in my brain when I’m writing. I used to be a huge PC gamer, and as such, I used to have a really good gaming PC that I would also try to use to write. I say try because, unfortunately, I had the bad habit of deciding to take a 30 minute break to play a game only to find that a few hours had gone by and I had wasted time that could have been spent writing. It was this bad habit that made me decide to get a laptop that  couldn’t play the kind of games I was into at the time. This and I wanted to be able to go anywhere and write. At one point I had the “romantic” notion of sitting in a coffee shop writing the Great American Novel while sipping on a latte or whatever it is that hipster writers drink. The problem was that I had, and have, no desire to write the Great American Novel, I’m a basic coffee and creamer kind of guy, and coffee shops suck for getting any kind of writing done.
Finally, the software that I would use to write my stories. To be honest, I gave so little thought to this very crucial piece. I had already been using Microsoft Word for several years for everything from my resume to business reports, among other things. Since it worked so well for everything else, I figured it would work well for writing. At its most basic, Word will get the job done.  For a short story, I found no problems with using it, although aside from my novel in high school, and the first draft I completed last year in December, I never actually finished anything I started to write, and neither of those were done in Word. Before I continue, I don’t want to bad mouth Word. Some of you use it and enjoy it, and it works for you, and that’s great.  If it does, rock on! It’s absolutely good at what it does. It just turned out not to work for me, although I wouldn’t find that out until I got the idea for my werewolf novel. 
Most of my ideas come in short bites, just enough to know what the basic premise is and not much else. Not the werewolf novel. When the proverbial dam burst on that idea, it was a flood of ideas.  As a comparison, think of most of my story ideas as post it notes, while the werewolf stuff is more like the Lord of the Rings.  I quickly found that Word was not up to the task of keeping this stuff organized, and I would soon find myself with several Word documents open as I bounced back and forth between the different documents trying to keep these ideas organized. It quickly got out  of hand and frustrating, not to mention that having several Word documents open would begin causing my laptop to become sluggish. 
So what was I to do? For a good two or three months I struggled with using Word until I got so frustrated, I went to Google and typed “software for writers”, or something similar, into the search. I don’t remember what all came up in the results, but Scrivener was among the top results, if not the  top result. I saw that it had a 30 day free trial, and I downloaded it. It was a little overwhelming at first, but after playing with it for awhile, I started to see that it was perfect for me. I’m not going to turn this into a commercial for this product, if you want to know more about it, you can go to their website at literatureandlatte.com. However, here’s what I found to be the highlights:

  • you could keep all the notes and writing in one file, that you could access from a tool bar on the side, so no more multiple versions of the program needing to be opened
  • it had a tracker that allows you to set project goals and daily goals, so you could theoretically set your project goal to be at least 80 thousand words, and/or your daily goal to 2500 words (which is my own personal daily goal), and it would help you keep track
  • when it came time to export your writing, you could export it in any format, including .doc and .docx (which is Word’s default extensions, depending on version), PDF, and even various ebook formats.
  • and probably one my favorite features, you can go full screen and set it to be as opaque as you want, so the background can be made as light or dark as you want it, which helps to block out the annoying pop ups that Windows loves doing, so that it cuts down on distractions
  • and my absolute favorite feature, the full screen is set up to mimic a page in a typewriter, meaning that when you start writing, you will of course start at the top of the page, but once it reaches the middle, it stays there, meaning your head is looking straight ahead, instead of bent downward as it would be in Word because new lines form at the bottom of the screen

If you’ve used any kind of word processing program for any length of time, you  know how sore your neck gets looking down all the time. This was a huge game changer for me.
The remainder of my set up is that I have a room that I converted into an office, so I have a place to work, but I can also take my laptop and go the the library, or work in the park, and yes, even a coffee shop if I want to deal with that hassle. The only other thing I have in my set up is my iPod Classic,  as I listen to music when I write.
So now that I have gone over my set up, how exactly does this help me be more productive with my writing? Evernote allows me to jot down my ideas, and work on my projects without needing to carry around my laptop. When I’m ready to sit down to write, I can simply open Evernote on my laptop and retrieve whatever work I did on it. The laptop allows me to type as fast as my brain spits out the story. And Scrivener allows me to keep everything in one place so that I only have that and Evernote open so that I’m not fighting with my computer being so slow. If I’m in the middle of writing and I forgot a detail, I can click on my notes, then jump right back to where I left off. It also allows me to set up my book so that I can write in chapters, or even in character points of view. If I decided that one chapter should be placed ahead of another chapter, I can just drag and drop it where I want it, without having to rewrite it. My set up works with me, not against me, and because of this, my  creativity can flow unimpeded. And the music? Well, that helps with blocking out distracting sounds, and even help with setting the mood for whatever scene I’m currently writing. In a nutshell, the tools serve the muse, they do not interfere with it.
When figuring your set up, make sure that you are striving to create a system that feeds your creativity, or at the very least, doesn’t impede it. I hope this inside look helps you if you’ve been struggling. If you already have a set up that works for you, please feel free to reach out to me on my Twitter account, or Instagram account, and let me know.  Who knows, your set up may help out a fellow writer to reach creative nirvana. Stay classy, and keep writing those stories!

This has been another episode of Empty Pages. If you enjoyed what you heard and want more of it, you can follow me at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts from. Please leave me a review, as that really helps me out, and if you do, you might find your review featured in a future episode. You can find me at ianmactire.com, as well as on Twitter and Instagram as @ianmactire. Until next time, I’m Ian, and this is Empty Pages.  Stay classy and write those stories!

© Copyright 2021 Ian MacTire, All Rights Reserved, except where otherwise noted.

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