creative writing
It's frustrating to feel your creativity suffer when taking writing classes online. (Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash)

Creative Writing Classes and Online Learning Aren’t a Great Fit

As schools convert many courses to web-based video chats due to COVID-19, writers perhaps suffer the most.

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creative writing

As schools convert many courses to web-based video chats due to COVID-19, writers perhaps suffer the most.

Perfection doesn’t exist. The ideal online class doesn’t exist either, and creative writing classes are no exception. Web-based classes present major drawbacks for writing students. Writers want to have in-person classes just like everybody else.

The tropes and myths about writing and writers paint a Zoom writing workshop as picturesque. What could possibly be better for awkward introverts who prefer characters to people? You would think writers would jump at the chance to be tucked safely away at home, in their library hideout, while discussing the latest chapter for their novel.

Not quite. Writers aren’t a monolithic group. They can be extroverts and ambiverts as well. Even those introverts who fantasize about living only through pages still need to connect. People understand the idea that filmmakers and salespeople need to build up their networks. Networking is imperative no matter what industry you enter, and writers need friends in the business.

Writers can use bonds formed from in-person classes in ways similar to other majors. Connections aid in job and class opportunities. (Ever make friends with a professor who then let you into their exciting but full class the following semester?) Real-life interactions are sparks for creativity that artists of all forms draw upon. Spoken words are like writing, and listening to casual conversations is a good practice for writers to exercise as often as possible. Online classes squash the opportunity to foster genuine connections.

How do you bond with a professor in a static class environment? It’s not easy. The one-on-one time you can find in a physical classroom setting eludes the online universe. Staying after class to ask a question isn’t as convenient as it was before. You’d have to not-so-discreetly ask your professor to stay on the call after every person has left. You could also privately message your professor during the class for a discussion. A tasking but more likely scenario would be to set up an entirely new call to chat with your professor. Communication is no longer simple.

Growing relationships with your fellow students is no walk in the park either. The same situations would occur in a formal meeting with classmates. Casual hanging out? Seemingly impossible. The coveted preclass chats are annihilated. Whether it was sitting in an empty lecture hall and talking to the other person who got there ridiculously early, the bond of scrambling to finish that four-page journal entry that you and another student forgot about or sharing your Dunkin’ breakfast before 9 a.m., the natural occurrences that lead to friendship seedlings don’t have a home in web-based learning. Silent, stony faces in a small square box replace what once were the dazzling personalities of your fellow writers in more casual chats. Who are these people when they aren’t in class?

Formality is the mode of online class. The YA writer with a great sense of humor you could’ve started a literary magazine with is just some face you won’t remember the next semester. You never had the opportunity to hear the funniest aside you’ve ever heard under their breath the day you decided to sit next to them. The essayist that has a passion for your favorite underground band didn’t get to go on their tangent about their newest album because online classes don’t generate the atmosphere for anything outside strict classroom content. It’s business only.

The caveat is that business is not as usual. Writing is writing and should be able to be done anywhere, so where does the difference lie? Writing workshops have an extremely physical aspect to them that hinge on an unimpeded flow. Zoom calls, or any other videoing platform, have an etiquette you follow, and it is averse to a workshop atmosphere. Word games are foundational in writing workshops, and rapid-fire responses are essential. With everyone being muted to avoid the overlapping talking, the time lapse between answers significantly increases, diminishing the effectiveness of spontaneous thoughts.

Let’s say your class somehow manages to find a rhythm in the word game. It’s your turn to say the word and your Wi-Fi cuts out. Everyone is awaiting your word, and the pacing has been interrupted. If it’s not the Wi-Fi, computer lag and poor audio quality are a staple of every online call. Computers and internet connections can only handle so much bandwidth. A Zoom call and 18 open tabs? The laptop is sure to glitch.

Yes, open tabs are applicable to writers too. In a physical class, sneaking onto your phone is harder to do. Online is easy. The word that stumped you when writing on the “grass fields” prompt is just a Google search away. At first, that might seem like a benefit to online classes. However, the point of writing classes is to constantly have a flow. Stopping to search for a synonym or to Google that mythical creature’s name impedes the writing rhythm. Even the most focused of us can find distractions during a web-based class.

Has anyone found the perfect place to hold a Zoom call? You’d be the odd one out if you have. Most of us are stuck in a home with other people, pets, or loud neighbors whose voices penetrate solid walls. A writer is attuned to their environment. All the senses are used in writing, and we engage them as often as possible. Dogs could become the newest running theme in someone’s assignments if their dog constantly howls during the class meeting. Everyone’s room in the high-fantasy world is the same shade of blue as the room you reside in for class. Other people’s spaces can also filter their way into your writing.

Writers need a “quiet” space to work. The classrooms without windows and a bland paint color may seem drab or depressing, but they serve a purpose. It allows for the imagination to be as minimally influenced as possible. The main descriptive factor in the room should be the layout. The seating arrangement chosen by the professor gives valuable insight into the vibe of the class. You might see desks in a straight line for a more formal class or, with a more lax professor, bean bag chairs in a circle. What seemed like a static classroom is now a static web environment that leaves students guessing at the proper attitudes to hold in the class.

The awkward atmosphere tragically doesn’t end there. Feedback in online classes is ineffective. It’s scary and no one wants to give a critique. It’s hard enough to offer commentary in real life on another person’s writing; the difficulty is multiplied over a call. You didn’t have robust conversations during the class to feel out how certain people handle specific language. Who is more sensitive in the class and who needs straightforward comments? No one spoke, so you wouldn’t know. Your classmates are largely strangers. That promotes a form of apathy or at least a smaller emotional investment. If people can fight against the uncomfortable environment and offer insight, it won’t have as much passion and commitment as one from a friend. Bonds lead to more committed responses to truly promote betterment, even for those of us who want every writer to prosper. We are all here to better our prose or poetry, and it’s best served by a tightly knit group.

Some online writing classes may find the path to correcting nonexistent or lacking critique. The issue then becomes the material that’s receiving feedback. Critiques are based on the concepts conjured up during the poor attempt at workshopping. Writers coming out of failed writing attempts are left feeling a sense of defeat. Critiques are not handled as well as they need to be. Even if the writer can push all prior feelings aside, critique only restores it to the quality we achieve in person. The material might be better than it was from earlier in class, but it needs to be better than all the work you’ve done in the past (and that includes pre-pandemic).

Online classes are not ideal. No one, not even creative writers, wants web-based classes to be the wave of the future. Writing can transfer over to online schooling, even more easily than most other classes, but it is not the ideal platform. We love our characters like we love our community. We will write and push through these tough times until our world becomes tangible again.

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