Finding Your Writing Fix in Online Classes
June 14, 2017 § 10 Comments
By Rae Pagliarulo
I’ll admit it — I’m a little bit of a conference junkie. I love using writing as an excuse to go places and meet people and yes, take a little time off work. I go every year, without fail, to Hippocamp, situated right in the middle of charming Lancaster (and filled to the brim with other CNF lovers like me), as well as the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, a small–but–mighty conference that lets poets take over Salem for a weekend of words and witching. So earlier this year, when I first learned about the Iota Conference, where Penny Guisinger has been hosting weekends of writing on the beautiful and scenic coast of Maine each summer. I was instantly wooed. I cyber-stalked the Iota website, trying desperately to come up with ways my hectic schedule might allow for it, but no matter how many things I rearranged, I couldn’t make time with a brand new job and several other immovable commitments to contend with.
Right around the time I was seriously considering having some of my organs harvested so I could afford a last–minute trip to Iceland for NonfictioNOW (be careful not to search for the conference attendees’ posts on social media — you’ll die of jealousy), I saw that Iota was starting a new online component. I could get my fix with a short class about an interesting topic, AND I could stop researching the value of a black-market spleen? It was a no–brainer.
The key to success in online learning lies between two things that are notoriously hard to control — technology and humans. Without easily navigable technology that makes logging in, communicating, and accessing resources simple and intuitive, as well as a group of people who are dedicated to remaining engaged — posting in the discussion boards, responding to their classmates’ questions, ideally paying attention to the class for more than an hour per week — you’ve got little more than a good idea and a WiFi connection. Thankfully, the class I decided to take from Iota Online had both. For four weeks, myself and nine other writers dove into Writing Flash Creative Nonfiction with Penny.
Each week, Penny posted a link to a YouTube video lecture and uploaded a handful of readings that supported the week’s focus. For a short course, it was comprehensive — we looked at the form itself and what was possible within it, and discussed situation, story, scenes, revision, and the senses. After reading the pieces each week, we discussed them, argued about their merits, and sang their praises. The discussions could have landed flatly, after each person uploaded their paragraph-long summary. But our instructor, even from afar, was able to be diligent about challenging us, asking questions, and suggesting additional readings or craft articles. It kept the conversation moving, and it kept me from mentally logging out of the course site after my “assignment” was done. I wanted to keep talking, and debating, and finding new authors to obsess over. The interactions I had on that message board mimicked the ones I craved as a conference junkie, but were somehow better. Here, I could debate the finer points of sensory detail and sentence structure with a New England psychologist, a Midwestern academic, a European expat artist, and a Canadian freelancer — and no one would know if I wasn’t wearing any pants.
At first, I was afraid that I would have trouble finding things to write about. I tend to be a tad long-winded when it comes to my CNF (which is why I was drawn to this course in the first place). What if I couldn’t rein myself in enough to keep it under 1,000 words? But by reading a TON of great flash CNF, I started to process my thoughts in short, vivid bursts, looking for brief but undeniably rich moments where before, I might have seen pages of exposition. Stories that seemed impossible to tame (too much backstory! all that context!) suddenly boiled down to handful of telling moments — watching a movie with a crush, looking for Christmas lights in a dingy basement, shoveling snow on a Saturday. With feedback from my generous classmates, and personalized feedback from Penny, I kept honing those brief moments of light and color into what they were meant to be — flashes.
Writing itself is the ideal activity for distance learning. Diverse opinions from new writers and readers are what make my work stronger. But it’s not always feasible to take a week off work and travel to a conference or residency. Online writing classes do the hard work for me — they collect individuals who are passionate about writing and share an interest in learning this new thing (scene work, dialogue, speculation, character development, whatever), and create a space where we can gather. Interestingly, having all our feedback posted publicly seemed to encourage my classmates and I to dig deeper with each subsequent week. By reviewing each other’s insights on a single person’s work, we could agree on an excellent point, and more importantly, offer unique insights that would complement what had already been addressed.
In a somewhat surprising way, I was able to access this jolt of creativity and energy — the kind I usually only find at conferences — without leaving home. At moments when I craved a change of scenery, I committed to completing my Iota classwork at a coffee shop or collective work space, where I felt able to focus completely without worrying about the laundry, or the bills on the table, or the many, many teen dramas I have yet to binge on Netflix.
Maybe it was poetically appropriate for a flash CNF class to be brief, but it was clear that by the end of our four-week class, my colleagues and I had barely scratched the surface, and better yet, we’d all gained this new toy that we wanted to keep playing with. In the end, I was left with pieces of writing that made me more excited than I’d been since I finished my MFA thesis. I couldn’t wait to get them out into the world. So far, they’ve been to a couple of readings, been submitted to a handful of online magazines, and helped me gain admission into – you guessed it – a writing conference.
** Iota’s upcoming classes are now open for registration.
Rae Pagliarulo holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, Quail Bell, and Philadelphia Stories, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Rae works as an editor for online magazines, and as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.