Tuesday, November 23, 2010

This Thanksgiving: thankful to be learning.

Last month, I decided to enroll in a creative writing class at the professor’s invitation. My instructor, Anda Peterson, is also a member of my writing group. Our small team, affectionately known as the Prose Posse, consisted of accomplished academics and journalists. I was the only technical writer in the bunch–the odd man out.

Writing mostly for corporations, I have learned tasks I will never perform directly. Technical writers will tell you that some subjects stay in their heads long after the project ends. Like a YouTube kitten or snippet of music that loops mercilessly, pulling the memory through one ear with a wire hanger eventually seems like a good plan. I wish I could forget how to perform Upper Extremity Sonography so I could make room for the name of the craft beer I sampled yesterday and quickly forgot. It’s most likely hanging out with my lost wallet and my third grade teacher, whose name I cannot recall.

Technical writing and instructional design is also a highly structured and deliberate process. My inner editor is a style guide that screams line-by-line revisions and keeps me on a strict budget. Deliver key objectives in line one. Select images that reinforce performance. Use quizzes to verify comprehension.

In truth, that box we love to hate and long to think outside actually gives us something to work with - a canvas on which to express ourselves. As a friend once told me, "creativity is our ultimate expression within defined parameters." I love trying to be as creative as possible, even when working with corporate or regulated material. However, open-sky, unlimited vistas are another matter. That blank sheet of paper can be a daunting partner.

So, I was immediately humbled by the burgeoning talent in Anda's classroom. Students in pencil thin jeans cranked out prize-worthy prose mere hours before class. A volunteer would recite lyrical lines, revealing yet another captivating story. Earnest and callow hearts searching the evening stars for answers or diving into the abyss for dinner. I panicked. My first submission was due in two weeks. My creative vocabulary felt limited by comparison, reduced to words like “happy," and “really." Pulling dead weasels through a rusty pipe would have been easier and more entertaining.

Despite my trepidation, the class seemed to respect every submission. I discovered creative writing courses are possibly the most life affirming event beyond kindergarten. Everyone brought something to share and then applauded. I don’t remember ever clapping in accounting or project management classes. Charitably, my classmates withheld the withering criticism my work fully deserves, an act of kindness typically reserved for the disabled or elderly. Based on the stories they submitted, I wondered if one or two of them were receiving community service hours for listening to mine.

Last night, I shared my experiences with a neighbor and how I hoped to live long enough to read something published by my fellow students. In return, I owe them the favor of purchasing their first published work, as payment in kind for helping me learn.

Thanks Anda. And to my classmates - a very special thank you!

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