Sunday, May 31, 2009

On Assignments

It's been a little over two months since I turned in my BIG ASSIGNMENT, my non-fiction thesis, a project which I worked on for a year. During that year, I did absolutely no other creative writing. When I was finally finished, I was concerned that I would have trouble writing about anything else for a very long time.

In an attempt to fight the blank page, here in my final quarter at Northwestern (which, along with my college career, is very nearly over) I enrolled in one 200-level creative non-fiction course and another 200-level fiction course. Much to my surprise, I've found that I still have a few fresh ideas in my head; more, in fact, than I have ever had before. I've discovered, along the way, another little oddity that I think sets fiction apart from creative non-fiction: the usefulness of short assignments.

For my 200-level non-fiction class, we have written five short essays of about 1000 words, each in response to a designated assignment or prompt. I felt very skeptical about these assignments at the beginning of the quarter. In my mind, I had just finished a 17,000-word piece; why couldn't I be trusted to come up with my own idea for essays? Assignments, I think I thought, were for amateurs without fresh ideas. (Of course, I had used my only good idea on the 17,000-word piece, and had no new ideas at my immediate disposal. Still, I was on my high prosaic horse.)

Our first assignment was to go sit in a public space (but NOT a coffee shop) for thirty minutes, observe, and write about it. Jeebus, I thought, is there any less original non-fiction assignment than this? That Saturday evening I waddled down to a local bar called The Long Room with some friends and completed my "observation." If I have to do this stupid assignment, I thought, I may as well have an icy cold pint of Point Ale in my hand.

And then something funny happened: I walked home, scribbled a few notes down in a journal before bed, got up the next morning, wrote a first draft and... really liked it. What's more, other people read it and liked it. And I never would have written it if it weren't for that assignment.

But maybe it was just a fluke. Surely, the next assignment, in which we were to use a narrative mode that was (for at least a portion of the essay) outside of reality, would prove itself a pointless and uninspired exercise. So I wrote what turned out to be a piece about my relationship with my oldest brother, and, sure as shit, I liked that one, too. Now, at the end of the quarter, I have five short essays, each with at least a bit of potential, and none of which I would have even thought to write if it weren't for an assignment.

On the other hand, in my fiction class, we had to write one short story of anywhere from eight to twenty pages. Other than those very loose page guidelines, there was no assignment or prompt to follow when writing our stories. I had an idea rolling around in my head for a couple weeks, wrote it down, and was surprised to find it didn't suck. I'd say I like that short story draft as much as my first non-fiction assignment.

In the weeks before our short story was due, we were asked to write a few sample scenes. In these cases, there were specific guidelines to follow. In one scene, we had to write a page or two about a character who is doing something that appears villainous, but turns out to be heroic (or vice versa). In another assignment, we were to write a scene and establish some sort of major conflict between two characters as quickly as possible.

I've already forgotten what I wrote for either of these short fiction assignments. What came out on the page was formulaic, boring, uninspired crap.

I've been thinking about this for awhile: why were assignments so useful and inspiring for my creative non-fiction writing, and so distracting and constrictive for my fiction writing? I'm sure that this isn't true for everyone; after all, every instructional writing book I've ever purchased, whether dealing with fiction or non-fiction, is chocked full of assignments to inspire the writer. Some fiction writers must find prompts useful. Still, I think assignments are inherently more useful for non-fiction.

Maybe it has something to do with the way that we find our stories. When I get an idea to write a non-fiction piece, it's usually because I'm looking at something outside of myself. I hear about someone doing something interesting, or something interesting happens to me, and I think, oh, I'll write about that. Non-fiction, for me, is about what comes to me from the external world. When I get an idea to write a fiction piece, it's usually because I've dreamed up some royally fucked-up situation for a character to be in, and then dream up how the fucked-up situation concludes, and then think about connecting the beginning to the end. So fiction, for me, is about what comes from me.

I don't know if any of the above paragraph is actually true.

What are your thoughts?