What to Expect When Your Writing Class is Online

Tempted by the forty free online writing classes available at my public library, I enrolled as an experiment. The full catalog of 350 courses competed with MOOCs (massive open online courses) and delivered a shorter continuing education opportunity in writing and other business topics. I joined with a hundred online learners from across the country and Canada for a brief six weeks of creative writing lessons. The interaction and other classmates were as interesting as the course content.

The exercises began innocently enough asking each student’s reason for taking the class. I’ll share several of my submissions. For instance, here’s my introduction:

The dog made me do it. He worries about neglecting important things like watching sunsets, skipping rocks at the lake and hiking nearby trails.

sitting writer2It was irreverent compared to the other classmates’ expressions of genuine excitement and unbridled nervousness. They used their first name, their full name or a nickname like Jelly Bean, Milwaukee Maiden, GalSal or Mother Bird. The anonymous classroom became a haven for over sharing. I discovered, most of the class was currently in crisis – death of a loved one, newly retired, birth of an infant, empty nests, schizophrenia, cancer, abuse, graduates from high school or college, English lit major wanna be’s, traumatized veterans, divorcees, joblessness, dead end jobs, stressful “on the verge of quitting” jobs, sexuality concerns, and caregivers to parents and spouses. The class offered an outlet to cope, a catharsis for the traumas of the past, present and future.

To that note, I was not so far removed from crisis myself. One of the assignments required writing about a candle. Pent up emotions spilled into this exercise. Yes, tears fell on the keyboard over an imaginary candle with a fictitious past.

The tin box sits next to an empty and worn book of matches from a Mexican restaurant near my mother’s old house and a cigarette lighter I confiscated when my teenager flirted with smoking. Graphic whirls of block printed roses decorate the lid. The image resembles both my college hand-carved block printing and my Connecticut rose garden including the wicked, hateful thorns of the floribundas deceptively named Cinderella. Yet, the tin hints of a different Cinderella – purses, crowns, wavy flourishes and little flower dots of pink – and a costume, plastic face mask on top of a printed rayon tunic visible through the cellophane window of a shallow cardboard box. I lift the candle’s lid, smell the sickly perfume of roses and remember my mother. I spark the lighter. The candle wick, a charred nub at the bottom of a melted ring in the wax, fails to light. I return the heart-shaped tin and matches to the drawer with other keepsakes and throw the lighter in the trash under the sink.

Two months after writing about that candle, I reread my passage and still feel the complex emotional mother child relationship, filled with roses, thorns and cigarette lighters. Fortunately, the next assignment was safe from my own memories and focused on a prompt, an ex-spouse arriving on a bus in a snowstorm. Each student chose a point of view and present or past tense. My classmates, more savvy to the woes and causes of divorce, wrote of anger, betrayal, infidelities, abuse and addiction. Instead, I wrote of a homesick young man uncertain of his future.

John jolted awake at the bus driver’s announcement of Grand Haven. The snow globe effect of pelting white flakes obscured the view of his hometown bus depot. He grabbed his backpack and rushed to the door to find whichever family member drew the short straw and had to pick him up in this miserable weather. His mom probably paced at home at the front door waiting for him, having planned a family get-together to hear his tales of living in New York, the small bit part in an off Broadway theater and his new friends in the city. Bounding down the steps, John slipped on the last wet step, tumbled out the door and landed spread eagle on top of a woman waiting with her bag. Expecting her to be angry or hurt, John jumped up only to discover Martha hysterically laughing and joking about his daring dive and poor timing to wait until their divorce was final for a grand effort.

The most joyful assignment embraced free writing – unfiltered and unedited. The instructor explained about Galumphing and Bricolage. Galumphing was to select an item from three different categories – a person, a place, and an object. I chose Bricolage which was to write whatever comes to mind about trivial objects, such as a candy wrapper.

The iridescent candy wrapper rested in my palm, a tidy two inch square of yellowish cellophane. In my kitchen, I sucked on the hard candy, mystified at the pleasant, yet unrecognizable, exotic flavor. And when I glanced again at the wrapper, it was twice the size. I scratched at my head, pondering where had I found this odd candy. Oh yes, it was in the console of my car after I had let my lost, and recently found, relative Larry take the car for the week to Burning Man. I wanted to ask him about the candy, but Larry, was still sleeping in my guest bedroom, a walk-in closet if you want to be precise, and by the sound of his snoring, probably out of contact for the next four to six days. Now, the candy wrapper was weighing heavy on my hands and increasing to the size of a poster board. I reached for the ruler in my kitchen drawer and found I was too short. The wrapper had not grow; I had shrunk. Naked, I slipped out of my very large clothes and tore a bit of the wrapper to use for petite clothing. I vaguely remembered seeing other candies in different colored wrappers. If the yellow wrapped candy made me small, what did the others do? Which color should I eat next?

For each of the assignments The instructor urged the class to follow the golden rule of feedback – give comments to receive comments. My fragile crisis-fraught classmates needed support, encouragement and praise for their brave undertakings. And every evening, I returned to the class website to see the comments left for me, such as the ones below on my Bricolage candy wrapper exercise.

Jenn on 5/28/2015 10:09:51 AM

What a great twist! I love it! Makes me think of Alice in Wonderland or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. So creative!

GalSal on 5/28/2015 12:46:57 PM

Wow–I was so fooled until you said you had shrunk.  Great imagination!

Chuck on 5/29/2015 8:17:01 AM

Great creativity, it kept me spellbound.  Are we having fun yet?

Joy on 5/29/2015 5:27:38 PM

I struggled with bricolage but you made it seem easy to be creative with something so simple

Dave on 5/30/2015 10:10:56 AM

A great start and you could take it in two interesting ways.  The obvious, fantasy way, is to go on a hunt for the other candy.  The other way, the candy having come from Burning Man, is that the character is tripping and she might have some explaining to do to people that wonder why she is running around naked with a piece of candy wrapper for clothing.

Lea on 5/30/2015 6:42:35 PM

It also makes me think of Alice in Wonderland! I like the normalcy at the beginning while it slowly starts to become magical. Great 🙂

Mama Crow on 6/1/2015 5:53:07 AM

What an adventurous piece! Great job keeping the imagination vividly strong!

Milwaukee Maiden/Linda on 6/3/2015 4:52:21 PM

Very good storyline with a twist. I enjoyed reading it. You will make a great writer.

The course made me appreciate the ability of technology to engage humanity across the country. The encouraging comments were fun and an unexpected treasure. Before the class ended and all the words deleted, I copied the comments to a file and saved them for a time when I might need generous and supportive comments. For now, another class begins.



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    • Karen Kittrell on August 11, 2015 at 8:55 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks Diana, Great name – Kudos File. My third class is almost finished. Number four is in the queue.

  1. Making a Kudos File is essential for self-encouragement when we are feeling useless, discouraged and unproductive. Wonderful that you treated yourself to that.

    The over-sharing is a part of the online experience, brought on my the freedom and the anonymity. Through a similar 6-week course some 17 years ago, a group of us continued the class offline. The six of us are still awesome friends today. I’ve stayed with almost all of them during my travels; they attended my wedding; I attend Bar/Bat Mitzvahs; they’ve permed my hair.

    Online writing experiences can be magical. I hope you partake again.

    • Michael Mitchell on August 9, 2015 at 9:27 pm
    • Reply

    I’m hooked. When will you post the rest of your stories.

      • Karen Kittrell on August 11, 2015 at 8:44 pm
      • Reply

      Thanks, Michael, I posted only a fragment to preserve as an unpublished work.

    • Sue Remisiewicz on August 9, 2015 at 5:19 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks for the insight into these classes. Will you be developing any of the stories to bring to the critique group? I’d love to hear more.

      • Karen Kittrell on August 11, 2015 at 8:41 pm
      • Reply

      Thanks Sue, I value your comments on “thinking stories.” I may have another one for you. One of the exercises, the final project, became a 500 word short story. I submitted that story to a couple of contests with two other short stories.

    • Jacqui on August 8, 2015 at 1:20 pm
    • Reply

    Love your writing Karen. You can take writing classes for education and I’m sure it sparks interest and creativity but some people, such as yourself, are truly creative in their writing which is often hard to grasp. Well done.

      • Karen Kittrell on August 11, 2015 at 8:26 pm
      • Reply

      Thanks, Jacqui, I credit the instructor, Ann Linquist, with establishing a welcoming environment for free writing.

    • Claire Murray on August 8, 2015 at 11:05 am
    • Reply

    Karen, this is really interesting. I like the way you pull us into all your stories. This is very creative.

      • Karen Kittrell on August 11, 2015 at 8:21 pm
      • Reply

      Thanks, Claire. It was fun and a great way to connect with other writers.

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