Joyce Carol Oates, Alice in Wonderland, and Bad Writing Teachers

As mentioned in the Writer’s Almanac, yesterday was Joyce Carol Oates 72nd birthday. It said the book that influenced her writing most was Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. The reason was “she loved how Alice was calm and rational when facing nightmarish situations.”

Disney's Alice in Wonderland, written by Lewis Carroll, one of the BEST children's book ever.

Alice left a BIG impression on me as a child as well. For me, seeing a world way wackier than my own was comforting. I liked plucky Alice and her ability to reason her way with weird and/or mean people/creatures. I also liked the Disney movie and the Alice in Wonderland ride at Disneyland. I used to think when I was little I looked somewhat like Alice—or at least the blonde hair tied with in a ribbon.

Years ago I took writing class at Stanford University—through the extension program (a clarification I feel I need to make as I seriously doubt that school would let me in otherwise!). The instructor, a first-time published author and MFA/Jones Fellowship kind-o-guy made us read Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates.

I always thought that was an odd choice as a teaching tool to foist on budding novelists because of its unusual structure—32 short chapters of mostly character development and not much plot. Sure the book was well written, but learning the basics FIRST and then how to break the “writing rules” seemed a more logical progression to me.

But this teacher was NOT a good teacher. On the first day of class we had to go around the room and introduce ourselves, what we did, our writing endeavors, etc. I was the only one who had actually completed a novel and was working on the sequel. (That doesn’t mean I’m a better writer. Just that I had more product.) When I mentioned my second novel, he said:

Bastard Out of Carolina has already been written. Your book will never get published.”

Huh? My book was nothing like Dorothy Allison’s book. His dismissive arrogant tone didn’t endear him to me.

Then the teacher gave us a writing assignment to assess our writing skill level. He wrote three phrases on the chalkboard, like: two teenagers, old barn, World War II. Then he said, “Now quick! Write a short story using those words. GO!”

I think he gave us a half hour or so. People wrote furiously. I “got furiously.” The assignment made me cringe. It made me question the teacher’s motivation/sanity.

Writing fiction is not a timed test. Writing is not a “drop and give me fifty” kind of effort where you can start the activity in an instant, i.e. turn on the brain cells by a command.

Most importantly, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A QUALITY FIRST DRAFT. What was the point of writing a story, under pressure, off the top of your head and have it evaluated by “a professional”? Except to give you the heebie-jeebies and lower your confidence level. Sheesh.

I wrote something like:

Two uneducated teenagers stared at a wall in the barn. A wise old WWII vet had written, “Writing is about rewriting. I give you permission to write shitty first drafts.” The teenagers scratched their heads.

[BTW, I stole the fourth line from Anne Lamott—on purpose—as a way to communicate to the idiotic teacher that this writing assignment was asinine.]

Some people turned their papers in. Some didn’t. The next class had about one-third less students. The teacher said there were two good stories. He read them aloud. (One was actually really good! Off the top of your head? WOW—I was impressed.)

I guess the rest of us were to infer that if our story hadn’t been read aloud, we were lousy writers. The teacher made no comment about my brilliant paper—go figure. But he did give me the stink eye and made disparaging retorts to my comments.

The third class had even less students. After the fourth, I quit. I usually NEVER quit a class (because I like school!) and since Stanford classes aren’t cheap, I didn’t want to forfeit the money. But I was too bugged to continue.

But I did learn a couple things:

1. Some writing teachers suck and you better have a decent level of confidence in your writing ability before you expose yourself to one.

2. Joyce Carol Oates is a heckuva prolific writer and my time is better spent reading her than listening to some blowhard hack in a Stanford classroom.

Also, a few weeks later I got an email from one of the other students. She said that a writer’s group had been formed from the class. They had liked my dialogue and asked me if I wanted to join. YEAH! At least someone liked (a part of) my writing. I didn’t join because the driving distance was too far. But I appreciated the invite.

I wondered if they asked the teacher to join, as he was working on his second book. I’m guessing NOT.

I know what happened to this teacher’s writing career, but it would be too snotty and bad-karma-ish to mention.

But maybe I shall borrow the (slightly-altered) words of Lewis Carroll from his poem “Jabberwocky,” which I think Joyce Carol Oates probably enjoys (almost) as much as me:

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
She chortled in her joy.


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