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Talent vs. Training

Thinking of taking a writing class? Read this before choosing one.

By Marcela Landres
Published on LatinoLA: June 2, 2011


Talent vs. Training


Classes won't confer or expand talent. No matter how many singing lessons she takes, Jennifer Lopez will never sound like Christina Aguilera. What classes can do, however, is train you to make the most of the talent with which you were born.

Writers who don't avail themselves of writing classes are like marathoners who run with one leg tied up--they've put themselves at a distinct disadvantage.

Thanks to the Internet, everyone has access to writing classes. Not all of them are created equal; the only online writing classes I recommend are those offered by UCLA Extension. They are pricier than other classes, but you get what you pay for. You are better off taking one class at UCLA Extension than several classes somewhere else. To learn more, read this month's Q&A with UCLA Extension instructor Liz Gonzalez.

Q&A

Liz Gonzalez teaches creative writing courses online through the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. She teaches "Essential Beginnings: An Introductory Creative Writing Workshop" and "Writer as Witness to Life." For more information about Liz, please visit http://www.lizgonzalez.com

For more information about the UCLA Extension Writers' Program, please visit http://www2.uclaextension.edu/writers/

Q: When is a writer ready for classes (e.g. when they have an idea, or have written some pages, or have a complete manuscript, etc.)?

A: Since there is a wide range of courses available to any level of writer, I think that a person is ready for classes when he or she feels comfortable to share his or her work with others and wants to improve his or her craft in a class environment. For example, one of the courses I teach through the Writers' Program is "Essential Beginnings: An Introductory Creative Writing Workshop." My students in this class vary. Some have been writing in the closet or have wanted to try their hand at writing, some want a brush up on the basics, and some fall somewhere between. All want to ease into creative writing and are ready to work with a group.

Q: What are the advantages of online classes vs. brick-and-mortar classes?

A: As one who has taken and taught on-land and online courses, one big advantage of the online courses is convenience. Students can check in anytime of the day or night, in their pajamas or frumpies, after the children have gone to bed, during a break at work, or before starting the day. I also like having time to reread the lectures and work in the workshop and digest them before responding. For a beginner, I think the anonymity is a safe way to get started. I also like that I get to work with people from around the country world. I have students stationed in the Middle East, traveling or living in Asia, Europe, and South Africa. The diversity of voices and perspectives from around the world make the classes and work more engaging than in a local classroom, even one in a city as diverse as Los Angeles.

Q: Which attributes and/or credentials should writers seek in a teacher?

A: This is a difficult question to answer. Students could take a course with their favorite writer and find that the writer isn't an engaged teacher. Word of mouth isn't always available. And having a degree or a great deal of publications doesn't necessarily make a good instructor. I suggest that writers read the instructor's bio to see if there is a pull. One can always get a feel for an instructor during the first week, reading the posts, lectures, and assignments, and if the class doesn't seem right for the student, s/he can drop in time to get a refund.

Q: Could you offer three tips on how writers can make the most of their experience in class?

A: * Be open. If you come in with a specific set of expectations, beyond what the course promises, you might miss what that person has to teach you.
* Print the lectures and handouts. Read them closely, and reread them.
* Make time in your schedule for the class and meet deadlines.

Q: On the other hand, what are the top three mistakes writers should absolutely avoid?

A: My response to this question applies most to new writers.
* Dismissing the value of rewriting. I am a big advocate of "rewriting is writing."
* Not taking the time to hone one's craft before sending work out for publication. Many writers, including myself, regret having "shoddy" work published. You can never take it back!
* Not reading. Somewhere someone said, "Beware of the writer who has written more than he or she has read." It's too true.

Q: How has your own writing influenced your teaching? And how has your teaching influenced your writing?

A: In addition to "Essential Beginnings," I also teach a course I designed, "Writer as Witness to Life," which addresses what I learned on my own about "writing creatively about events and experiences that are personal and important without getting too self-absorbed, sentimental, preachy, or narrow." All the lessons I use for both classes are craft lessons I wish had been taught to me when I started writing. They also give beginning writers a stronger foundation in the craft basics.

Teaching creative writing keeps my craft chops sharp. It's a constant reminder to practice a writing process and develop layer by layer. My students' creative approaches to the writing assignments teach me too. As poet and activist Raul Salinas would tell his workshop groups, I come to learn as well.

Excerpted from Latinidad?« ?® 2003 by Marcela Landres

About Marcela Landres:
Marcela Landres is the author of the e-book How Editors Think. She is an Editorial Consultant who specializes in helping Latinos get published and was formerly an editor at Simon & Schuster.
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