Writing Hurts Like Hell

It started with me teaching a science fiction workshop at the Maritime Writer’s Workshop in 2006. Only one student dropped out over the course of the week, and only because she saw a naked man roaming the halls of the Lady Beaverbrook Residence late at night. She quickly returned to Nova Scotia. Apparently, the other students liked the workshop, so the folks at the UNB College of Extended Learning asked if I would teach a writing workshop on a regular basis.

It was supposed to be a workshop on how to start and finish a novel, but it was a tremendous flop. I mean, I started off with a class of about 10 people and, as the weeks passed (arduously…go ahead, Strunk and White, punish me for that) the class dwindled as the content became increasingly boring and the students lost interest faster than the instructor lost interest. By the last week, no one wanted to be there. No one wanted to look at characterization, no one wanted to examine the intricacies of rhetorical speech, no one wanted to explore the variegated facets of diction.

God, what was I thinking?

It was a plodder. The whole thing was a gargantuan waste of my time, the students’ time and the time of the space for the wastage of time that was allotted to waste the time. (OK, Strunk and White…figure that one out.) I tried again in the Winter term, but the same thing happened and I determined never to teach another writing workshop again.

I drank a lot beer and wine the following summer. I did a lot of thinking (thus, the beer and wine to lessen the pain of thinking). It occurred to me that I can`t teach people how to write. No one can teach people how to write. You learn how to write by writing, re-writing and re-writing again. And again.

Given that, why teach writing workshops at all? This question pickled my head through many a summertime drunken stupor as I staggered down dark, lonely streets and crawled through the muck of ditches and lost cat graveyards searching for the answer. I woke up one morning in a ditch with cat bones in my teeth. This inspired a story called Sleeping In Ditches, but it also reminded me of how miserable the life of a writer can be, and that’s when it hit me like a ton of horse manure dropping on my head: I can’t teach folks how to write, but I can teach them how to be as miserable as I am. I can teach them how to become writers!

The idea of spreading my misery excited me to the point of sobriety. Ideas rushed into my head with the force of a stampeding cow funeral (ask my friend Nanook of the Nashwaak about this). I asked myself questions: Biff, how do you go about doing this? I answered: Biff, you do it step-by-step. And remember…no grammar. Don’t ruin their lives with grammar. Ruin their lives with storytelling.

I created a whole new syllabus. (Did I just use the word “syllabus?” I meant plan. I drew up a plan.) I asked myself: What is the fundamental characteristic of a writer? And the answer settled over my head like the strands of a spider web shroud: A writer writes.

I had my first class. It was devoted exclusively to mindless writing. This would get them writing every day. Next step…I asked myself: What kind of stuff does a writer do besides writing? I answered: All kinds of stuff…like spying on people, asking people personal questions, looking at bugs flying around a street light, licking trees and power outlets…the stuff was endless.

But no grammar, I promised myself. No grammar.

By the time September rolled around, I had the workshop completed and I had a new name for it: Writing Hurts Like Hell. I figured that if someone was crazy enough to take a workshop with that title, then they were likely crazy enough to become a writer.

I included lots of stuff that writers do (like how to look at the world as a writer) and lots of stuff that writers need to know (like the first draft of anything being impure garbage). I included fun stuff like how to write sex scenes, how to fill your characters’ mouths with foul language (appropriately), how write about violence, how to write humor, how to figure out if that novel you’ve always been thinking about is really what you want to write.

I included stuff on how to put together all the thoughts, feelings, information, influences, observations and ideas that go into the foundation of writing a novel. I included stuff like story boarding, visual plotting, researching, finding a place to write and keeping the steam up, and lots (and lots) of discussion. But no grammar.

In that first Fall workshop, no one dropped out and no one appeared to be bored (including the instructor). There was plenty of lively discussion. Some folks actually seemed animated, excited, into it. I think this had a lot to do with the no grammar part.

One of the key features to keep things interesting was location. Instead of meeting in a classroom on the campus class-after-class, we ranged out into the city, meeting in malls, bars, studios, radio stations, coffee shops, homes, restaurants, parks…we even had one class in a hot tub. This also brought us into that so very important element of a writer’s life: the world.

I’m thinking about having a class at night in a dark alley. I’ll have to check on how many of my students will have black belts in Karate and give this some serious thought.

Here’s the syll…er…plan for the first class:

Writing Hurts Like Hell: Session 1 – Introduction to Mindless Writing

Why Most People Hate Writing

Welcome to Writing Hurts Like Hell. Why the name? Because most people hate writing, and most people hate writing because we’re taught to hate it in school. The weapon that schools use to make us hate writing is called grammar. Grammar is an endless outpouring of constantly changing rules that have nothing to do with telling a good story. Nobody needs to know what a split infinitive is to write a spell-binding tale. Troubadours in ancient times traveled from town to town fascinating listeners with their stories and songs without the slightest clue what a split infinitive was.

Even most people who want to someday write a novel hate writing. So they never write their novels. Some of them start, and then they get hung up with getting the first paragraph right―grammatically right―and the same with the second and third paragraphs, unti they lose their story before the first chapter is finished.

This workshop has nothing to do with grammar. It’s about learning how to be a writer and then getting started on that novel you’ve always wanted to write, regardless of that evil predator on creativity: grammar.

(TIP: The only book you ever have read on grammar is The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. It’s a small book, it’s inexpensive, and it’s not preachy. It’s also available free online at http://www.bartleby.com/141.)

Why Most People Never Write a Novel

They Put It Off

Everybody has a story in them, and almost everybody at one time or another has said, “I should write a book some day.”  Some day. Unfortunately, the longer they put off “some day,” the less likely it will ever happen. Part of the reason: people build up the idea for their story―along with the expectation―to the extent that they might fear starting the book because they just might not be up to what they expect. Also, they might be afraid that they don’t have a story after all.

They Don’t Have Enough Time

Some people genuinely want to stop talking about writing a novel and start writing one. Unfortunately, they might not have the time. They might have full-time jobs, families to raise, or studies to pursue.

They’re Waiting for the Words to Flow

Some people actually sit down in front of a typewriter, a computer or a notebook with every intention of writing that novel … right now. And they sit there waiting for the words to come…waiting…waiting…and then do the dishes or re-arrange their desk.

They Expect To Get It Right the First Time Around

Some people actually get the words flowing, but they’re not the right words―not the perfect words. They get the first line and then look at it. And change it. And change it again. They do the same thing with the first paragraph. And with the first page. After ten or fifteen pages of this, they lose their story, get bored, and stop writing.

Some People Are Afraid of Grammar

These people will never become writers because they’re confusing what writers do with what editors do.

DISCUSSION: Why haven’t you written your novel yet?

About This Workshop

I can’t teach you how to write. You learn that on your own, by writing, revising and reading―but mostly by writing. This workshop was developed over a three-year period in writing workshops that I taught through the UNB College of Extended Learning.

The first part of the workshop will help you to develop the tools you need to feel, smell, taste, hear and see the world around you the way a writer does. You’ll learn how to spy on people in malls, airports and coffee shops and turn them into fictionalized characters for your stories. You’ll learn how to use details that most people miss to make your stories come to life. You’ll learn how to deal with difficult topics like sex, violence and strong language.

In the second part of the workshop, you’ll learn how to capture everything you need to judge whether the novel you’re working on is worth writing, and if so, how to build on that pool of information to begin a step-by-step process to start writing your novel and keep it going until it’s finished.

You become a writer by writing: pretty much all the sessions in this workshop will require you to write, and you’ll be reading aloud.

You’ll be given exercises to do at home. These are not mandatory, but you should do as many of them as possible. They were designed to give you the kind of practice you need to develop the skills you need to write convincingly. 

Rules of the Workshop

Everybody has to write

Everybody has to read aloud what they’ve written

There will be no vicious criticism

There will be no discussion of grammar

What You’ll Need

You’ll need at least one notebook and some implements of writing OR a laptop or other electronic writing gear. You’ll need time to do the assignments, which shouldn’t take too long.

Another book that’s worth reading―in fact, it’s probably the single best book ever written on becoming a writer―is Becoming a Writer. It was written in the 1930s by Dorothea Brande. It’s a small book and it’s inexpensive.

An Introduction to the Most Useful Tool That You’ll Ever Have as a Writer―MINDLESS WRITING 

The single biggest block to getting started on the first line or paragraph of a novel is the expectation that that first line will be the greatest thing you’ve ever done and that it has to be perfect, that everything you’ll be writing will flow out of that first line or paragraph.

The truth: the longer you spend trying to make the first line perfect, the less likely it is that you’ll write your novel. You may never even finish the first sentence.

The only way to write consistently and regularly is to write without elevated expectations of yourself, without editing, and without your imagined reading audience looking over your shoulder at everything you write. Sometimes, you have to write mindlessly.

Mindless writing is exploratory and spontaneous. You relax and expect nothing of yourself other than to put words on paper for a specific period of time―you let the words flow out of your subconscious without stifling them by editorializing, evaluating or judging. Editing and reviewing can be done later.

You do this every morning for 5 to 15 minutes. You pick something to write about. It could be a dream you just had, it could be a conversation you heard, it could be something you read in the news or heard on the radio, it could be an object in your room, it could be symptoms you’re feeling from a cold. Just pick a subject and start writing.

Here’re the tricky parts―you pick a time to start writing and you stick with it, whether you have something to write about or not. You may start off by writing “I have nothing to write about” over and over until something else comes into your mind.

Once you start writing, you can’t stop. It doesn’t matter if you run out of things to say, you keep writing, putting whatever words come into your head onto the paper.

When the fifteen minutes are up, you stop writing. You’ve made a deal with your subconscious. You keep it.

DISCUSSION: Any comments or questions about mindless writing.

In short:

1.      Pick time period

2.      Pick subject

3.      Write continuously, without stopping

4.      Write for the time period you agreed on


A topic will be given and everybody will write for 15 minutes on that topic without editing or putting any thought into it. Once you start writing, you don’t stop until the 15 minutes are up.



Start keeping a journal or notebook with exploratory writing exercises. Use anything that comes into your head, whatever you can remember from a dream, a snippet of remembered conversation, a detailed description of what’s currently going on in your stomach. Don’t think, just write. Write for 5 minutes, write for 15, write for 30. Do what you can. But…don’t write beyond what time you set for yourself.

And KEEP IT SECRET! Don’t let anyone else see your journal. If you think someone else may be reading it, then you’ll be writing for them―not for yourself. You’ll start editing and judging for the other person.


Next week’s session will be held at the Regent Mall. We’ll meet at Starbucks at 6:30. Bring notebooks and pens or laptops. Take a look at the character study template attached to this email.

The next Writing Hurts Like Hell starts January 27, 2014. You can enrol at: http://www.unb.ca/cel/programview/enrichment/fredericton/writing-hurts.html

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