This week, my writing classes were scheduled to begin at Appalachian Tech, but they were a no-go. I was disappointed, but not surprised. The school hasn’t had a continuing education class succeed at this satellite campus for some time (the actual campus is an hour’s drive away in Jasper, a bigger city. Mark is currently enrolled in a real estate class there).
Days after I agreed to teach writing classes, the school announced they were closing the Epworth facility. There was some negative commentary in the paper about the facility’s lack of benefit to the community, due to disinterest and low enrollment. Naturally, I assumed this meant my classes would be canceled, but the office explained they were going to continue running FLAG (the literacy program) and the adult continuing education division of the school in this location even while they were moving the degree programs elsewhere. My classes were listed on the website with all the other classes being offered in Jasper. I wrote a press release for the local paper and dropped some flyers around town in places like the library, but the school did nothing to help raise community awareness about the new classes in Epworth. I think they rely on a “if you list it on the internet, they will come,” philosophy , but history has proven this doesn’t work.
When I mention to people I’m teaching a class at Appalachian Tech, they never failed to say, “How can that be? Didn’t that place close?” Power of the press. Whatcha gonna do?
Though the school has tried to keep a presence in Epworth, I’d say they’ve done so only half-heartedly. For example, Mark enrolled in a class at this location last term and it too was canceled. His reaction reflected what commonly happens in cases such as this. He decided not to consider the facility for future classes. The average adult student works their schedule around an expected class, and often, forgo other options. There were five people in Mark’s class, but the school wouldn’t hold the session without seven registrations. Talk about setting yourself up for long term failure: the next time he was interested in adult education, he just waited for a class elsewhere, even though this meant driving an hour to another town. He no longer had confidence in our local facility, so he chose to avoid it altogether.
Dianne and Denver both tried to get information on programs they were interested in too, but no literature was available with answers to their questions about price, scheduling and so on, so they too found other places to pursue their goals. Without consistency or implementing a full service attitude (regardless of class size) a school has no hope of ever building credibility or building up a student body of return customers (nor can they benefit from word of mouth recommendations from satisfied customers). A few mimeograph papers including class lists is dropped out front now and again, but it’s a listing of all the classes held at all campuses, so it isn’t user friendly. Considering the Epworth facility doesn’t have many walk-in’s, it’s an ineffective way to promote their offerings. Certainly not what I would consider savvy marketing.
A few months ago, I attended a meeting with one of the school’s directors to volunteer to help establish a continuing education program here. But in the end, I could see how fruitless the effort would be, because this is a case of absentee management. Anyone with an understanding of business or directorship basics knows how impossible it is to keep a program thriving when no one at the location has decision making power or marketing support to enhance community awareness. Heck, if a school could run itself successfully, we’d have kept FLEX and managed it from Georgia. But we know quality and consistency in education requires close supervision and active management.
The women who work in the office in the Epworth campus, are lovely and committed to a common vision for the school. They have the best of intentions, but they’re not in a position to promote true change or to offer better services, so it’s only a matter of time until the potential of this project wanes. It’s a crime because our small town needs a comprehensive ongoing adult community education resource. We have tons of intelligent residents clamoring that there’s nothing to do in our area, and tons of people badly in need of small business management and/or guidance in other life-applicable subjects. We have this beautiful facility standing empty, but no authority or leadership to put a program together to meet the community’s needs.
As someone with a wealth of experience building programs, I can’t help but be frustrated by the inadequacy in the planning and implementation of programs at this location. Campaigning to breathe life into this facility seems futile – I don’t think a single person can do much and the hurdles seem to daunting. It was hard enough to dig in and do this kind of thing for my own school – I can’t imagine drumming up enough enthusiasm to do it all again for a non-profit that few people seem interested in. And while fundraising and gaining support for any worthy endeavor is a noble pursuit, in the end, I’m leery because this college isn’t an independent organization that can take the ball and run with it. It’s simply an offshoot of a bigger institution, one that will always make decisions at the main campus, where the board is influenced by a different cultural mindset. That’s probably the biggest obstacle of all.
Anyway, I continue to meet with my reading student at this empty college campus two mornings a week and every time I walk through the quiet halls and pass the vacant front reception area with it’s empty brochure display racks, I sigh.
I say to Mark, “Can you imagine what we could do with this sort of facility to work with?”
And he chuckles and says, “Kill ourselves working until we crack again, I’d guess.”
He’s right, of course.
Now that I’m primed and ready to teach memoir writing (with class plans carefully organized) I’ll just have to seek another outlet. The funny thing is, I don’t care whether or not I am paid for teaching – I just want the experience of working with aspiring new writers. I miss interaction with students and I believe teaching non-accredited classes today will lay a foundation for teaching at higher levels in the future – a long term goal. I know hands on teaching is the best way to develop strong communication skills and effective teaching methods and exercises. No time like the present to tinker with something that’s engaging and inspirational on a personal level.
I do have intentions of offering writing seminars at our new business when it’s open (some taught by me and, hopefully, some taught by others) because I’m hoping to make the Bean Tree an artistic hub in this community. But for now, I am thinking of volunteering at community based organizations – places where seniors congregate or people who have gone through difficult times (drug rehabilitation etc…) and helping them discover inner truths and personal revelation through writing. These students may later be the people who come to open mic readings at the Bean Tree, or who participate in a community writer’s blog or some other outlet I might organize. I still toy with the idea of an in-house publication for local writers, much like one just getting started in Sarasota just before I moved.
In a small town, organizing formal classes isn’t easy –especially when you take into account that 30% of our residents never graduated from high school and many can’t read at all. Promoting academic interests in a place where academic interests have not been readily embraced in the past, makes the concept more complicated than just organizing a writing class at a community center. But hey, it’s not like I don’t thrive best when challenged. I’d be pretty jazzed if I could develop literary exposure for the abundant local artists here, in some grass roots project.
Anyway, teaching writing here presents an interesting challenge, one I can’t stop mulling over.
Meanwhile, it’s time for an update on my personal writing…(if anyone is reading this boring entry to the end..)
I’m on the last 50 pages of my novel rewrite and I’ve begun to research methods for sending my revised book out to the world. The other day I read about a new publishing house (two years old) seeking manuscripts. They specialize in Historical romances and are seeking stories with strong plotlines and good research – stories that read more like the historicals that were popular twenty years ago. I read that listing and thought hummmm………….. sounds like they’d like my work.
So yesterday, on our way home from Atlanta (we have season tickets to the Broadway shows presented here, and we just saw The Drowsy Chaperone. Cute. ) I stopped by Borders to see if they carried books from that press. (They didn’t). While there, I picked up the “hot sheet” of romance title picks, then grabbed a few books from the leading authors on the bestseller list.
I scanned the romance section, marveling at the wealth of titles released this season, especially pleased to see how many new historical novels were featured, because two years ago, historicals were considered dead in the romance genre and authors were told to turn their sights to other storylines (paranormal, chick lit and other styles). According to writing journals now, historical fiction is making a comeback. Whew.
The funny thing is, I haven’t read a romance novel in over four years and the last few I tried to read, I couldn’t get through. This is partially because the genre has changed and the popular historicals today have evolved into cheesy romance drivel rather than good historical novels with a fun romantic thread running through the story (which is what defined historical romance twenty years ago), but I must admit it’s partially because my personal expectations of literature have evolved too. Growth’s a bitch.
My novel is definitely not like the currently popular historical romances. But it isn’t a serious work of historical fiction either. I’m sort of floating out there, a unique story that doesn’t lend itself to the expectations of the standard romance novel, yet it’s limited because it has too strong a romantic element to be a serious book. But thanks to two years in an MFA and time away from the manuscript (which allows me to see it now with new eyes so I can make positive change) I believe I’ve reworked my basic story into a lovely book that deserves to be published.
Last night, I decided to read one of the New York Times bestseller historical romances that I picked up. Mark and I had just given ourselves a pump class and I knew I was going to be sore, so I was sitting in the tub thinking it would be fun to read something racy and frivolous for a change while I soak my old, tired bod.
I got to page ten, then tossed the book aside.
“PAGE TEN!” I yelled. “And already, the hero has met the heroine and you can tell it’s true love.”
“How can you tell?” Mark asked.
I leaned over the side of the tub and, in my best come hither voice, said, “The hair stood up on the back of his neck when he sensed his lady-love. They locked eyes with intensity, and the blood pulsed in their veins…..”
Mark tried to flash just such a gaze, but he looked more like a baby passing gas than a historical heartthrob.
“I have to admit, she’s good. This woman is a master at format. No wonder she’s one of the hottest selling historical romance writers in the biz.”
“When do your lovers meet?” Mark asked. (It’s been a few years since he read my book, and though he’s asked to see the re-writes, I haven’t shared the vastly improved version. I’m no longer interested in sharing my work before it is really ready. I began as a writer who never let anyone read her work, then I cracked in a moment of weakness, and after that door was ajar, I found myself allowing anyone who asked a chance to read what I was working on. Big mistake. I’m back to keeping my projects under wraps now, because outside opinions influence and sway the process and you end up apologizing and making excuses for all your inadequacies, when actually, writing garbage early on is a part of developing a layered story. Sharing your work too early is like opening the oven door when making a soufflé. It leads to the entire thing falling flat, in my opinion.)
Where was I? Oh yeah. “Page 76. I’m doomed,” I answered.
“I’ve told you before and I’ll say it again. You didn’t write a romance novel. Don’t compare your book to those.”
“But the sad truth is, I didn’t write a literary historical novel either. You can’t deny mine is still a love story, and that makes it a romance, right?”
For fun, we spent a few minutes trying to contrive a way to thrust my character’s together sooner in my story, just to get past the early rejection I’ll no doubt get from an editor or agent holding it up to current romance novel standards.
Mark suggested I place my hero in the insane asylum featured in chapter one. Yeah, that’s romantic….I can make my hero into a cured schizophrenic. Sexy.
The more we tried to shift the plot, the more convinced I was that it simply couldn’t be done without destroying the strong motivation that pushes the characters forward. You simply need all the early adversity my characters encounter independently to make the circumstances that bring them together later on believeable
Thus the catch 22.
I’m reading four historical romances this week – or at least, I’ll give it a college try. As I turn pages, I’m studying the writing, the plot, the format and the publisher. It’s not that I’m doing a study of this sort of writing to sell a romance novel – I don’t think I could make myself imitate this kind of writing even if I wanted to now – but I want to have a better understanding of the business of publishing so I can consider just where my novel belongs in the big scheme and how I should proceed from here. I’m reading with new, educated eyes now, which makes the romance genre fascinating in an entirely different way. I should point out here that I am not being critical of the genre, even though it would be easy to tear this kind of writing down by literary standards.
The fact is, I think there’s a place for all kinds of writing in this world, and it takes skill to write a good piece of commercial fiction just as it takes skill to write a literary masterpiece. These different sorts of books require very different skills, but who’s to say one has more merit than another? Our audiences count, regardless of whether they show up for intellectual stimulus or entertainment. And there’s something to be said for the wider audience commercial fiction gains. I’m not talking about sales or income potential for a book. I’m talking about an author’s work serving as a vehicle to promote good writing. When few people are turning the pages of a book, no matter how brilliant, its impact is bound to be minimal. Perhaps a well written piece of commercial writing can be an important contribution to fiction. It’s all in how you look at it. Stephen King was ostracized by the literary world for years because he was considered a hack who pounded out commercial horror, and yet, he authored one of the most respected books on writing theory published in recent years.
It’s interesting – this having come full circle. I’ve paced around the writing beast, seeing it from a multitude of angles now. I have a wider perspective on what sells, what’s good, (two different things, unfortunately) and all the options in between. But despite what I’ve been taught by romance writers in seminars and lectures, and by literary authors in a master’s program, I’ve managed to maintain a respect for both sides of the spectrum.
Doesn’t help me define where I belong one iota. But it sure gives a girl a lot to think about and perhaps even a platform for teaching. There is no right or wrong when it comes to self expression. Only what’s right or wrong for you.
It’s all good!