Uncle Orson’s Writing Class

Back in April, my husband surprised me for my birthday by signing me up for Orson Scott Card’s writing class in August.  He must have gotten tired of listening to me talk about how someday I wanted to go to his class and decided to take matters into his own hands.  Plus, by then we knew we were moving to North Carolina, where the class is taught, so he saw a perfect opportunity to save himself some money by not having to buy a plane ticket.  I was so stunned that I had to put my head in between my knees and take deep breaths.  Apparently I’m just full of bluster and bravado because the idea of actually going gave me the vapors.  Thankfully, the move across the country gave me plenty to think about and took my mind off of my impending class.

First, let me tell you in detail about my writing experience and education.  I have none.  If you count high school English, which I don’t, then that’s about it.  I majored in music composition, so all my writing experience has to do with music.  Composing music is infinitely easier than creative writing, in my opinion.  You don’t have to know an instrument’s motivation and history in order to write for it.  Part of me wished I had taken writing classes in college because I harbor a secret love for it.  I wish I was better at it.  I wish I knew what I was doing, hence me dreaming of taking OSC’s class and becoming a better writer.

Card is an amazing storyteller and what appealed to me about his class was to learn how to craft a good story.  Lucky me, that’s exactly what we talked about.  We spent our first morning learning point of view, which was fascinating.  One thing he said was that “past tense is the language of truth.”  We did exercises in writing in past tense, limited.  We spent the rest of the day talking about his M.I.C.E. quotient, which stands for Milieu (fancy French word for everything, surroundings and people), Idea, Character, and Event.  These are the backbones of stories.  Then he gave us the assignment to write five different entire structures of a story on one 3×5 index card each.  Our ideas had to come from books we randomly came upon at a library or bookstore, from things we observed as we were out and about, and one from interviewing a stranger.  After our day was done, we paired up and ventured into Greensboro to create our stories.

I took this assignment seriously and headed with my eighteen-year-old partner to the local library.  I found a book on Alzheimer’s and one on Harley-Davidson motorcycles.  I stared into space for a minute and then forced myself to write the story.  My endings were lame, but I kept it as it was.  Then, I interviewed a librarian and found out she was from the Bronx but went to college here, becoming a case workers for juvenile offenders.  Fascinating!  I made up a story based on her and quickly wrote it down.  As we drove around, I saw a couple of people who gave me ideas for more stories.  That night, after my hour commute back home, I stayed up writing the rest of my stories and rewriting my other stories.  I was ready for the next day.

On the second day, we critiqued people’s story cards and generated new ideas for their stories.  It surprised me that so many people hadn’t finished the assignment!  Some had only done one or two cards, or hadn’t written endings for their stories.  The overachiever in me was heartily offended.  At first, I would cringe every time someone read their story card.  They all sounded completely stupid, books I would never read.  But after Card and the class were done with it, the story had become something that I would definitely read.  Card would rail against the bad writing, but also have great respect for the ideas.  He never once said that a story was stupid, even though I was sure thinking it.  I was too chicken to volunteer my cards to be critiqued in front of the whole class, but when we broke up into small groups, I really got into the whole process.  It was fun!  One of the most painful story cards that were read in front of the entire class ended up in my group and by the time we’d talked about it for twenty minutes, I wanted to write that story.  We also read through writing excerpts from the class members that were staying the entire week, which was the Boot Camp portion.  Card had trained us those two days to find the failings and sure enough, I could see exactly what he’d been talking about and hammering into our brains.  Withholding information, point of view violations, making the reader care about the characters, how to correctly generate suspense, etc.  Fascinating.

The rest of the second day was spent talking about how to get published, which was very interesting, but I’m nowhere near that stage, nor do I have great aspirations for it.  I filed it away for sharing with my writer friends.  We had a break for dinner and came back for a Q&A and book signings.  The Q&A was funny and informative and I got to ask my one question I’d been hanging onto the entire class.  First, let me tell you that I agree with Card’s judgement that academia ruins good writing.  In my experience as a music composition major, we were discouraged from writing music that anyone could listen to and appreciate.  We wrote for each other and our teachers.  Even though I learned a ton on how to write music, I don’t think very much of it has applied to my everyday life, and I think it should have.  Card says that the same thing happens in English departments everywhere.  His tirades against academia were virulent and harsh, but it rang true to me, having experienced my own version of it.  I couldn’t help cringe a bit when I thought about my English major friends and wonder how they would feel listening to it.  Card also said that every writer should have a perfect grasp of the orthography of English, so there is no excuse for bad grammar, but that since we are all fluent speakers of English, there’s no reason why a writer can’t have a great voice and style.  Oh man, style.  That was a whole sixty minute rant peppered with words like “crap” and other four-lettered ones I won’t write here.

Back to my question.  “If you’re the only person teaching this non-academic way of writing,” I asked, “where am I supposed to send my kids to learn how to write?”  His answer was “Why can’t you just teach them?”  Oh man, I must have had home school mom stamped on my forehead.  But he went on to say that if my kids want to learn how to write, they need to study history, anthropology, sociology, and psychology and they need to read good writing in the form of great stories, poems, and plays.  He said that was a better education than getting a degree in English.

The only thing I wish is that Card himself was a better teacher.  He is passionate and full of knowledge, but he gets off topic all the time, or focuses on some random tiny thing for way longer than necessary.  And the ranting!  Oh my heavens, I have not heard that much ranting in a long, long time.  The first day he came across as just a crabby old man, but the second day he was in his stride and much more productive.  I could see how his college classes might be hard to take.  My notes are a jumbled mess and I wished more than once he would have had Power Point slides, or at least written half of what he was saying on the white board.  Oh well.  Even if I were to never write an original story, what I learned will help me be a better reader of stories and a better teacher to my kids.  The class was worth it just for those two aspects.

When I got my books signed, I chatted with him for a minute and talked about my experiences in college.  He was very nice, so I suppose he saves the ranting for people who ask questions like “when can you use a dream sequence?”  Answer: “Never.  And if you do, I’ll come and egg your house.”  He gave me some ideas for teaching my kids writing and I made sure I got a picture with him.

My inner fan girl was very happy.


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5 responses to "Uncle Orson’s Writing Class". Comments are closed for this post.
  • Rick Murdock says:


    Awesome. I’ve wondered about his writing classes. Sounds like you learned a lot. Say hi to the husband for me.

    Rick Murdock

  • Sam Bradley says:

    Wow, you make me feel that I need to take a writing class like this one. Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing. Sam…..

  • Rachel says:

    What a cool opportunity! I thoroughly enjoyed his book “A Storyteller in Zion,” and it’s interesting to hear how he is as a teacher. And it sounds like you had just the right question to ask. I just wish I could have been there with you. So fun!

  • Caren says:

    Awesome. Good for you for doing something so outside your comfort zone! And I love that for as inexperienced as you felt, you at least knew that you weren’t as lame as some of the people in the class! I would love to talk to you about it more. Actually, I would have loved to have attended with you!

    I don’t always agree with all of Card’s philosophies on the art and craft of writing. And without being there to know the nature of the lecture, I disagree that academia ruins good writing. I do think that contemporary art (in all it’s mediums) is often so far removed from the mainstream human experience that it is pretty much irrelevant. However, I think that a discerning writer can gain much from higher education in honing skills that might otherwise remain soft and immature. Personally, I wish more writers HAD an English or other liberal arts degree, because for every intelligent one out there it seems there are dozens more who have no business getting published. I guess I wish readers were better educated as well, because then they wouldn’t tolerate the cheap imitations, and fake writers wouldn’t make any money and would have to find something better suited to their skills. Like writing the tv shows where they seem to get so much of their material.

    I recently heard that “The Help” was rejected something like 60 times before finally getting published. How does that make any sense? And yet, I recently finished a novel with the question, “How did YOU ever get published?” running through my mind the whole time I read it. One thing academia does is teaches both creator and audience to be more discerning, and (as long as it isn’t taken to an elitist extreme where the art loses all relevance) we could all benefit from more of that!

    Awesome experience, Jenny. I hope that you will do it again sometime!

  • Jenny says:

    Yes, the whole time I was there I kept thinking, “I wish someone with a degree in English would take this class and tell me what they think!” And that’s why I also asked him how my kids were going to learn how to write. I mean, they have to learn the craft somehow, right? What classes should they take? Which ones are a waste of time? I just don’t know.

    Mike pointed out to me that Brandon Sanderson teaches writing and goes about it completely different than Card. Maybe I should start listening to his “Writing Excuses” podcasts on iTunes and see what I learn there.

    Yeah, audiences are pretty much dumb most of the time. That’s one thing I found really valuable from Card’s class, was learning how to discern good writing and be a “wise reader”, as he puts it.

    You want to come with me next time? I’d love to see the gears in your brain spin as he talks and rants and get your viewpoint.