Lessons of ENGL 225 – What I Learned from a Community College Fiction Workshop


My parents moved house last summer, leaving the home they’d lived in since shortly after my birth in 1995 for one about forty miles away, nearer to my mother’s family, my sister, and I. The process of moving out of that house involved me sifting through and clearing out a space in which I’d had a bed and a home on-and-off for my entire life. The emotional effects this experience spawned can help define many of my actions over the course of the latter half of 2022. I found old notebooks, journals, collected homework assignments from high school, pens, research materials, toys, video games, books, a surprising number of cassette tapes – every sort of artifact a person could absent-mindedly neglect to get rid of over 27 years of life and find themselves deciding to part with through tear-blurred eyes on a time crunch. 

One of these artifacts was an abnormally small 32 Gigabyte USB flash-drive of which I’d come into ownership at some point around age 20. It was at this age and time, lolling around as exclusively a French major, that I decided on a whim to enroll in ENGL 151 – Intro to Fiction Writing – through the KU English department. By the end of this term, I’d discerned that I was able to write constructively, that I enjoyed the craft of writing as much as or even more than I enjoyed the fucking around on this blog, and I tacked an English major (emphasis in Creative Writing) alongside the French major. Between Fall 2015 and my graduation in 2017, I took five courses in creative writing – Two fiction workshops, two creative non-fiction workshops, and a poetry workshop – and the creations from those classes all ended up in a folder titled “Writingz” on that abnormally small 32 Gigabyte USB flash-drive. 

One night in July, for in all likelihood the first time since graduation, I read through the work that had defined several semesters of my college experience. I initially cringed my way through these; I found it easy to pick at each work’s obvious inadequacies, some familiar and others new. I read through awkward conversations and flashed back to how much I hated writing expository dialogue and how I’d tap at my Macbook in Watson Library well past midnight just to get from scene to scene. I noticed the obvious labor I had to put towards conveying emotional significance to anything, an issue from which I’m well aware that I suffer now but never identified back then. These revelations didn’t surprise me. I’m a flawed writer now, and I was even more so back then. I expected to cringe a bit.

I wasn’t prepared to credit myself as much as I did. There was something invigorating and indeed almost frustrating that stirred in me as I saw good, original plot threads and characterizations that went ignored in favor of safer ones, or when I saw brave ideas fail in execution. In the middle of what felt like the first year after two straight frustrating years in writing in which I was both enjoying myself and producing relatively consistent and ambitious work, I found myself reflecting and for the first time in a while understanding a few truths related to what I consider my primary craft:

1 – I have improved as a writer since college and I can continue to improve as a writer
2 – It helped to be in an environment and structure which pushed me to treat writing as a craft
3 – I can write fiction and would like to try my hand at it again

I decided to enroll in ENGL 225, Fiction Writing Workshop, at the community college where I work. There were some prerequisite courses that I hadn’t taken at the university, but I e-mailed the professor in the summer and asked if he could make an exception given that I’d earned a bachelor’s in English already, and he thankfully obliged. I showed up to campus at 9AM on the first day of the fall semester in August with little sense of what to expect from the instructor, no foreknowledge of any of my classmates, and only the outline of a sense of what I might get out of the experience. This is what I took away from it:

1 – Fiction writing remains an interest

I haven’t been fully out of fiction-writing since college, but little of what I’d written in-between 2017 and now has really been published anywhere, and that which was published was formatted for the blog. I haven’t started, finished, and published a formalized short story to eyes other than my own since college, though. I’ve started and finished short stories that didn’t get shared and I’ve started and left unfinished lengthier fiction works in that time, but never hit all three. I prefer reading creative non-fiction to fiction, I enjoyed writing non-fiction more than I did fiction as an undergraduate, I wrote exclusively non-fiction (typically discursive) essays in graduate school, and the only formalized creative writing I’ve published online have been nonfiction essays.

All of this considered, I had sort of figured that I just couldn’t be a fiction writer – Either I didn’t enjoy it, or I’d fallen out of practice with it, or I just wouldn’t be able to write it as well as I write non-fiction. This was wrong. Last fall, I found myself having being challenged by and having fun with writing in a manner that I haven’t been when just writing for myself, especially after such a long break without it. I can still do this, I found myself thinking, which was unfortunately a question that I’d let myself develop through years of inaction.

2 – Fiction writing might be a strength

What hit me was how different this writing was from the essays I wrote each week at Football Hell. The main struggles that came from writing that blog were the impossibility of describing how paradoxically intensely my blood flows for Kansas Football and the fact that the season’s relative success above my relatively meager expectations for the team left me in a place where I was never genuinely all that hurt by the losses they suffered down the stretch. It’s the best and worst part of nonfiction writing: it’s all based in reality, I don’t have to come up with the events, but I have to describe and ascribe import to them, and that’s very difficult if nothing of all that much immediate intrigue happens. Perhaps that’s why I liked coming up with the events of my short stories so much.

I didn’t expect this: I struggled with creating premises as an undergraduate. I was constantly under time crunches with short story assignments because I’d waffle over which of several kernels could be effectively turned into a decent story up to within a few days of the due date. I didn’t have that issue this fall! I’m not sure whether to attribute that to any personal growth, or if I just got lucky that I remembered an idea I typed into my phone’s Notes app when I was stoned years ago that inspired the first story and saw a fan/player near-incident at a college soccer game on TV that inspired the second. Regardless, I felt a joy with turning those premises into characters, narrative arcs, themes, scenes, dialogue, and every other little trapping that felt so difficult years ago felt invigorating this time. What was once debilitatingly frustrating became a challenge I was excited to overcome, and I feel like I did well for myself.

I wrote two stories for this course. The first, entitled “Yaz”, involved a researcher from a faraway planet almost completely to Earth (the only known difference being his planet’s development of space travel and reconnaissance) on a mission to discover why his planet was able to develop such a robust space program, who meets a fairly normal guy on an otherwise normal Saturday and struggles to reach a usable conclusion. The second, “Til I Die”, involves a soccer fan who attends a late-2000s MLS playoff match to distract him from his life falling apart around him. 

3 – I can get a better product out of difficult work

I had started loosely putting together “Yaz” over the Summer of 2022. I had an outline, a series of plot beats, and some comedic details I wanted to include scribbled out in a notebook, and as a result the actual process of putting words down on the page was fairly easy, a matter of turning thoughts and plot schematics I’d already made into a cohesive work. The second story was more difficult, as I eschewed the outwardly comedic tone in which I’ve lived practically an entire life since I started putting pen to page in elementary school in favor of a more measured, literary tone. Where I could carry the plot and characters of “Yaz” along from joke to joke, I had to rely on the central character of “Til I Die” to make the events of the narrative evoke meaning in the reader.

“Til I Die” was probably the most difficult piece of writing I’ve created, especially considering that I was asking a class of college students that I knew had next-to-no interest in sports narratives, let alone sports fan narratives, let alone late-2000s American soccer fan narratives. “Til I Die” was not fun to write, but I feel like it’s better in its current state (and my classmates agreed) than “Yaz” is. This has been a central issue with my relationship to writing in the recent past: Once it stops being fun, once it becomes work, I have a bad tendency to stop trying. In this case, I had to finish.

4 – The eyes of others prompt me to treat writing differently

More specifically, the due date set by a professor (who I should note is a great creative writing instructor) prompts me to finish things and the knowledge that my classmates will read it prompts me to prioritize its quality. I’ve been compiling and coding their commentary and I’m working on revisions of both (the versions attached in this post are the versions that I turned in). 

My classmates saw things in my writing that I hadn’t intended to show, and gave me ideas for where to turn next. They also gave stakes to the work – I was able to discern from class discussions that a soccer fan narrative would not be innately interesting to most of them, for example, which meant that I had to work to make that story relevant to an audience outside of its niche. Had it not been for that external pressure, that story would have ended up a little more entertaining to me personally and a little easier to write, but overall worse as a work of standalone fiction. Speaking of genre –

5 – I am not so allergic to certain genres

In Fall 2015, I took a class entitled “Topics in Literature: Science Fiction” at KU. This class, which involved engaging with new sci-fi works each week, presented a shift in my understanding of my personal taste. I came into the class with the mindset of “I’m like a nerd guy, right? I’m supposed to like science fiction, right?” despite the reality that, at the time, my favorite TV shows were The Simpsons and Mr. Show with Bob and David, my favorite TV channel was the NFL Network, my favorite movie was Hot Rod, my favorite video games Symphony of the Night and Skate 3, and my favorite books were Chuck Klosterman’s I Wear The Black Hat and Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball. I was something like four weeks into the class, struggling to watch Serenity and work through a William Gibson novel when I realized that, broadly, I didn’t care for the genre and never really had. I wrote my term papers for the class on a Community episode and the technical limitations which led to so many early arcade games being based in outer space and accepted that this was not necessarily an interest of mine.

It was sort of freeing – From that point, I realized that my tastes just weren’t innately calibrated towards science fiction. It wasn’t necessarily that I would always dislike sci-fi (I love Shardlight and Primer and 17776 and the concept albums of Figurine) but I stopped stereotyping myself and feeling like there was something wrong with me when I didn’t get pumped for new Marvel Studios movies. This also helped make sense of why it felt like a chore to sit through the three Hobbit movies my family went to, why I couldn’t get through a chapter of Game of Thrones, and why all my Legend of Zelda saves capped out at about an hour and a half of play. Something in me, I figured, was innately inclined away from science fiction and fantasy, in favor of works that were more realistic, literary, or based in a New Englander in a flannel shirt sitting at a table monologuing about the banana sticking to the wall. I will admit that I’ve allowed this to fester somewhat, to the point where I’m contemplating whether JARMUSH, JRMUSCH, or JARMSCH would read better on my license plate.

Reading the stories of my classmates in this workshop helped break me out of that sort of generic rigidity. Several of my favorite stories from the class came out of those very genres in which I had for far too long considered myself disinterested. Reading these stories with a critical eye, focusing on how the narrative was constructed and characters developed, helped me to recognize the depths of isolation and hopelessness that can come from a space voyage that spans generations, or the inner political and familial struggles that can come from a fantasy world created wholecloth from the writer’s mind. I feel a bit dumb for not recognizing that capacity before, but I find myself choosing avenues that I might have shirked beforehand in the months since I finished the class.

6 – I am amazed by the creative capacity of people 

I left this course so impressed by the writing that we were all able to create together. I hadn’t been in a formal writing group since about mid-2020, which I came to realize was uncoincidentally when I entered something of an awkward period in writing that didn’t come to an end until this year. Collaborative work in writing is so valuable to me, and it’s something I’ve tried to continue with even now that the course has ended. This experience has me searching for new creative communities – I’m now in an informal writing group with friends from my work, I’m working with a coworker on creative writing programming at our writing center, and the idea of going back to graduate school to focus on creative writing is less ridiculous than I considered it at the beginning of last year.

My one real outward recommendation for writers is to try to find a collaborative writing community, however that takes shape. I’ve found that doing it in-person had huge benefits for me and had me reading from people I otherwise might not have met, and I’m sure there are many online options as well. Even if it isn’t a college class like this, finding a group might be what you need to get moving or keep moving as a writer. I recommend taking a community college course as well! Well aware as I am that time, money, and location are constraints for many, I recommend taking the chance on learning something new or picking an interest back up through a community college like this. I met many new, interesting people, and have had my personal perspective widened through the experience alongside the benefits that it brought to me as a writer. 

I don’t know what I’ll do with the stories I wrote. I still consider them to be works in progress, and I will continue to revise and improve them, and I’d like to try my hand at submitting them somewhere. If not, I’ll at least have a space for them here, or maybe on the Substack. 

About Joe Bush

The guy behind JoeBush.net and a lot of other things
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