She helped hundreds of writers improve their craft  + 4 ways you can bring her classroom into your blog

I was in 10th grade when I met the Creative Writing teacher that would change my writing, and my life, forever.

I had been writing for years, ever since I was 12, when I wrote a short story about a girl who falls off of a raft, is dramatically rescued, and ends up kissing a boy she likes.

I wrote a lot of sappy love stories in middle school.

But then, in 10th grade, I met Jana Clark.

She was the creative writing teacher at DSA. She had long hair that reached below her waist, a constant smile, and an endless stream of creative writing ideas.

More than anyone else, Jana Clark helped shape me into the writer I am today.

For our first year in the Creative Writing program, she had us do all sorts of different writing activities. She had us interview a grandparent and then tell their story. She had us tell three different stories to the class – one true, and two false, and make them guess which was which.

We did something called “Finger Exercises” where we would write for 10 minutes to a random prompt. Then we would go around the room and share what we had written.

In the following years, we got to choose what we would write. We wrote contracts with Jana for what we wanted to produce each 6 weeks, and then we’d deliver on those contracts.

In 11th grade, wrote an 80 page story about clones and teenagers (which probably had a sappy love story woven in somehow).

In all of my years since, in college courses and creative writing workshops, I have never experienced anything as magical as I did in Jana’s classroom.

I’ve been trying to figure out what she did that made us all grow so much as writers. Part of the magic of that classroom isn’t replicable, because it’s her. It’s Jana.

I still meet her sometimes to chat and have coffee. She lives in a beautiful house near Washington Park in Denver, and I go over there, or meet her at a coffee shop, every 6 months or so. She always understands me, and whatever we are talking about, with a depth and wisdom that is rare.

Here’s what I think worked so well in her classroom:

1. We had a community of writers around us everyday.

We spent 90 minutes in the creative writing room everyday, surrounded by other writers who were working on poems, short stories, word collages, plays, books, novels, etc.

Working in that environment was so nourishing. There wasn’t a question of Will I produce work today? because we were all doing it. That’s what we were there to do.

Bringing it back to blogging…

Blogging can be so isolating. But there are thousands of people writing blogs every single day.  The community is there, even if we can’t see it. We just need to reach out to other bloggers and read their work. To have conversations with them. To meet them in person, by going to conferences, or meet up groups.

2. We shared our work out loud and provided helpful critiques to each other.

Sometimes, we would sit at this gigantic table that was made up of 6 long tables pushed together, and we would go around, and everyone would take a turn reading a piece of their writing out loud.

And then people around the table would take turns giving us critiques. They would talk about our word choice, our sentence structure, our use of creative language techniques.

I probably grew as a writer more from those critiques than from anything else I’ve ever done. And it wasn’t just the critiques of my writing, but of everyone else’s, as well.

Bringing it back to blogging…

Blogging is a skill. And you can read thousands of posts on how to do it right. But there’s nothing that replaces getting constructive feedback from other writers.

Pick someone you trust, but who will be completely honest with you, and ask them to read one of your blog posts and critique it for you. If they are in your target audience, great. If not, tell them to read it for the quality, and not the content. Ask them how you can improve.

Or create a blogger’s circle where people can feel safe to constructively help each other become better writers.

3. We were given creative license to choose what we wanted to write, but there was a contract to make sure we actually did it.

Everyone in that classroom was different, and wanted to write in different genres, about different topics. Part of Jana’s brilliance was realizing that we each needed to grow into our own writing in different ways. After the first year, we were able to guide our own ships. But she had a contract to make sure we delivered the work.

I consider myself a creative person. And part of that is getting these really fantastic ideas that I want to write about. But the other, kind of sucky part is that I often drop certain threads to wander off in search of new ones.

We were so lucky in high school to have someone to hold us accountable.

Bringing it back to blogging…

Let’s face it – most blogs die not because of a lack of skill, but rather a lack of interest.

For this blog, I’ve created a contract with myself – I will blog 3 times a week. And I also have an accountability partner who knows what I’m working on. If I don’t do it, will I get a failing grade? No, but I’ll know that I’m not fulfilling my contract. Somehow, that’s enough to keep me going.

Do you have a blogging contract with yourself?

4. We had a mentor to help guide us on our way.

Jana really cared about us. She still does. There’s a creative writing group of her students who write to prompts over email every month. I have no doubt that she reads every single one of those emails.

And Jana didn’t just read our work and help us with grammar and sentence structure. She was able to see us for the writers we were, embrace our unique strengths, and use those strengths to help us grow in creativity and writing skill.

Bringing it back to blogging…

I often feel like I’m blogging in a vacuum. The only way I know if something works is if it gets shared a lot.

But that’s not the best gauge of success, because I don’t know why it’s being shared, or who is sharing it. Having a blogging mentor would make a huge difference.

I have lots of mentors whom I look up to. I read their blogs and love what I read. I strive to be more like them. But I don’t have anyone who reads my posts and tells me, You know what? This really worked because …

I think that would REALLY help.

Do you have a blogging mentor?

5. We were supposed to be growing and learning, not being perfect all the time.

In high school, we knew that we were young, and inexperienced, and would become better writers with time. (Although I have to admit that some of the writing I heard in that room was the best I’ve ever heard in my life.)

We were allowed to play with different types of writing, and words, and figure it out along the way.

Bringing it back to blogging…

Because of the nature of blogging, I often feel like everything I put out there needs to be perfect. I am building a business and a tribe, and what if something I write doesn’t work?

It keeps me from being truly adventurous with what I write.

But being imperfect is the best way to become better.

How can you embrace imperfection on your own blogging journey?

Jana Clark, I know you’re going to read this. And I just want to thank you for being the most incredible teacher I’ve ever had. You have helped me, and so many others, become better writers, and more creative and independent people.

And for the bloggers out there, here are a few things you can  do today to bring some of Jana’s classroom into your blogging life:

  • Create a blogging group
  • Ask someone to critique your work
  • Go to a blogging conference
  • Read and comment on someone else’s blog
  • Embrace imperfection
  • Create a blogging contract for yourself