I finally bit the bullet last week and booked myself onto a creative writing course. I’ve been thinking about it for ages, and had my eye on a suitable course, but it took a week of being off work and laid-low with a flu-type virus to give me the time to decide that it was what I definitely wanted to do.
It wasn’t such an easy decision either: there are lots of reasons why I had hesitated to take the plunge, and an equal number in favour of picking up my pencil and going back to the classroom.
It’s a big deal embarking on any course of study, not least because of the cost involved, and there’s a huge amount of creative writing classes out there to choose from. Many are provided by universities or colleges, but there’s a significant market for creative writing courses run by individuals, including several organised around the ‘mindful’ concept of living. There’s one like that available not far from here, and I have no doubt that it would be as useful and interesting as many others; I’m just not sure I’m ready for the meditative aspect of ‘mindfulness’.
The outlay for ‘adult’ education courses varies hugely, depending, amongst other factors, on the length of the course. Not knowing very much about the creative writing industry (and it is an industry; a real money spinner for many institutions), I opted for a short course at a nearby university. My thought process behind this decision was that if the course is being run by a university, the tutors are more likely to be experienced in the field; also, as it is only ten weeks long and not so expensive, if I don’t like it, or it doesn’t suit me, at least I haven’t had to re-mortgage the house to pay for it.
Another thing which had been putting me off is the bad press which creative writing courses seem to generate; there does seem to be a snobbish attitude around the whole concept of being taught skills which could make you a better writer. It’s as if a ‘real’ writer shouldn’t have to be shown by someone else how to do it. I worried for a while that it might be a waste of time, let alone money, attending a course at all. However, I came to the conclusion that it is more likely to be a benefit to me.
The Guardian last week ran a piece by Rachel Cusk in its Review section about the rise of creative writing courses. In it, the writer S J Watson is quoted as saying “the only way to become a better writer is by writing.” It’s true: my writing has become much better with practice. I know this because I’ve started to have pieces accepted for publication and I’ve even won a couple of competitions. With time, lots of time, I know that I will continue to improve; and I think I would be likely to do so without attending a creative writing course. So why bother? All writers, I think, need to do two things to be successful: they should write a lot; that goes without saying. They must also read, and read widely. I have no problem with reading; I read all the time, and I am happy to read almost anything, (I’ve been known to read the back of a shampoo bottle for want of any other form of literature), because it all helps me understand how other people write (even those bubble-filled words of a cosmetic industry copy writer must have taught me something). As far as the writing is concerned though, I try my hardest to get things onto paper as often as possible, but it just isn’t that easy: there are distractions; there are books to read. I find it very hard to develop the habit of writing regularly, and I’m hoping that by forcing myself out of the house every week, in midwinter, to attend an evening writing course, I might start to find a rhythm I can stick to.
Another author quoted in the Guardian’s piece is Anne Enright. She says: “A creative writing course gets the stuff out of your head and into the room.” That’s what I need, a process to help force ideas out from within my brain to a place where they are infinitely more useful: written down on paper or a computer screen. If a writing course can speed this process up, or perhaps teach me methods which make it more likely to happen, then it’s money well spent.
There’s a more important reason I want to do this course; it has to do with the communal aspect of attending a class. Writing is a solitary occupation; it demands that you spend long periods of time alone with your thoughts. You are never lonely because your characters and settings generally come along for the ride. But that protagonist who’s just spent hours driving your story forward from the front seat, is hardly likely to start pointing out the hidden pot holes in your plot or suggest a different route you might take for better effect. My issue is that it’s hard to find people to share my work with. Attracting instant feedback on your efforts isn’t easy; the internet helps to an extent, but it’s very hard to give (and take) criticism in a tweet or a comment on a blog. What I’m looking for is a group of peers with whom I can discuss the ins and outs of writing, the nuts and bolts if you like. Better by far to share opinions and ideas in the ‘safe’ and immediate space of a creative writing class; a place where you can more easily find out what someone really means when they say something in your writing didn’t ‘work’ for them. It is this feature of my course that I’m most looking forward to exploiting: receiving constructive comments on my own work and offering my own thoughts on everyone else’s, but with the added input of tutors with a proven record in the business of writing.
I’m not naïve. I don’t expect to be shown how to write an award winning novel after just ten classes. But if I can be helped a little on my journey to becoming a more confident and, dare I say, more competent writer, then I won’t have wasted my time.
The business of writing is much like that of living: just as I constantly aim to live my life ever more productively, without wasting too much time, so I wish to improve my writing, word by word, sentence by sentence, until it can be as good as it can be.
Hmm…perhaps that ‘mindful’ writing course would suit me after all.
© flyingscribbler 2013