10.12.10

In Defence of Writing Courses

       Writing courses get a bad rap. A myriad of critical voices exist online (see links at the bottom of the page*) that suggest, often quite vehemently, that writing courses are cynical, useless money-spinners that attempt to teach that which cannot be taught and churn out egotistical literary autobots without voice or individuality. Is that really the whole story though? I would like to take it upon myself, on this rainy Friday afternoon, to present the case for the defence.


        There exists the idea that writers are born, not made, and to some extent I agree that this is true. It is impossible to deny that some people have a knack for story-telling and expression and some just don't; in the best cases the natural level of ability tallies with the innate desire to write, and all is well with the world. It makes sense that an interest and fascination with words might foster a talent for them, for instance. However, the idea that needs challenging with relation to writing courses though is that having, say, perception, ideological authority and lyrical flair, are enough to turn a person who likes the idea of writing into a fully-fledged writer. Of course, it's beautifully romantic to think that one can acquire all of the required attributes whilst gazing out of an open window or doodling absent-mindedly under a tree, with little to influence or inform us apart from our natural God-given talent and our aptitude for picking the right words. The idea that one might 'learn' to write creatively does, I admit, contradict and somewhat sully the romanticism of these ideals, and of course, it's wonderful and important that writing is one of the few crafts that can be nurtured by anyone, anywhere, without needing the right grades or £9,000 a year (!). That I'm not arguing with; in fact it makes me rather proud. A creative writing course is not a prerequisite to anything, least of all literary success. What I really want to put forward here is the idea that writing courses might be useful, and why.

           The truth of the matter is that writing is hard. It's difficult, disheartening and frustrating for the same reasons that it's liberating, exciting and the most fun you can have with your clothes on: it all comes down to you. When it's good, everything you ever felt or thought is useful and every emotion has a place, validating every experience you ever had, and the fruits of self-revelation and self-expression are, when accepted and praised, sweeter than anything you could ever have imagined. You can hog every inch of praise with a clear conscience, knowing that every word came from your mangled mind and your vivid, idiosyncratic soul. It's awesome, when it's good. When it's not so good, it's an entirely different kettle of fish, and then constructive criticism and the gentle identification of your foibles is worth its weight in gold.

          Even the most immediately talented start-out writer will spend their first few months, or maybe years, crossing out, rewriting and discarding entire stories because they don't say what they were meant to, or that device that worked so well for J.K. Rowling has morphed into an embarrassment on your page. At its worst, you experience a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde split: you can write something and honestly feel that gives voice to your deepest desire, your deepest fear, expressing it in a way that makes it fly across the page, singing with its own perfection. Then you read it the next day and feel angry with your hand for not refusing to record this garbage in ink on the page. It's like a recurring instance of writing a love/rage/break-up letter at night and then feeling a bit nauseous when you read it through again in the morning (there's a reason why that advice exists). All in all, it's a frustrating process when you don't know what you're doing, and make no mistake about it, even if you like the idea of writing and have a relatively good grasp of your native language, at the beginning you don't know squat. Zip. Nada. You don't know how to pace, how to edit, how to build tension or knock it down. Your dialogue is difficult, your characters are caricatures and you just don't know how to say what you want to say. Of course you don't. You're just a baby with a pen in your hand.

          It's as true as ever that you must learn to write (and you must LEARN) by doing, practising and sweating a little, or a lot, but I think enrolling on a writing course at that early stage helps to shuffle you through that forest or out of that hole without throwing in the towel or killing yourself with your pen. If you're an absolute or relative beginner, that course is likely to be a short or online one, which is helpful as relative anonymity helps you achieve this with the minimum of anxiety or blushes (or retribution, depending on how bad your work is). Anything that helps you stick at it and progress, whilst gently giving you some feedback and pointing out your flaws, is a good thing, I think, for both you and for the hapless friends or family members who are stuck smiling falsely, trying to work out what the hell to say, when they are forced to read your early work. I am very much speaking from experience with relation to all of this, if you hadn't already guessed: I've been writing with a fair amount of dedication for about two years now, and in that time have done both the Oxford University 'Getting Started in Creative Writing' online course (3 months) and am about to finish the University of East Anglia 'Prose Fiction' online course (3 months also). Both are good, Oxford perhaps having the edge, and the fruits of them are actually here online for you to see: my short story 'The Spirits' was my final piece for the Oxford course, and 'Jazz', 'Kyoto Station' and next Friday's flash fiction piece 'Früh' began life as short weekly exercises there. 'Preface/Sandbag/Crash' was a UEA exercise and I have gleaned another two short stories from it that will make their appearance on this blog in the coming months. The exercises that make up the bread and butter of these courses are indispensable for throwing up ideas and getting you writing about topics that are much outside of your comfort zone.

           And, of course, feedback. Feedback is both your carrot and your stick, something you both love and loathe, seek and scoff at. However, it is essential for you to progress and where does one find it in that very early stage? With no editorial support and the vague chance that those around you only read masochistic alternate reality sci-fi and the blurb on the back of cereal packets, you might soon find that you and your online classmates are clinging to each other for dear life, overjoyed that there are other people in the world who think about writing in the way you do and get what you're trying to achieve. Informed, constructive feedback is wonderful, even when it's damning. Feedback is, in a way, the objective-ish voice that forces you to chop off the extraneous and unsafe until you achieve the structural integrity that allows the building to stand. Without it, you might keep plugging away at that multi-buttressed turreted treehouse extension for years without realising its ugliness or how it's compromising or distracting you from the rest of your work. Generally, something only needs to be pointed out to you once, like, say, under punctuation or a tendency to over-write, for you to start noticing it in your work and to be able to identify it in someone else's. And that's great.

          Also, voice. Writing courses suffocate your individual voice, turning you into a committee-focused inanity, so undermined by feedback that you forevermore seek out the path of least resistance? Yes? No. And there's a simple reason for that. The education value of 'no'. There will come a point in your writing when you will receive feedback from someone and think 'actually, no, but thanks'. At the beginning one will lap it up like a neglected literary puppy, eager to remonstrate oneself and learn from your perceived superiors, which is probably a good thing. However, as you grow (and you will grow if you continue to write) you will begin to favour certain vocabulary, turns of phrases and types of content. You will work out what you want to talk about and have an idea of the way you want to say it, even if you're not quite sure why. This is voice and your creative identity as a writer, and I completely disagree with the notion that enrolling on a writing course stifles that. Writing will never cease to be a personal, introspective past-time that forces and allows you to explore and find your own self, and this process is not altered or changed by having to hold your work up for discussion at the end of the week. The brilliant, fragile writers lost to us forever after being completely crushed by this process, so often hypothetically cited in articles, possibly need to work alone for a little longer, maybe also working on some other issues, before they get involved in this process. Better they experience quiet criticism in a (virtual) classroom than later on national or international based stage.

           And so, to my final point. If you want to write, or achieve that nebulous, deliciously unattainable goal of 'being a writer', why not use all the resources at hand? Life is too short to sit around struggling on your own or arrogantly dismissing unknown learning resources, especially within the arts, where success can take a lifetime in any case. Perhaps a dose of humility is a beneficial thing all round – after all, if you can't admit that your work needs improvement (and unless you're a prize winning literary sage, it probably does), how are you ever going to progress? Getting involved and learning with others wannabe writers might be just the thing to help you get a real understanding of your undertaking and work out how high exactly you should be setting your bar (in my eyes, higher than you think you can achieve. You also need to work harder than everybody else too). There's no shame in trying every avenue (there's a reason that credible but weary-looking singer-songwriters occasionally shuffle onto the X Factor stage, for instance) and even if you hate your writing course and proclaim that you learnt nothing, you should ideally be able to explain why. And that could be a useful lesson in itself. I think that if you really want it, you will try every door.

           Lastly, compare it to the other arts: would you judge or question a concert pianist for ever having taken a piano lesson…or an artist for having a 'Lots of Fun to Paint' book when they were six…?


*http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/arifa-akbar-why-always-write-in-a-room-of-ones-own-1815298.html 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/may/27/hayfestival2008.guardianhayfestival2?INTCMP=SRCH)
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