Tonight’s guest blog post is brought to you by crime novelist Quentin Bates.
Creative Writing, yes or no?
Occasionally I’m asked if a creative writing course is worth doing. When that happens I want to roll my eyes and howl like a hyena. How should I know? There are any number of creative writing courses on offer, and like anything else, there have to be good ones and bad ones, ranging from the sublime to the abysmal. There are smart universities that offer master’s programmes with lectures by literary luminaries and there are correspondence courses that won’t even bother to point out lousy spelling, while undoubtedly being happy to take your money up front.
I did a creative writing course, but I’ve only done the one and can therefore only comment on that. It was at a university not far from where I live. A colleague and good friend of mine had wangled a place on a rather prestigious creative writing course at a London university. It seemed like an idea, so I dug around and found the course at the local university, figuring that at least it got me off work for an afternoon once a week.
It was interesting, but not in the ways I had expected. There were three lecturers; all of them published writers. There was an earnest lady who writes books that I tried and failed to get into, and there was a poet, a genuinely lovely chap and a fine poet. Both had spent their lives in academia. Then there was the noir guy who loved his bleak crime dramas both on the page and on celluloid. Not an academic, this was the guy who had experience under his belt, who had been through the mill more than most and had the tales to tell. It goes without saying which one of the three came up with the most useful stuff. This was also the energetic character who roped in a real writer and a literary agent to talk to his students. While other lecturers deconstructed fragments of Sappho or looked at feminism in literature, the noir guy had the temerity to criticise. So when that university was looking to make savings, guess which one of the three was unceremoniously made redundant?
The students were a very mixed bag, from those who hadn’t left university to those with pensions, with plenty of shades of difference in between. It would be easy to provide a few uncharitable descriptions; far too easy. People came to it with different expectations. Some wanted to tell stories. Others weren’t quite ready to depart from university life. There was one stellar talent there who is still waiting to be published. Some, like me, were just interested and appreciated an afternoon in a warm classroom.
So let’s start from the beginning. A creative course doesn’t teach you how to write. If your skill with commas, full stops and basic grammar is shaky, then this isn’t the place to start. Buy a grammar textbook and start from there. A creative writing course, which is inevitably aimed at aspiring writers, does not give you the raw truth about the machinations of the business of publishing. I asked about this during the course and was told that this was something that was avoided as it could discourage students.
Unlike the other students, I had a little knowledge of publishing, having worked as a journalist and even published a couple of obscure non-fiction titles. If I had paid all that money, even accepting that the course wasn’t in the same bracket as the smart ones at UAE or Manchester, I’d have been a tad pissed off that this vital aspect of the writing business had been carefully skated around. It didn’t go down well when I mentioned that the chances of a new author getting past the slush pile, let alone into print, were slim at best. One of my essays, entitled ‘Fiction is for Mugs’ also didn’t go down well.
I’m speaking for myself entirely here as everyone’s experiences will be different. A creative writing course doesn’t teach you a lot. What it should do is open your eyes. I started the course expecting to go down the non-fiction route, and came out of it a fledgling novelist and with the first draft of the book that eventually became Frozen Out. What the course provided me with was an afternoon of clear thinking each week, undisturbed by emails, telephones and the tribulations of the day job, which proved to be immensely valuable. It also provided the services of a novelist with a track record of his own, Mr Noir, who I used mercilessly as a copy editor and critic.
When I’m asked about creative writing courses, and although I’ve never taught one and don’t expect to, I can give a little advice; take the course by the scruff of the neck and shake it hard. Ask awkward questions. Demand real criticism, not just polite criticism. Take everything on board but don’t believe everything; after all, every opinion is a subjective one. Remember that every lecturer will have his or her likes, dislikes and irrational prejudices. Read everything you can in your chosen genre beforehand and more, but be prepared to have those ideas challenged. In fact, expect those ideas to be challenged.
Go into it with your eyes wide open – but don’t for a minute imagine it’ll teach you how to write or how to get published. You can find all that stuff out somewhere else at a fraction of the cost.
Creative writing, yes or no? I’m still not answering that one. All I’ll say is that a creative writing course is what you make of it, not necessarily what the school, college or university thinks it might be.
But before you shell out any money on a course, think hard and read Michael Allen’s book The Truth About Writing. Actually, the first half of that remarkable little book would tell you most of what any aspiring writer ought to be aware of before putting finger to keyboard. If, after reading it you still want to do this, go for it and give ‘em hell.
Morgen: I’ve been on numerous courses (daily, weekend, evening) and, like you, have found some useful, others not, although the one thing that has struck me is how passionate writers are (in any form of the ‘business’) and that can’t help rub off on the students. I’ll be teaching from January 2014 so I hope I have that influence. 🙂 That was great. Thank you, Quentin.
Brought up in the south of England, Quentin Bates took the offer of a gap year to work in Iceland in 1979 and found himself spending a gap decade there. During the 1980s he acquired a family, a new language and a new profession, before returning to the UK in 1990. He has been, among other things, a trawlerman, truck driver, teacher, factory worker and a journalist.
Frozen Out and its sequel, Cold Comfort, are born of the author’s own intimate knowledge of Iceland and its people, along with the fascination of the recent upheaval in Iceland’s turbulent society.
He and his wife regularly return to their friends, relatives and alternate home in the north of Iceland.
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