After a minor diversion (to drop off my dog), I arrived at the University of Herfordshire’s campus just in time to grab a cup of (fruit) tea before going into the main hall for the first of a series of talks. I’d been on workshops in previous years and now that I teach, I decided to have a day off. Not that I still wouldn’t learn something, we all do, but I enjoyed staying in one place this time.
After introductions by VWC leads Dave Weaver and John Spencer, Ian Skillicorn talked about National Short Story Week and the reason behind it; to get people writing and reading short stories. He started NSSW as he was doing short story radio and wanted to harness interest. How do you get involved? You can just write and / or take part in local events; approach your local library to start a short story workshop. This year National Short Story Day is on 17th November and Ian added that previously his local U3A had eBooked their short stories. There were readings in cafes and bars. Local press will be looking for content so could be a good option for publicity. Local radio could they be interested in you reading out your short stories.
Nick Cook, President of VWC, then introduced the ‘Can creative writing (c/w) be taught?’ panel featuring journalist and author Michael Smith, Senior Lecturer in c/w, Dr Jennifer Young, novelist Liesel Schwarz, and lead by c/w teacher Nick Cook.
Jennifer talked about herself and how she came to c/w; inspired by her tutors at school, she is now senior lecturer at University of Hertfordshire, where the event took place. She quoted a colleague who compared c/w to yoga where his teacher pushes him into positions he couldn’t reach by himself. I liked that.
Liesel’s parents had ignored her early wish to be a writer so she went on to be a barrister but after a few years she did an MA in c/w and now teaches at Brunel, writes for the Guardian, has written a book on how to write science-fiction / fantasy. Said you have to immerse yourself into the writing community (that’s me!), adding that c/w might not be able to be taught but it can certainly be learned.
Michael writes for the BBC, the Times and has written non-fiction but realised he wanted to write a novel but needed a road map. He said writers need drive and willpower. He was told he was a good writer (of non-fiction) before going on a course on how to write a novel, realising it’s a very different beast.
Nick Cook then talked about his history of c/w which he started learning at Reading in the 1970s / 1980s. Nick mentioned Wilfred Pickles who wrote for Radio 4 and was an inspiration to him. Nick writes for the Health & Safety market because he used to work in the field and had always wanted to teach though, he said “at a lower level than Jennifer”; he teaches 10-week writing courses at college. That’s me… again! Two sides of writing: unconscious (when washing up, driving etc.) be prepared to grab them; basic rules of writing which have evolved since Homer. Show not tell, importance of characterisation, editing (“cut, cut, cut”). There will be people who break the rules and if they do it well will progress the boundaries. Agreed with Michael that non-fiction is different to fiction… up to a point.
Questions were then invited from the audience and the first was, “If writing can’t be taught, what would the world look like?” Jennifer talked about her a girl who had make a hat which reminded her of the queen so she behaved like the queen for a day and that the world would be a much poorer place without such imagination and inspiration.
Liesel said about a sheepdog who had been mistreated and when it was rescued it became clear that it didn’t know what anything was yet when it saw a flock of sheep it knew exactly what to do. She said writers would write regardless, because it’s human nature.
Michael added that there would be less successful writers but the world wouldn’t end. Continue reading