I’m sure you’ve heard the argument that good writing can’t be taught, and this is absolutely valid at least in as far as you can’t implant talent into a person. You can always work up a skill, though, so it’s perplexing that people object so strongly to creative writing courses when they do not object to art school or marathon training. We rarely expect to excel in any area equipped with only raw and natural talent, so why should writing be the exception?
Of course I would say this: I am a product of creative writing courses. After writing compulsively and reclusively for years I began evening classes first at Birkbeck and then at City University; thus polished, I got a place on the Creative Writing Prose MA at UEA. One year on, I’ve handed in my dissertation, and am finally in the position to reflect on my MA experience, which, if it didn’t teach me to write, definitely taught me a lot of other stuff. If you are starting a creative writing course, this might be worth taking on board; if you do not believe in creative writing courses, cut out the middle-man and just read these six handy bullet points:
- Writing might be lonely; being a writer doesn’t have to be. Labouring away in a garret is part of the territory, but if that’s all you do then frankly you’re missing out. The thing is, loads of people write, and they have all the same problems as you do, and you are in the position to meet a whole bunch of them. Why wouldn’t you share the misery support one another? Go for a coffee, for goodness’ sake, make some bloody friends! And don’t stop there. Go to readings and book launches, lit fests and workshops. You’ll see authors at all stages of their careers, you’ll learn something, and there might be free wine.
- Workshop is a gift. How often do you have a room full of willing readers to look at your stuff and help you improve it? Right, almost never, so take their feedback seriously; however good you think your work might be, feedback from actual readers will only make it stronger. And let’s face it, if you don’t think readers matter then as an author you have a problem.
- But sometimes other people are wrong. Not everybody is going to love your work all the time, and you do not need to take all the advice you are given; sometimes you also have the right to stick to your guns. This is essentially a solitary project, so be gracious about doing it the way you believe it should be done.
- Read your classmates’ work as you’d wish them to read yours. That is, attentively, respectfully, and with an eye to its strengths as well as its weaknesses. Also, and most importantly, understand that it is theirs. Not yours. Perhaps you love a police procedural, but if they are trying to craft a delicate slice of magical realism which questions the concept of linear time, you will not be doing them any favours by complaining it doesn’t have any car chases. Read it on its own terms, even if it’s not something you’d usually go for, and be as generous and thoughtful with your feedback as you can.
- These tips boils down to one thing, really: give up on your massive, massive ego. Seriously. You are not an undiscovered Hemingway in a sea of mediocrity, you are not the golden child, you are most likely a talented writer in a group of other talented writers. You couldn’t do what they’re doing, but they couldn’t do what you’re doing either, which means that not one of them is a ‘threat’ to you. Recognition is not finite and it doesn’t come from only one source; if this person gets an agent or that person bags a prize – well, be honest, it might smart – but that doesn’t mean that there are no agents or prizes left out there for you. It just means that those ones weren’t the right fit for you. With a bit of effort and vision, you’ll find your own niche, so read their work mindfully, take their feedback seriously, and strive to write the things that only you can, to the very best of your ability.
- Graft. There is no substitute. Sorry.