What they don’t teach you in creative writing class

I used to go to writing groups, in Brighton, more than ten years ago. Some were fiction, some were poetry; some just workshops, some long-running. They were emphatically not writing classes: no teacher to teach you anything about writing: you were there to express yourself and get feedback from others. There was usually somebody responsible for the organisation of the group (keeping the keys to the room where we met, setting a schedule) known as a ‘facilitator’. Sometimes the facilitator of a workshop would be paid, and paid for their writing-specific expertise, but their job would be to set and organise an exercise rather than give informed feedback. We generally paid something to belong to the group or attend the workshop, but the fees were well within reach of a parsimonious unemployed or badly-paid person.

The ethos of the groups was egalitarian; the underlying principle that everyone has a story to tell and a right to write (there were, of course, always unspoken intellectual hierarchies within this). Feedback on your work came from all other members of the group, and nobody would tell you that they didn’t like it or it was rubbish. Comments, in poetry especially, would concentrate on the feeling and mood of a piece rather then technique. The kind of writing and writing practice that resulted from this was mixed: at best, you read stuff that had both personal meaning and decent technique; at its worst, the work was sloppy and self-indulgent, therapy-writing.

Though the umbrella organisation under which many of the groups sat was oppositional, and saw itself representing a counter-culture against the world of a few well-known authors and many unknown readers, some of the people working within the milieu inevitably saw themselves as ‘proper’ writers trying to ‘make it’. But I’m not sure how much the groups led to improvement in our writing. A year in a poetry group certainly made me happier with what I was capable of producing as poetry, but mostly through practice and feedback: the group offered discipline and organisation rather than instruction or inspiration.

For the past two years I’ve been studying a ‘proper’ creative writing certificate course offered by a London university. The course fees are not trivial, but not beyond reason either: the annual cost of a modest holiday, perhaps. For two and a half hours a week, thirty weeks a year, we have a class led by a teacher, marked work, grades and termly; individual tutorials. A first year divided into a term each of prose fiction, poetry and drama is followed by a year of specialisation in one of these. The certificate’s credits work within the overall national scheme of continuing education. It’s about as legitimate as you can get.

Nevertheless, in many ways it’s not too dissimilar from the writing groups. Explicit or unspoken ground rules prohibit direct assessment of any work’s overall value; constructive criticism is encouraged. Despite the fees, usually the most useful feedback on your writing comes from your fellow classmates, who act as a kind of well-informed mirror for the work – if most people in the class don’t get what you’re writing, you’d better redo it, because no-one else will get it either.

Students look to the tutor for expertise, but expertise of a particular kind. When it’s time to scope out next term’s tutor, or make a choice for the second year, what students tend to ask is ‘how much have they published?’ Given the lowly status of the certificate course (the MA is where the action’s really at), it’s often surprising how much some tutors have published: a lesson already to those hoping to ‘make it’. The actual teaching ability of the tutors, however, is both widely variable, and certainly not related to the quantity of their output, just as high profile research academics do not always make good teachers. One tutor in particular implicitly relies on her own ‘success’ as a writer to avoid justifying their answers to questions about method (how best to draft, and edit, etc), just telling us that one way ‘works for her.’ Some make clear their disappointment at having to teach to support their writing.

When it comes to prose fiction, one of the course’s unspoken assumptions is that what we are all writing, or trying to write, is essentially literary fiction, which isn’t very well-defined. Some people’s personal styles are on the edge of pulpy, but few people are committed to writing ‘genre’ stuff (science or detective fiction for example), and it’s always noted when a piece looks ‘genre’. Most of us speak about ‘page-turners’ with derision, and though few would deny any dreams of making it professionally as a writer, if you wanted lessons in how to produce hack fiction you’d have to look elsewhere.

Consequently, the course concentrates on getting the traditional attributes of lit.fic. right: consistent point of view, developed characters, credible dialogue, tight description, etc. To some extent, the tutors succeed in teaching this, discussing not only how to punctuate dialogue properly, but how to avoid over-explanation; little exercises in character profiling to produce rounded, believable protagonists; pacing the relationship between action and scenery.

What isn’t discussed much is storytelling. Perhaps it’s like a life drawing class: you’re expected to actually learn to draw elsewhere, or to have the innate talent. One of the greatest surprises was to find that the drama module, rather than being ‘good for writing dialogue’ as everyone had expected, turned out to be best for discussing the actual mechanics of storytelling. Narrative was broken down into scenes and characters without the support of appearance or interior monologue: character objectives, arcs and story resolution were discussed in a way that would have seemed almost obscenely functional in the prose fiction module.

It can be socially awkward talking about doing a creative writing class, and not only because stories are where you put it on the line, expose yourself the most. Like drawing, many people’s attitude is that it ‘can’t be taught’, that if you knew how to write you would be writing; if you’re going to a class you’re just an optimistic failure. An Arvon course might be permissible if the ‘nov’ is already underway, but not much else. This might be more common among my generation and/or people I know who consider themselves ‘creative’; many members of the class itself have no problem reconciling the personal enjoyment of writing with the social enjoyment of the class.

Myself, I like both learning or being taught (I’ve got a few more problems with being taught badly), and I think I’ve got something to learn. Grades can be encouraging, if not inherently wholly trustworthy. The combination of scheduled submissions to class and group feedback is valuable: it’s all about the practice, and I wouldn’t turn up, let alone pay, to hear any of my tutors’ ruminations on character and location alone. Being part of the course also opens up a network of formal and informal opportunities for you: publication in the yearly journal (which can even attract the passing interest of a literary agency) and reading series open to course students only: from there it’s easier to start submitting to other reading series and publications. That’s when you begin to seriously think about what it’s like to have an audience for what you write.

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One response to “What they don’t teach you in creative writing class

  1. Re. learning writing rather than just doing.
    As a musician i’ve always been encouraged to learn and practise. Being classically trained is always a mark of respect whatever kind of music you make. It’s unfortunate that fine art and writing seem to be thought of as a something done by ‘talented’ creative people without taking into account the effort and technique involved.

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