When to try a writing course….
January 5th, 2012
Today I read an excellent post by Belinda Bauer on www.shotsmag.co.uk called The Alphabet Is Not Enough, warning would-be writers about getting ensnared by courses. This is a kind-of reply, because, while I agree, I also think that writers can sometimes be too dismissive about writing courses.
Musicians and painters expect to go on learning from their heroes and peers all their lives, but I think we writers sometimes take the ‘either you’re a genius or you’re not’ approach, and are almost afraid of formal learning.
After messing about with a number of novels (all thrown away before completion), I signed on for a week at the Arvon Foundation (www.arvonfoundation.org), an Arts Council funded residential writing course with a number of centres around Britain. Arvon is a charity, so it’s not out to make money but to encourage writing. Also it’s residential. You have a week away from your ordinary life to think about yourself as a writer. That’s a considerable sacrifice of time and money (although it’s cheap for what it is). Your fellow course members are likely to be serious about it.
We had to write something every day, on a topic prescribed by the course tutors. Over a week I discovered that the most talented writers can write crap, and the least talented can sometimes produce a beautiful story. In learning respect for everyone’s work, I learned to respect my own. Two or three writers were wonderfully lyrical, a couple were funny, a few were no-hopers but tried hard and occasionally succeeded. I learned from them all, even the alcoholic who only wanted to tell one story and who wasn’t interested in trying anything different. From him we learned not to get hooked on just one story. If it’s not working, let it go. Above all, what I learned was the importance of everyone having a different ‘voice’ in writing.
Everyone was careful with criticism – you have to be – but I could see what people responded to and what they didn’t. So when I was encouraged to look for an agent, I believed them. One of our fellow pupils was the actress Sheila Hancock, and she has since published several best-selling books. She is genuinely a very talented writer. I don’t know how many others were published, but I am sure those who kept going would have been.
Within a year of that course I found an agent and got a publishing deal. Nine novels later, I’m still earning a living at writing.