As part of my launch of my latest book, a small volume of poetry called The Sincerest Form Of Poetry, I’ve been making myself a nuisance across various blogs. In one exchange I read a comment by Pam of Rough Wighting, on the subject of creative writing which she teaches. And that made me ponder how essential creative writing courses have been to my progress as a writer and why that is.
To wander into a little background, I am something of a course junkie, maybe also a coarse junkie but that’s a different post. From my earliest writing moments, in July 2006 when I took a short intense course of writing a ten minute radio play to graduating with a creative writing MA from Sheffield University I attended the following:
- two week long residential courses run by Arvon, a UK provider of a variety of writing courses from the beginner to the experienced writer needing space for a retreat, on both of which I encountered expert writers willing to impart both some technical lessons but also some answers to some philosophical issues that come up in most people’s writing careers;
- a weekly two hour evening class at the London School of Economics on writing poetry and prose;
- a further summer school week on poetry appreciation and writing; and
- my three year MA in Sheffield
In addition to the above I’ve attended many evening sessions involving writers at all levels, willing to encourage and critique my work.
At the start, some of the technical sessions were a godsend, saving me from either making or repeating missteps that blight many writers’ early work. I’ve concluded that we who write all have certain blind spots that, however hard we try, keep recurring. In my case, the following are problems that will always appear unbidden in my work and for which I need to keep a close eye out when editing:
- head hopping
- change of tense
- overuse of adverbs
- a seemingly random use of the comma
I also find description a challenge whereas I love writing dialogue and think (immodest moment warning!!) I do it pretty well. So in a first draft you may well find a scene of nuanced and believable dialogue between two characters who you have no idea what they’re like, nor where they are.
Creative writing teachers were the first to alert me to these tendencies as well as the classic show don’t tell conundrum.
However, what these courses have really given me, and it’s not just the teachers but also my fellow attendees, is the confidence to write.
You may read this blog and think ‘there’s a confident cove, comfortable in his own skin’ and in many ways you’d be right. But I’m as much a victim of Imposter Syndrome as anyone and this was especially true when I first decided that, yes, I would try and write a book. Back then, those who knew me might have described me to some one else as lawyer, father, husband, sporty, pretty upbeat, loves his garden, enjoys company.
In most respects, a form of grown up.
So when I opened my laptop that first time and wrote it was beyond a private affair. Yes, my delightful and supportive wife knew but no one else. I kept it hidden. Why? It’s not like I was selling illegal steroids or making reptile pornos or overtly supporting the Tories. Nothing shameful in trying to write a book, you’d think.
Yet I had this image, this perception that it wasn’t what a grown man, a lawyer to boot would do. Children wrote stories and unless you were a proper writer and an author then it was a bit silly, something laughable.
I suspect nascent writers suffer from similar, if differently expressed reservations.
After a few months, when I was totally taken with this book, I was trying to find writing time wherever I could and that included on work trips to the States and across Europe.
‘What are you doing Geoff?’ ‘Why won’t you join us in the bar for a drink?’ For a sociable chap, I was becoming a bit of a recluse. So I mentioned it. Most people were interested, some fascinated, some wanted to know a lot of details, some wanted to read it. I should have been encouraged but it made it worse. What if it was hopeless (it was)? They’d laugh or worse, show their pity at my pretension, my sad self-aggrandisement in thinking I could write a book. I mean, it takes real talent to be a writer, doesn’t it?
What I failed to realise was that all writers start somewhere and no one – I believe this totally – is naturally a great writer at day one. Further, even the best have to hone their craft. And from these truisms stems the obvious conclusion, that you need to keep going at it and eventually you will find a level that works for you.
I might have got there eventually; maybe. Equally, and I fear like any number of tentative starters at the writing game, I might have given up, fearing to expose my inadequacies to any form of public scrutiny.
My delightfully consistent and supportive spouse saw how much this writing thing meant and bought me, as a birthday present, that first course at Arvon. It was held in the playwright John Osbourne’s former home on the Welsh borders and attended by about a dozen novice writers. We were all fairly nervous, all excited and all wide-eyed. We had outted ourselves as pre-writers and, boy, did it feel brave.
Louise Dougherty was the main teacher and led some tremendous sessions, helping stimulate our writing. But what I remember most fondly are the sessions over meals and in the lounge and on walks outside of the sessions when we talked writing. The process, the uncertainties, the dilemmas, the shared humour and terrors.
Of course, I wasn’t alone; of course, there were others with similar aspirations and hopes and fears and worries. But knowing that must be true and actually meeting them was a whole different bucket load of crabs.
I drove home, buzzing like any over-pollened bumble bee and started a second book. That too was utter dingoes doo-doos but I never looked back. If I learnt nothing else that week, I learned one thing.
One day, I’d call myself a writer.
And if you are reading this and wondering if you too can write that book. Don’t be held back by fear or embarrassment or any of those negative goblins that sit on our shoulders and scoff as we take those first baby steps.
Be like me; just write and you’ll open a door to the most extraordinary parallel universe.