In Praise Of Creative Writing Courses

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.

my writing desk..

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.

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published four books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars, Salisbury Square and Buster & Moo. In addition I have published three anthologies of short stories and a memoir of my mother. More will appear soon. I will try and continue to blog regularly at geofflepard.com about whatever takes my fancy. I hope it does yours too. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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50 Responses to In Praise Of Creative Writing Courses

  1. Ritu says:

    Wonderful advice, His Geoffleship!
    I’ve done a couple of online courses, and only wish I could take a more physical one.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. willowdot21 says:

    A very inspiring post Geoff 💜

    Liked by 2 people

  3. jenanita01 says:

    I have often wondered if I should do at least one writing course, but how do you pick one that is right for you?

    Liked by 2 people

    • TanGental says:

      That is a conundrum, for sure. I’ve been on courses that were aimed above and below where i am on the writing curve and I always got something from them. So i suspect you’ll enjoy whatever you pick

      Liked by 2 people

      • And to add to that, Geoff, I advise don’t pick a class/teacher that is intense critique. They tend to be overly critical and totally block a writer – any writer – whether novice or someone who’s been writing for ages. Look for a teacher/facilitator who encourages good writing, not one who disparages bad writing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • TanGental says:

        Hear hear – criticism for the sake of it is hopeless.

        Liked by 1 person

    • arlingwoman says:

      I think they can mostly be helpful. What you have to remember is that all comments are not on point. You will know which ones are and some are off point, but can get you thinking. It’s a bit like therapy–makes you think a lot.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. V.M.Sang says:

    I would love to do a course, Geoff, but 2 things are stopping me. 1. The cost and 2. I don’t have such a supportive spouse as you. He thinks of my writing as a ‘ hobby’.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. M. L. Kappa says:

    I’ve been to the York Festival of Writing twice, done two six-week online courses at Curtis Brown Creative, and joined the Winchester Writers Weekend online this summer. All super fun and very useful. But I especially appreciated the encouragement of the other writers. Well worth it just for that.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Geoff this is brilliant! I’d love to attend a writing course and as I’m always saying, it’s never too late. What’s stopping me? Annoyingly, confidence. Maybe I’ll have a look at online courses, at least there’ll be no masks needed.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Darlene says:

    I too took a few courses before I even considered writing for publication. Writing is a profession that requires constant learning, which is part of what I like about it. Just when you think you know it all, there is something else to learn! I did love that comment of Pam’s.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. arlingwoman says:

    I love hearing about other writers. I had the same experience–told hardly anyone. Once I did, I found some people were interested, some weren’t, and others just thought it was odd.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Mary Smith says:

    I’m totally with you on the value of writing courses, Geoff. I did the Glasgow University MLitt in Creative Writing, which was excellent. I learned a lot, especially about the mistakes I made, and gained a lot more confidence – and was able to say I am a writer. Even before I did the MLitt I was writing but not telling anyone. When I had an article accepted for the Guardian Weekly I said to the DH, “Don’t tell anyone. They’ll think it’s crap.” He pointed out it had to be a bit better than crap if the Guardian editor wanted to publish it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      That’s it in a nutshell. Even our successes can worry us. I look at ‘award winning’ authors and wonder how they have the confidence. Of course you have to win and to win you have to enter….

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Obviously I love this post, Geoff. And I’m going to share it with many of my creative writing students. Everything you say is WRITE ON! Also, yes, the instructor/teacher/facilitator in a good writing class gives tips on writing (metaphors, rhetorical devices, use of dialogue, description, etc.) but also encourages the comments (encouraging ones) of students in the class. In my classes. after I give out a prompt, we ALL write in the class (about 10 minutes) and then we ALL read what we’ve written out loud – right then and there. Gulp. So scary at first, but this helps gain confidence and a feeling of “we’re all in this together” plus we all learn from each other’s stories. Thank you for mentioning me here and for writing and sharing your passion with all of us.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Chel Owens says:

    So, this is your announcement that you will be teaching a writing course, yes?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Brian Varcas says:

    Thanks for this from someone just restarting this writing malarkey. It’s given me the inspiration to seek out a course of some sort. I somehow think it will be a while before a face to face one will be possible (gnashing of teeth!) but maybe on Skype.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. L.K. Latham says:

    Had such a good laugh! You’re not the only one guilty of head hopping. Can’t tell you the number of times someone in my WIP looks me in the eye and says “tsk, tsk, tsk.” But it is fun when I’m doing it. Afraid to say that one advantage of COVID is all the online courses (and often free) that I’ve been taking. Great way to stay sharp. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Brian Heys says:

    Great post. Until this year I hadn’t tried any creative writing courses, apart from a couple of weeks attempting to do a distance learning one that was conducted entirely by post, back in the 1990s. I recently finished the first draft of my fifth novel, and recognising I struggle with the editing process, I decided to treat myself to the Edit & Pitch Your Novel course from CB Creative. It helped me no end. I subsequently signed up for their Writing Short Stories course, which I’m just finishing off.

    Like

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