Friday, 23 September 2011

Creative Writing classes - worth doing? (this post applies mainly to FE courses - I'm saving MAs for a future blog)

 The Writing Bit

There's much debate about whether creative writing can be taught, but does anyone question a musician  for talking piano lessons? A vocalist for having a voice coach? A painter for studying art?

Even a modicum of talent can be nurtured.  A good course can turn not-very-good writers into competent ones, competent writers into better ones and good writers into exceptional ones.  Every writer, no matter how inexperienced, can learn to sharpen their observational skills, develop their descriptive powers and generally improve and hone their craft.

How should you choose a class?

I've often heard potential writing students advised to find a class where the tutor is well-known or at least published.  It's certainly something you should consider, but it's not the only thing.  Being published doesn’t automatically make someone a good teacher. The line between publication and non-publication is often a fine one, which means there are a lot of good and even exceptional writers who are as yet unpublished, some of them incredibly skilled and inspirational teachers.  There are also a lot of published novels that really aren’t very well -written, and I don't think it's right that one tutor be considered better than another solely on the grounds that he/she is published.

As a student and as a tutor, I've met a number of CW tutors over the years. Many were and are excellent at what they do, incredibly generous with their time and knowledge. But I can think of at least three, all well-published, two quite well-known, who were appalling. They shall remain nameless! One was lazy,  only giving students’ work the briefest of glances, often in class while another student was reading;  another  halved the class in a few weeks by shredding the students’ confidence, and the other, on advising a mutual colleague about running a course said, ‘just tell them they’re wonderful and take the money.'!!

 So, here are a few questions that might help you decide:

  • Can you sit in on a couple of classes before joining? If so, you can see the tutor’s style and how the session works as well as chatting to the group about their experience of this tutor.
  • Is there a good mix of writing exercises, reading and feedback?
  • If the class only involves workshopping, might a writers' group be more appropriate for you than a structured class?
  • Does everyone get a chance to read their work?
  • Is the feedback sensitive and constructive?
  • How inspiring is the teacher?
  • Does he/she address the various aspects of the craft of writing, or is the feedback too general?

A creative writing class will provide contact with other writers, as well as precious time and space in which to write.  A well-run class should also motivate and inspire, and can often lift your work to a whole new level.  Good luck!

The Reading Bit

After the mixed reviews of A Visit from the Goon Squad, I approached it with some trepidation, but I have to report, it's brilliant!  The characters leap off the page, a disparate bunch with assorted flaws,  all of whom are connected by two key characters, kleptomaniac Sasha and her record-producer boss, Bennie, and all of whom we instantly care about, even when they're less than sympathetic. The narrative doesn't stay with Sasha or Bennie; it zooms off into other viewpoints, skips back and forth in time between past, present and future, and in one chapter, even takes the form of Powerpoint slides, a technique I thought I'd hate, but I loved it. The unusual structure emphasises the book's main theme of time and what it does to the characters - the ravages of ageing, how life doesn't pan out the way you'd planned it, and how sometimes, it's cut tragically short. Have you read it? What did you think?

The Food Bit

Whether it's the weather, (if you see what I mean) I don't know, but I was gripped by an overwhelming desire to make cakes this week. Given that my husband is now a vegan, knocking up a few cakes isn't quite as easy as it used to be, but there are a few decent recipes around, and this one for banana cupcakes is a favourite: Stir together 120g flour, 100g sugar, one tsp baking powder and a pinch of salt. Set aside. Whizz together one ripe banana, 80g vegan margarine (Pure make a good sunflower spread) 60g peanut butter & 80ml soya milk.  Mix the wet and dry ingredients together and spoon into paper cake cases.  Sprinkle dark chocolate chips or shavings on top (some dark chocolate contains milk, so check first) and bake at gas 5/190C for about 15 minutes or until golden. I like these best the next day, but Vegan Husband eats them warm. Instead of topping with chocolate chips, you can decorate with buttercream by whisking together some vegan sunflower spread and sieved icing sugar, then piping a pretty swirl on top.  Back to main courses next week.


  1. Thanks for the post.

    I was looking to join a course on playwriting but can't afford one just yet.

  2. Hope you'll be able to do one soon - you'll love it, I'm sure. It's so stimulating to be with people who are doing the same thing.

  3. Nice piece on "creative writing classes - worth doing"...your observations are very apt. I started running a class in 2008 feeling (slightly!) unqualified for the role of tutor as have not had anything significant published - then discovered that I am able to facilitate learning - even had a chap who writes for the BBC enrol for several terms because I was encouraging him to write out of his normal "box"...great stuff and very rewarding :)

  4. Good for you, Kathyrn, and good luck with your teaching!

  5. Very interesting post Susan. When I finally decided to start writing 3 years ago having wanted to do it all my life, I took a lot of CW classes at City Lit in London. I think that like a lot of things, some have the potential to be very good writers and some don't. But what so many people get from CW classes other then help with the writing itself is the framework, the habit and the discipline that is needed to produce anything at all and to gain confidence.
    The other huge benefit for me was the stimulation and fun of meeting other people who were excited about reading and writing fiction. You learn so much from others' work and from getting feedback on your own.
    The tutor in that first beginners' class I took invited me to join a small writers' group and two years on I am about to finish my first novel. Without CW classes, I'd probably still be dreaming about it !

  6. YOu're absolutely right, Isabel. It can be such a lonely occupation; the contact with other writers is vital. Also, as you say, the framework and habit is useful. My students often say they barely write over the summer when the classes aren't running, but coming along every week during term time really provides motivation.

    Well done for almost finishing your novel - that's a huge achievement, and I look forward to hearing of its completion!