Every so often I happen across a discussion of creative writing courses, and whether or not they are useful. The crux of these discussions seems to be whether or not it is possible to teach a person the creative skills they need to be truly innovative and original, or if this is an innate talent which can only be nurtured – not taught.
As someone who has completed a number of creative writing courses, I have observations of my own to offer in this debate.
My Wring Course Background
My interest in creative writing began in primary school, where short story writing was the thing I loved to do most of all. A shy child, I was never too shy to read out my story in class. As I entered my teens, I began writing poems. These were not part of a curriculum. I wrote them in secret and put them away in a drawer, where they would not be discovered. Looking back on them now, I see I had neither technique, nor talent. They’re a jumble of words, with raw emotion spilling onto the page. The urge to write poetry continued as I completed a BA, and began working in a University administrative role.
At that time (eighteen years ago) my job involved writing too. I decided to enrol in a Professional Writing and Editing Associate Diploma course for the business writing units, but continually found myself drawn to the creative writing units.. Thankfully, the course structure allowed me to move into the creative writing stream, and I never looked back. Taking on Novel, Short Story, Poetry, and a range of related units, I revelled in the formal environment which introduced me to new writers, provided a weekly deadline, gave me freedom to explore, and most importantly, a class full of fellow students who would provide honest feedback about my writing. I loved it so much, I went on to the Master of Creative Media (Creative Writing) and worked with memoir as my creative project.
In recent years, I’ve enjoyed enrolling in short online writing courses which run for somewhere between four to eight weeks. Some of these are related to journaling, and some to specific formats such as short story or poetry.
Learning Good Habits
Studying creative writing in a formal setting taught me that if I wanted to earn a living from my writing, I needed to treat it as a discipline as well as an artistic pursuit. Waiting for inspiration to strike would not pay the bills. We were encouraged to write every day, and to experiment with style and genre. Push the boundaries. Find out what worked for us. This involved giving ourselves permission to write badly in private. We should decide what we wanted to show other people, and what we wanted to relegate to the rubbish bin, or to a file of snippets to be re-worked at a later date. The important thing was to keep developing our writing skills through practice. Along the way, we would also write pieces that worked for us – writing that felt good, that suited our natural style, or which opened up a whole new world we would otherwise not have discovered.
Each week we were encouraged to bring a new piece of writing to class, which imposed a deadline of sorts. I openly admit to being a person who works better with a deadline, so this really benefited my creativity. One of the reasons I still enrol in short online writing courses is to give myself writing deadlines.
We always workshopped our writing through reading it aloud in class, and having feedback provided to us immediately afterwards. Reading aloud meant finding the right pace and tone for each sentence, working out where, and how long to pause for the meaning to come through to listeners. Mostly the rhythm of the words related directly to the way the paragraphs appeared on the page. Some changes are immediately obvious when you read a section of writing aloud, so I learned to read my work aloud to myself in my study (with a pen in my hand) before taking anything to class. I still do this, even though I have not had to read anything aloud to anyone else for more than six years.
Much of my writing is autobiographical, even when I have enhanced it for a short story, so the act of reading aloud in front of the class was often terrifying, but always useful. The first rule of giving feedback in a serious writing class is that no one is permitted to say “That’s lovely.” We all had to consider why a piece of writing worked, or why it didn’t work. Along with grammar, punctuation and our level of interest in the subject matter, we assessed other aspects of the writing, including questions like these:
- What is the author’s intended point/meaning? Does this come across clearly?
- How well are the characters, and the plot, developed?
- How is the piece structured? Is this structure effective?
- Does the point of view allow the full story to be told? What other details could be included if the point of view is changed?
- Which words or phrases stand out for us? Why?
- Were there any places we drifted off, or became confused?
- What would happen if….?
Most importantly, we asked ourselves: How could it be better?
This doesn’t mean that I emerged with a list of changes to make. Quite the contrary. Often individuals within a class have quite diverging views. The feedback I received could often be contradictory but every single time I was able to see my writing afresh. It allowed me to make clear-headed, informed decisions about what to change, and what to leave. Ultimately, the feedback made my writing stronger.
The feedback also made me stronger as a person. This was especially true while I was writing a memoir for the creative project as part of my Masters degree. I did this degree by coursework specifically for the feedback from lecturers and other students. At the beginning, I was struggling to find a suitable way of telling my story. For an entire semester, I would come to class with four or five pages of what I thought to be polished writing. Each week, I would receive feedback that the tone was wrong, or the point of view didn’t work, or that the focus was on the wrong aspects of the narrative. “Write it again and bring it back next week” I would be told, only to have the same feedback again. Some weeks I found this so dispiriting, but I didn’t let it beat me. I sat down and started again, and again and again until I found a way of telling the story that worked. I don’t know of another way of getting such frank, comprehensive and considered feedback on my writing. It is another reason I am continually drawn back to writing classes, no matter how small.
These are all benefits I have gained from my writing studies, regardless of whether I have good or bad writing technique and regardless of my level of talent. As my skill grew, the feedback became more refined. At every level, it was useful.
Technique, Talent and Networking
I’ve heard some writers worry that if they study creative writing, they will lose their originality and emerge at the other end writing like everyone else in the class. My experience has been totally opposite to this. I’ve witnessed highly original writers being encouraged to explore further, and provided with some techniques that will help them to do so. In the classes I have taken, the emphasis was on literary techniques, not populist techniques, but all styles were acceptable if they were well-written pieces.
One way of learning a new writing technique is to study an example of great writing, and to try to emulate the way the author has used language. In looking at the way other writers approach a similar topic, or in analysing the sentence structure of a short story, we were inspired to experiment with our own writing style. Some people can do this naturally, at home, by themselves. Others, like me, need a bit of guidance. My guess is that for most people, undertaking a creative writing course would condense the time taken to do this kind of exploration simply due to the large number of authors discussed in class each week.
As students, we were fortunate to hear our instructors (mostly published authors) talk about writers they love, and why they found them inspirational. They guided us through extracts from their cherished literary finds, and recommended authors we might find inspiring, based on our own individual style. There were also guest authors, publishers and editors to help us navigate through the publishing industry. These were the days before eBooks became popular, when printed books were the only real alternative for aspiring authors.
In our classes, there were always gifted students and others who struggled a bit more, so talent is a factor worth noting. As we sat and listened to each other read, there were certain people who brought the class to an awed silence. We ached to write like them. However, I think that talent alone is not sufficient for an aspiring author to be published. A certain tenacity is also required, along with the ability to summarise ideas well in a synopsis. A willingness to put oneself forward again, and again…. and continue to modify the pitch.
So will taking a creative writing course get you published? No, not necessarily. It will help you to understand how to approach publishers, but there are so many other factors at work. One of my lecturers used to walk into the room with a cardboard box full of books published by students that had undertaken our course. This was inspiring, but also daunting. I always had the feeling that if I could not add a book of my own to that box, I had somehow failed the test. This was the same lecturer who kept telling me to go away and write my memoir chapter again. After so many weeks of trying again, trying again and trying again, I finally had something he thought was good. He asked me for my synopsis and a sample chapter and forwarded these to a publisher he knew, and when that came back with a rejection, to another one. Each time the feedback was the same: I had a “hot-button” topic, I had identified the key issues, I had identified the market, but my tone of voice was wrong. If I could re-write it with a different tone, they would reconsider it.
This shows that networking can help to a point, but you still have to be able to provide a well-written manuscript. Mine wasn’t quite there. I’m still debating what to do about it. In the meantime, I continue to take creative writing courses online. Sometimes I tackle the same subject matter in a different way, and other times I write about something completely different, but I’m still learning different techniques, different styles and different structures. One day, perhaps I will find something that triggers an idea for a re-write. In the meantime, I am just enjoying my writing.
Talent vs. Technique
I believe the selection process for tertiary level creative writing courses involves submitting some writing samples. It certainly did when I applied. So it can be argued that students with an ability to write are prioritised. Whether this is natural talent or a learned skill is to some degree a moot point, as by this time all of the students are adults who have demonstrated competence. For me, the real question is: Can writers learn new techniques and improve the quality of their writing through studying creative writing? For me, the answer is a resounding yes.