A while ago, a good friend asked me to write an article for his magazine about my experience of studying creative writing as a mature student. He had already given me a lot of support and encouragement on the road to writing, so I’m ashamed to admit I passed up the opportunity. At the time I didn’t believe I had anything valid to say. After all, I wasn’t a writer was I? But for the next 113 days (at least) I’ve given up ‘not being a writer’. I think the time has come to jump in with both feet.
As a child, I lived story. I was a princess. A detective. The captain of a pirate ship. I was National Velvet, Jill’s Gymkhana and the whole crew of Swallows and Amazons rolled into one. I can’t remember not being able to read or make up stories. I spent my free time bringing my imagination to life. I used makeshift props. A yellow scarf for golden ringlets. My mother’s wedding dress, dyed royal blue. A stuffed sock on a garden cane. A rock that resembled a lamb.
Creative writing was encouraged in schools then. Back in the day, we wrote short stories – aka ‘compositions’ – regularly. In our final year at primary school, my best friend and I got quite competitive. She’d been telling everyone she was going to be a writer for as long as I’d known her. Things came to a head when we were asked to re-render Theseus and the Minotaur. I remember trawling through my mother’s threadbare dictionary for new words. I was determined to win this one. I lived and breathed Greek mythology for a week. I crafted descriptions on the walk to school. Invented plot twists on the bus. I couldn’t think about anything else. I was bereft when the time came to part with my book.
If I told you I could remember the results I’d be lying. I think it was a dead heat. I know we were streets ahead of the rest of the class. It’s possible I won. I know for sure I didn’t lose. If I had, I’d never have put pen to paper again. I imagine my friend’s forgotten the whole thing by now. We haven’t seen each other since we left primary school. But it must’ve left an impression on her. She’s a respected writer these days, specialising in bringing myths and fairytales to life. I suppose nobody told her it wasn’t a good idea. Or to stop daydreaming and do something sensible.
I’ll fast forward the years of ‘something sensible’. In 1999 I made a radical decision. I went back to university. You can call it a mid-life crisis if you like. It certainly wasn’t sensible. I studied English and Creative Writing at Bath Spa. I told myself it was a career move. In truth, after so many years in the wilderness, I just wanted to know if I could still write.
Hanif Kureishi recently dismissed creative writing courses as ‘a waste of time’. On one level, I agree with him. You can apply his argument to any skill. No amount of teaching will help you develop a talent you don’t have in the first place. I scraped maths O-level by the skin of my teeth. My teacher never spoke to me again. She had expected me to fail. She saw making models out of blotting paper during her classes as evidence that I wasn’t trying. She never saw the blood, sweat and tears that went into learning everything by rote, because I simply didn’t understand. I have no aptitude for maths.
Aptitude can’t be taught. Craft can. I’ll never crack a mathematical theorem, but at least I know a bit about Pythagoras. I don’t hear anyone suggesting that painters or sculptors shouldn’t study theur craft. If they’re going to create anything worthwhile, they’ll need to know how to use the tools of their trade. The same applies to writers. Philip Hensher says ‘No one writes through pure dazed inspiration; questions of craft and calculation enter in quite quickly’. It’s great to have a head full of stories. If you want to convey them to anyone else, you might need a few skills as well.
Signing up for a creative writing course was a high-risk strategy for me. I wanted to write more than anything else in the world, but I hadn’t done any serious writing since Miss Maynard trashed my work in Lower 4B. I didn’t know whether I had any aptitude. Any skills I’d had in the past were rusted beyond repair. I had to expose my work to other people. If they hated it as much as Miss M, I could pack up and go home. I had nothing to lose but my self-esteem. My tuition fees. And my job.
So why I didn’t just join a local writers’ group? The idea never even entered my head. I’m quite glad it didn’t. I’m not knocking writers’ groups. They’re brilliant. I’d recommend anyone who’s serious about writing to join one. The problem is, it’s perfectly possible to spend years in a writers’ group and never have anyone challenge you. The stakes aren’t high enough. A university has to award you a degree at the end of the process. If your work’s rubbish your tutor will tell you so, even if your classmates won’t.
Going to Bath Spa was one of the best crazy ideas I ever had. The course confirmed my passion for writing. It gave me the tools to craft a story. I learned how to cut out the all those unnecessarily tortuous, long-winded, time-consuming and ultimately pointless adjectives and adverbs. I was taught to make sure that the sentences I produced in the course of my prognostications were simply and clearly structured and of the shortest conceivable length, with the minimum possible usage of clauses, sub-clauses and other complex and confusing grammatical structures that could serve to distract my audience from any nuances of the plot that I might wish them to focus their attention upon. Show don’t tell. Keep it simple. Dickens is so century-before-last. And, unlike maths, I understood it. Towards the end of the course, a conversation with one of my tutors ran something like this.
At least you can string a sentence together.
I’m in the final year of an English degree. Isn’t that a given?
*weary sigh* You’d be surprised how many of our students can’t.
In my second year at grammar school the RE teacher decided it would be a good idea to read the whole of the Acts of the Apostles out loud. In the King James Version. The National Curriculum hadn’t been invented then. I wrote reams of adolescent poetry in her classes. I wasn’t so sure about poetry at university. I signed up for a course anyway. In for a penny and all that. The tutor walked into the first class, sat down and told us to write something. I was horrified. I came here to be taught how to do it. Not to have you tell me to get on with it. I was paralysed with fear. I’ll never forget his opener in our first tutorial.
If you hate poetry so much, why are you doing this module?
Poetry reaches a part of me no other genre can touch. I resisted because I didn’t feel ready for it. Ready or not, a day or two later my first poem grabbed me by the throat. Charles Saatchi style. Bewildered by the force of it, I fell in love. I’ve never recovered.
A creative writing course was anything but a waste of time for me. It affirmed my aptitude. Taught me the craft of writing. Made me fall in love with poetry. It also enabled me to experiment with genres I hadn’t considered before, such as fantasy, science fiction and writing for children. Above all, it gave me structure and discipline. Arch-enemies of artistic inspiration, you think? Not in the least. It’s amazing how inspiration flows when you’re faced with a deadline. A group of fellow students waiting to workshop your next chapter. Even a pledge to write 500 words a day for 125 days.
For most of my life I thought I was an introvert. No sniggering at the back there, please. After all, writers are basically recluses, aren’t they? All those hours alone in a room, chained to a typewriter. The reclusive author is about as big a cliché as the typewriter. We need people. Where else does inspiration come from? Who else kicks us up the backside when we lose the plot? What’s the point if no-one reads what we write? We’re artists. We need an audience. We need people to encourage, inspire and inform us. To reflect us (and our writing) back to ourselves, warts and all. For me, that’s what doing a creative writing course was all about. I’m never going to make my first million this way, but I’d go back and do an MA tomorrow if my bank manager wasn’t so pernickety. Come to think of it, maths might have been more sensible after all …