Should you pay to write?

In 2014, Hanif Kureishi, gave an interview to ‘The Guardian’ in which he stated that creative writing courses were a “waste of time”. This might seem a bit ironic considering that Mr Kureishi, who wrote ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’, teaches creative writing at Kingston University but the question is; does he have a point?  Now, this isn’t the first time that I’ve heard someone say that creative writing courses are a waste of time and money but if you ask me, they’re only a waste of time and money if you just don’t have the talent. I mean, I can sing a bit and I can hold a note reasonably well but I doubt very much that a singing masterclass is going to turn me into Aretha Franklin.

Kureishi went on to say that “a lot of my students just can’t tell a story” whilst Matt Haig, who also contributed to the article, said that “Creative writing lessons can be useful, just like music lessons can be useful.”  I don’t believe that you can teach someone how to write. You can’t teach a person how to use their imagination and create a story but a writing course can teach someone who has the talent for writing to learn how to craft a story.

In September 2016, after winning a crime writing competition, I started a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at City University. The course allows you to focus on either Literary Novels or Crime Thriller Writing. Those who know me will not be surprised to learn that I have chosen Crime Thriller Writing. Over the course of two years, I will be experimenting with writing styles, applying the fundamentals of fiction to my work and finally completing a novel. Now, you may be wondering why I’ve enrolled on this course when I’ve already written and published a book (The Sisters) and contributed to an anthology (No Way Home)? Without blowing my own trumpet, I can clearly write but I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with going on a course to improve your skills and to elevate your writing.  When I’m not writing, I’m a practising criminal defence solicitor and every year the Solicitors Regulation Authority require me to identify any learning and development needs and complete any necessary courses. It’s all about improving your skills and a creative writing course should be utilised in the same way.

So far, I have enjoyed every minute of my course. I usually write contemporary fiction but I knew that writing crime fiction required a different skill set or tool box. I have learnt to take risks with my writing and have also been forced out of my comfort zone. In addition, I have also had the luck of meeting a few of my crime writing idols and have been exposed to the reality of the publishing world.

If you go on Amazon, there a ridiculous number of ‘How to write’ books but unless you have an experienced creative writing teacher who can show you how to apply those writing techniques to your writing and provide you constructive feedback, then those ‘How to Books’, and any creative writing course, will be as useful as an inflatable dartboard. I love a good quote and I think that the familiar quote of “All the gear but no idea” is most apt. A creative writing course is only useful if it can provide you with the correct tools that will enable you to tell a compelling story. The tutors on the course need to show the students how to use the tools, otherwise, there simply is no point.

 

This post is brought to you by Nadine Matheson

 

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Back to Creative Writing School

I’m currently half way through a MA in creative writing at York St John University.  I’m doing it part-time over two years as I have a day job as well as writing.  I was unusual when I started the course as I’d already written two novels and was in the process of indie publishing the first one. Most of my fellow students were doing the course because they had a project they wanted to work on and it’s been a somewhat odd perspective to do the course having already completed two books.

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At just over half way through the course it’s a good time to have a think about what I’ve learned from doing it.  The first, and most important, thing is that it’s made me read widely.  The reading lists have nearly overwhelmed me on more than one occasion (eight books in eight weeks makes for a lot of late nights and speed reading). I’ve read everything from a script for the TV programme, Frazier to Margaret Atwood’s new novel, Hagseed via some particularly odd byways like the bizarrely weird novella, Quilt by Nicholas Royle and some extremely convoluted prose poetry by a writer I won’t name.  As a contemporary fantasy and steampunk writer I’d read a lot of both of those genres together with romance and the more polite end of crime fiction but it was years since I’d read anything really challenging.  But somehow without me realising it, all of that reading has seeped into my consciousness and I can see that I’m approaching my own work differently now.

I’ve also done a lot of workshopping of my own and my fellow students work.  After some really bad experiences with creative writing courses in the past, I thought I’d hate this but I’ve actually come to find it really helpful.  Of course, there are ways and means of giving feedback and the tutors have always been really supportive and careful to ensure feedback is positive and constructive.  As I wrote my first novel, Beltane, with only the support and encouragement of my best friend who read every chapter as I went along and kept nagging until I gave her the next one, it’s been a strange experience to have 10 or 12 different viewpoints on a piece of work.  But I’ve learned to trust which of those viewpoints feels valid to me and politely disregard the others something  which I know I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do when I first started writing.

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The other great thing is returning to being a student in my mid-40s.  A year on I still get a kick out of flashing my NUS card about (although disappointingly these days, that’s mainly in the Co-op rather than Topshop or Fatface!). I love working in the library at York St John’s and being part of the academic community.  Through doing the course I’ve had the opportunity to attend conferences on storytelling, go to masterclasses from industry professionals and, most recently, hear Margaret Atwood talk about Hagseed.

The MA is really hard work and doing it has meant that I’ve had to put my own writing aside for a while but I figure it’ll still be there when I graduate and the great thing about being indie is I’m my own writing boss with no publisher or agent breathing down my neck demanding when I’m going to get this next book finished.  Half way through the course I can already see how much I’ve learned and how it’s impacted on my writing and along the way I’ve not only had fun but also met some great people.

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Would I recommend it? Definitely but don’t make the same mistake as me and underestimate the amount of work involved, particularly in keeping up with the reading.  It’s a big commitment but undoubtedly worth it – just don’t expect to read anything apart from the module reading list for a while!

 

This post is brought to you by Alys West.