As the new academic year kicks into gear, and people turn to their adult education brochure seeking something to do to brighten up the dark evenings, several potential students have approached me, wanting to know about my Creative Writing for Beginners course. One question that keeps cropping up in one guise or another is, why do I teach what I teach? You see, my course isn’t the usual beginners’ banquet of knocking out first drafts and sharing them with your supportive but essentially non-critical class mates. It’s more structured, skills focused, and challenging.
Over the past twenty years or so, I have attended more creative writing classes and workshops than I’m capable of listing. I’ve enjoyed them. I’ve been inspired by some fantastic facilitators, been supported and encouraged by some fabulous writing folk, and flirted with a vast range of fiction techniques, such as character, settings, dialogue, etc. But – and this is possibly because I’m a bit dense – I exited time after time, happy and stimulated but none the wiser about how, exactly, I could become a better writer. Or even a half decent one. I learned a snippet or two about writing short stories, a bit about writing for radio, a tad about writing poetry. I wrote a lot, and had flashes of inspiration during which I produced some pretty palatable stuff. But I couldn’t replicate the success, because I didn’t understand why one piece worked while another didn’t. I didn’t know what I was doing.
It stuck me that there must be more to this fiction writing lark than these classes and workshops were letting on, at least in any form that I could access. I wasn’t willing to buy into the popular belief that good writers are simply born able to do it, that you are either born lucky or not. Truth is, I don’t like elitism in any form, so I threw myself into the task of discovering the elusive secret of writing good fiction. I read every book on the craft I could lay my hands on. I joined a couple of hard hitting critique groups and worked diligently on my (pretty terrible at that stage) first novel. I returned to University and took an MA in Professional Writing. I learned a lot.
Most of all I learned that the actual craft of writing good fiction is something that can and should be taught, and can and should be learned. We all possess various degrees of natural talent. To make the most of our allotted portion of it, we need to add craft and practice to our bundle. So when, seven years ago, I was asked to run a creative writing course in Falmouth for the Cornwall Adult Education Service, I decided I would apply everything I had learned in my previous twenty years as a teacher to ‘teach’ the skills it had taken me so long to learn myself. This approach won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but what is?
I designed a year-long course that takes a beginner writer on a roller coaster ride, by the end of which they will be armed with the fundamental skills they need to become a good writer. They will know how to create 3D characters that defy stereotype, how to bring settings to life, how to select and control point of view, how to write dialogue that either illuminates character or advances plot (and preferably both), how to structure a plot that resonates, what on earth show and tell is all about, and a whole host of ways to tighten their use of language. In short, they will have a clear understanding of how to write a good short story. No plays, no poems, no travel features. My aim is not to touch on a lot of things, but to teach one thing well: depth rather than breadth. The skills, once learned, transfer across genres. I want to enable my students to tackle their writing development from a position of knowledge, not ignorance. What they then do with that knowledge is up to them. That’s when the work really starts.