Creative Writing Tuition, Love it or Hate it?

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Elizabeth Baines

You’re a bookish child: you read from the age of three and you’re onto the classics by the time you’re eight: the patterns of fiction are embedded in your brain. And it’s not just you: you’re a teacher of English and every so often there’s a child with that verbal facility and imagination and wisdom way beyond their years, and you know, just know that writers are born. Anyway, you write a short story and it’s accepted by a top literary magazine. Creative Writing courses? Strictly for the mediocre birds!

But then, oh! You find yourself with a new baby in a strange town and you’re going crazy with isolation, so crazy you go to a Creative Writing workshop. You sit at a table with some people who’ve published in places like the parish magazine. You save their feelings by not telling them where you’ve published. They pull your story to shreds. One tweedy old buffer explains to you the basics of (conventional) writing. Stories are like rose bushes, he tells you, with reference to your deliberately rhetorical repetition: you need to prune. Creative Writing workshops? Wouldn’t touch them again with a barge pole!

But Arvon courses are led by professional writers… You go on an Arvon poetry course. And you do have a nice time playing poetry games and hob-nobbing with those poets, and it reaffirms you in your sense of yourself as a writer… And when you’re even more potentially isolated with your personal life in trouble, you are saved by a WEA class with several other professional-level members: you have a literary peer group and mutual editorial support and a once-a-week deadline to keep you writing and publishing, at a time when you could have stopped altogether. Creative Writing workshops can be pretty good, after all…

You do another Arvon course. It’s not such great shakes, actually: the fiction tutor is mostly in his room writing a screenplay for a deadline and no one actually looks at your work. But on the final night there’s a students’ reading, and the tutor is so impressed he sends your stories off to his agent, and eighteen months later the agent has placed your first novel! Yay! Creative Writing courses rock!!

So now you’re a published novelist, and you have a Creative Writing course to thank, so you teach CW yourself: after all, there are talented people needing a literary community as you did, and as for the rest, what about writing simply for enjoyment and the enhancement of life…?

But aren’t those students on the Arvon course looking at you so eagerly because they’re hoping you’ll discover them, as happened to you (and Lesley Glaister, and Pat Barker)? How many could you do that for? And aren’t those MA students sizing you up as a tweedy old buffer rambling on about pruning when they’ve several thou invested and all they want (whatever they say) are some contacts and a shortcut to the Booker Prize…?

Photo credit: Dominikar Komender

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