Those Who Can Do

I've talked in the past about my discomfort around the great beast that is The Creative Writing Industry.

My feelings over this are no doubt bound up in the fact that I have never attended a CW course, been mentored or paid for a book report. And it hasn't exactly held me back.

I'm also cynical that much of this stuff is simply an exercise designed to part the would-be writer from his hard earned dosh, with vague promises of publication.

It seems to me that every writer I know has a different method of working, so how can any of us really teach anyone what the best way is?

On Saturday, at the Bedford Readers Day, a young author called Anna Stothard explained to the audience that she hardly plots at all. She lets her characters surprise her. Now this could not be more different to the way I work, yet who can say which one of us is right or wrong?

These are then the main reasons why I've always declined offers of teaching, mentoring etc. Plus of course I'm always on such bleddy tight deadlines that I hardly want more work do I?

So why then am I, for the first time, giving serious consideration to such an offer?

First, it can be no coincidence that at the same festival, another author who I greatly admire, Sophie Hannah, commented on how helpful she thought literary agencies were. How she wished they'd been around when she started out.

Second, I've just finished the copy edits on book five, Twenty Twelve, and although I should dive into book six, I'm desperate for a break. Or not so much a break as a change of scene and pace.

Third, as much as I love writing, there's no getting away from the fact that it's a fairly self indulgent way of spending my time. I make stuff up. I write it down. No lives are saved. And while I don't kid myself that mentoring is like vaccinating children in Africa it does seem like a helpful thing to do. Not selfless of course, but less selfish than writing.

I know of course that there are plenty of writers doing this for the cash and not the love, but I know quite a few who say they find this type of work both interesting and satisfying. Helping other writers get to where they want to be makes a tangible difference to their lives.

I dunno. The jury's still out. But I just wondered what any readers thought about it.

Have you guys been helped by someone in this way? Conversely,have you ever felt ripped off?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Kathleen Jones said...

Hi Helen - as someone who's spent years having to depend on the creative writing industry to prop up small advances from publishers, I've become increasingly disillusioned by it. I feel it offers false hope. Also it's too prescriptive - there's a definite, formulaic approach required by universities for assessment purposes. This means that really brilliant, innovative writing often gets marked down. It's also self-fulfilling - you do CW degree, CW MA, get published in small uni magazines, get job teaching CW.
Can't get round the feeling that in an already overcrowded profession, it's a bit of a paradox to be out there encouraging more competition!!!
On the plus side, yes, I'd have loved to have someone give me some professional advice when I started out. But that's Mentoring, rather than teaching CW and another beast altogether.
I'll be interested to find out what your reaction to teaching CW is when you've had time to think about it.

Helen Black said...

Thank you for your very candid assessment Kathleen. I'll admit that it chimes with what I've always thought.

Perhaps I'm just letting the old ego sway me...the idea that I could pass along experience/expertise is appealing. and perhaps as indulgent as writing itself.
HB x

JO said...

I've drafted a blogpost on this very topic, for Women Writers Women Books.

Yes, writers need to be careful when looking for courses - they are there to make money. And sone are simply that - businesses out for our cash. But that doesn't mean all are no good - Arvon has a great reputation (in the UK - don't know where you are.)

I won a place on a mentoring scheme at Exeter uni - and it was really helpful. My mentor spotted instantly what my book was really about; I huffed and puffed a bit, but then made the changes, and the result is a book coming out v soon that I am hugely proud of.

And it's given me the confidence to go for an MA. Mainly because I want to improve, and have no real idea what I mean by that. I know the uni makes money, but I'm learning, so at the moment that's fine.

Phillipa said...

What an interesting post - sometime expressing misgivings about writing schemes seems to be considered churlish. I can't complain, having made use of the RNA's excellent New Writers' Scheme which is a bargain. However, I've thought about mentoring (for cash) a few times but there are three main reasons why I haven't done it yet. First, I'm a writer, not a teacher. I write copy for a living and I supplement that income with what I can get from royalties and advances. Second, like you, I see so many different writing methods around me, that I really don't think it would help to pass on my method (organised chaos) to a new writer. Third, after having five novels published, I think I have more to learn than I did at the start of the process, let alone teaching others.

Helen Black said...

Phillipa, I agree that I've never considered myself in any sort of position to teach. Hell, what do I know?

Which is why I am suspicious of my ego being stroked when someone says, yes you do know stuff and you should pass it on.
hb X

Claire Hennessy said...

I teach creative writing - kids, teens, adults - as an extracurricular (a lot of summer, weekend, and evening classes) which definitely frees it from the 'assessed' nature of some courses (or the 'how can we use this to help with exams?' approach).

>> It seems to me that every writer I know has a different method of working, so how can any of us really teach anyone what the best way is? <<

I think this is the key point - if a writer is teaching a class and just talking about what works for them, they're doing it wrong. For me there's a big, big difference between giving a talk about 'how I write' and teaching or facilitating a workshop. In the latter you need to be able to respond to the different ways people work and make suggestions and recommendations accordingly - not just say 'well, if I were in your shoes, I'd...'

Gillian McDade said...

I have never been on a CW course but I do feel sometimes as if I'm missing out. I do plot though. I plot meticulously and never deviate from the path. I think writers have to do what's best for the individual.

DT said...

I think it depends on what expectations the course sets up. I went on an Arvon Comedy Writing course, which promised only to get us deeper into the process, even though it was being tutored by working professionals (one of whom is regularly seen on TV now).

You might have a chance to prepare them for the rigours of the business, alongside the focus on writing and editing. And you're bound to get inspired by their enthusiasm. Plus, you never know, there may be stories to be found there!

Anonymous said...

i'm a bit cynical about writing courses, paying out money etc. I've read a couple of interviews with successful writers and they don't seem to recommend them. Stephen King's "On writing" is good and a bit cheaper than a course.

Bethany said...

If you're unsure, don't do it.

I'm not going to go into this too much, because I've just finished a writing course and I'm unsure what I think.

But at the end of the day, what it did provide me with was an excellent community of writers, and that's essential.

Adrian Reynolds said...

I'm deeply sceptical about the academic side of the writing industry, and more familiar with the screenwriting side of it all. It reliably produces competent writers who know how to do a commercially viable script, but there's a world of difference between that and someone who has passion and a voice -- two things which are in danger of being lost in the sausage machine.

At the same time, I speak as someone who works with writers to help them develop their work further. What makes me think I can do what I accuse the universities of not doing? Well, approach is a lot of it. I come at this from a coaching angle. I'm interested in supporting writers and filmmakers to achieve their ambitions, and that means looking at their values and aspirations, and not just the particular project we're working on.

And, to be fair, there are good people out there, within academia and the industry. I know I wouldn't have achieved what I have without the support of Jon Wood and Philip Palmer, to name two influential mentors.

Fionnuala said...

What fab comments. That's all I have to say!

Unknown said...

I'm fairly new to fiction so I've only been to one conference and no creative writing classes so far. Like you, Helen, I'm suspicious of any organization that wants my money...I certainly don't feel I need to pay the staggering tuition fees (here in the US) of an MFA in writing to teach me to do something I already do well.

I've had the good fortune to join a couple of very supportive writing groups, and have learned more from listening to the published authors in those groups than I feel I would do from any teacher. And there are so many great craft books out there...

On the other hand, I understand your motives for considering mentoring for cash. A change of pace while still earning money is an opportunity worth considering - and everyone says that teaching is a learning opportunity for the teacher as well as the student. If the opportunity seems enticing, why not give it a try? You might tap into a whole new side of your creative self.

Good luck!