There's a write way to hone talent
From MAs to retreats, creative-writing studies are taking off -- and there's a huge variety of them, says Alison Walsh
It is no surprise that the publishing industry is struggling at the moment, what with the uncertainties of the digital age, the death of high-street retailing and the vagaries of the recession. However, at the same time, the writing "industry" is going from strength to strength. Creative-writing courses have mushroomed in recent years, with weekend retreats, workshops and writing centres popping up all over the place.
If you are a prospective writer, you can now enrol on anything from a full-time taught MA to a writers' retreat somewhere gorgeous and sunny. But do creative- writing courses work? Can creative writing be taught, or should writers just hide away in a garret for a few years and emerge, manuscript in hand? And what do prospective writers need to look for in assessing whether a creative writing course is right for them?
Jack Harte, chairman of the Irish Writers' Centre, is firm about the place of creative-writing courses in learning the craft of writing. As far as Harte is concerned, writing is a craft that requires the same amount of attention as any other art form. "In the visual arts, there is a tradition which goes back millennia of learning from a master craftsman for three, four, five years before they go off and start practising themselves," he says. "There's nothing shameful about it."
But this notion of apprenticeship doesn't seem to apply to creative writing, and Harte feels that this has to do with its perceived status. "If you compare it to music, or painting, nobody bats an eyelid if someone goes off to their studio to spend a few hours every day engaging or practising on the clarinet -- it's assumed that they have to do it," he says. "But if someone goes off upstairs to write, there's a curious attitude that this is something almost that you need a licence to do."
James Ryan, director of creative programmes at UCD, has many years' experience teaching both undergraduates, who are taking a module in creative writing as part of an often unrelated degree, and those who have embarked on the MA in Creative Writing. "Creative writing is like any other discipline in the creative arts, painting, music and so forth," he says. "The starting point is a talent, and what we offer is the development of that. We can help you find your range and expand that range if possible, and maybe accelerate the pace at which you are already developing."
He is keen to distinguish between the imaginative approach in the general creative-writing classes, where students do exercises to develop particular skills, in, say, dialogue, and the year-long MA in Creative Writing, now in its fifth year at UCD, which demands a "strong work ethic" and which is based on reading "from the canon and looking at how fiction is constructed".
And reading is key. As short-story writer Jennifer Brady, who completed the MPhil in Creative Writing at Trinity College, points out: "You can't expect to get better if you are not going to read beyond your normal expectations of yourself. You need to kick-start your reading, because reading and writing go hand in hand. You can get stuck in a rut with your reading and then you can get stuck in a rut in your writing."
It's clear that, just as in any other field, you need to learn from the experts, from those who have honed their craft and produced work that has been subjected to the scrutiny of others. But writers can also help by sharing experiences of their writing life.
The Faber Academy has been up and running since October 2009 and, in Dublin, offers a six-month novel-writing course, along with courses in poetry and short-story writing. As part of the course, a range of writers, including Anne Enright and Hugo Hamilton, have visited to talk about their work. Course co-ordinator Catherine Heaney says: "That's one of the valuable things about the visiting authors -- every single one of them has a different story about how they came to write, and it's important for people who are starting out to realise that there isn't one single way of doing it and that there are so many different approaches.'
But could you achieve the same results working away in that garret? After all, the perceived wisdom is that writers need to commune with the muse in solitude to produce anything of worth. Ryan says: "There's no reason in the world why you wouldn't sit down and write. [A course] certainly isn't for everyone, but it's often the impetus or the input that writers need at a particular stage in their careers; a chance to develop their facility for creative writing in a dedicated environment."
And this point is key. For poet and writer Cathy Conlon, the Faber Academy course helped her to overcome a block about writing a novel. "I'd been writing a novel over a number of years, and wasn't sure about finishing it and whether I was going on the right track. It seemed like a huge task to undertake," she says. And the course helped her to achieve her goal. "I've finished a first draft and I attribute this to the discipline the course gave me."
For Brady, who combined work in a busy publishing firm with life as a mother of three small children, the answer came in the shape of a course run by Sean O'Reilly through the auspices of Declan Meade's Stinging Fly, where the goal was to commit to writing a first draft of a novel. "Sean O'Reilly is amazing and very much about the writing," she says. "It's a really refreshing thing to go on to a course where he won't even dwell on any chats about agents or publishing. He's just 'sit down and do the writing, and make sure the writing is good'."
And what many writers forget is that if they are going to write, sooner or later, other people are going to have to read their work: the literary agent to whom they submit their hopeful chapters; the editor at the publishing firm; the reviewer at the newspaper; and, hopefully, the book-buying public.
So, the supportive environment of the creative-writing group is a good place to start.
Heaney agrees. "People who are starting to write get a lot of encouragement by talking to each other," she says. "It's a big step, making the jump from being something you do on your own; it is a solitary pursuit, obviously, but [it's good to] make that leap to share your work with other people and get feedback on it in a very encouraging environment, and get pointers and hear how other people have done it."
Far from being back-stabbing dens of writing envy, writers' groups are often an invaluable first step in exposing your writing to the scrutiny of others. Indeed, many of those who met on creative-writing courses will often continue independently as groups.
Of course, there are some who will be sniffy about the quality of what is produced on many writing courses, and they can't all be works of genius, surely? Harte's perspective on this is interesting. "Many people say, 'Oh, there's too much writing,' but if people enjoy writing and showing it to their friends, why shouldn't they?" He adds: "If there was a proper assessment apparatus for work, people would be satisfied operating at a certain standard, and would recognise that they produced a short story and enjoyed writing it and showing it to their friends, and then ... when they read a short story by John McGahern, it's on a totally different level. That's the important point."
But is doing a creative-writing course a golden ticket to success? Well, many of the courses have produced published writers, or writers who are well on their way to publication, but there are no hard and fast rules. Much depends on the writer's own level and goals, but what's certain is that hard work is essential.
Conlon says: "A course will only give you exactly what you put into it. I felt that the only way I could really benefit from this course was to really get down to this writing business and finish the novel by the end of the course."
After all, the writing life is hard and long, with success often elusive, as Ryan says dryly: "Think of it as a long apprenticeship with periodic but some affirmative experiences along the way, but not enough to sustain those who don't have real drive."
- The Irish Writers' Centre evening classes include novel writing with Chris Binchy, Finish Your Novel with Conor Kostick, Feature Writing with Observer correspondent Henry McDonald. Visit www. writerscentre.ie or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- The Faber Academy's courses include Write a Short Story in a Weekend, Writing a Novel and Becoming a Poet. Visit www.faber.co.uk/academy or email email@example.com
- The Stinging Fly's A New Way to Fly: A Novel Writing Workshop with Sean O'Reilly will run this October. For details, contact Declan Meade at www.stingingfly.org
- For details of the MA in Creative Writing in UCD, with course director James Ryan, visit www.ucd.ie/ englishanddrama/graduate studies/maprogrammes/ creativewriting
- For details of the MPhil in Trinity College Dublin, with course director Gerald Dawe, visit www.tcd.ie/ English/postgraduate/ creative-writing/
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