The other day, I was having a chat with the lovely Bel Monypenny, editor of Voiceworks, on the topic of workshopping and learning how to write. I remember enthusing widely about my writers’ group (which I suddenly realise I’ve been a part of for almost a year and a half now), yet being somewhat divided on the subject of creative writing courses.
It wasn’t until later that I got to really thinking about why – given that both focus mainly on workshopping and outside feedback. Also, given that creative writing subjects have extra trimmings (lectures, reading lists, structured tutes etc.), why was it exactly that I’d never found them as helpful as a writers’ group?
First off, a few disclaimers – I realise of course that it’s probably a lot to do with the luck of the draw and that everyone will have their own preference (Justine Larbalestier, for example, is not a fan). Also, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed most of the courses that I’ve done and I’m not suggesting in the least that we stop teaching writing at universities, TAFEs or writers’ centres. But there are, I think, a number of reasons why writers’ groups can have the edge.
Firstly, at its heart, I don’t believe that writing can be taught. Writers can be encouraged, yes, supported, motivated and rallied, but at the end of the day, despite pouring over the technicalities of ‘voice’ and ‘character’ and ‘plot’, I never felt that I really connected with any of it during class. The moments of realisation, when the light bulb flicked on, came mainly from what I read or wrote independently, through say a passage, a story, or a word that would hit me in the gut and make me think twice. As Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah said on her blog recently, you can only learn by living and doing:
A writer is a person who writes.
So, this is the answer in its beautiful and stark simplicity. You can have all the talent in the world, but this is nothing if you do not actually write.
So write. Just write.
The rest can take care of itself, but without that thing in your hand, that manuscript that could be a book, that thing in your hand that comes only after hours of sitting down and doing it, you will never give yourself the chance to be a ‘real’ writer.
Because a writer is a person who writes.
That is the beginning of everything.
So, in short, the supposed perks of a creative writing subject – the theories and related set readings – were never a great help to me. What could have been helpful, on the other hand, was the workshopping aspect. This is because I do think that outside feedback is crucial. Writers, to put it bluntly, regularly need to get out of their own heads – we need our blindspots shown to us, we need, as Bel nicely puts it, the blinkers taken off. But peer reviewing tends to work best for everyone only when a number of things come together: experience, enthusiasm and commitment.
Creative writing subjects were certainly a good way to get used to the workshopping model, but the large class numbers and the varying standards often made things feel disjointed. Too often, we didn’t have the experience to really articulate how we felt about a piece. Equally, while some students were eager to learn as much as possible, others drifted in and out. We were all at different places, and all wanted different things.
Until last year, I’d never tried being in a writers’ group. But after one particular book launch, the word got out and I thought I’d give it a go. Strangely enough, and luckily, the dynamic seemed to work. All of us had got to a stage where we could give critical feedback and were willing to be critiqued, all of us were similarly serious about writing and, although we missed sessions here and there, all of us were in it for as long as the going was good. Meeting every month can motivate you to write more frequently than you otherwise would and also force you to pay closer attention to the work you present. Moreover, you get feedback every time, not just for one tute a semester as everyone takes turns (and, every time, it’s good feedback too – not necessarily what you always want to hear, but what you need to). But apart from the practicalities, there’s a great level of informality that I find works better than a structured course. If you don’t have a story that month, or only half of one, then that’s fine. Likewise, it’s also warming to be around people who love reading and writing as much as you do – you can sit around and whine and whinge and rave as much as you please. You can ask questions freely and exchange information on what opportunities might be coming up, and, perhaps most importantly, you can be inspired by the writing going on right in front of you. As Cate Kennedy reflects (although on a slightly different vein):
It’s one thing for a critic to praise your deftness with imagery or whatever, but when someone feels moved to write that they’re planning on staying alive to read what you might come up with next…well, that’ll get you back to the desk – elated and close to mysterious tears, not sure whether to laugh or cry.
Note: Overland recently hosted an interesting discussion on the issue of whether writing can be taught, have a read here.
01 Dec 09 at 9:22
Good topic for discussion. I have been part of both and think they both are pretty workable. The intimacy of a small group is of course much more appealing but sometimes also the ‘trimmings’ of a course are useful because – apart from anything – writing is a discipline and being part of a larger course helps with that aspect of the writing life… In both instances, of course, one needs to choose very carefully whose advice one actually listens to.
01 Dec 09 at 13:13
I’ve never gone through the wringer of a creative writing course, nor attended a writing workshop, so I can’t comment on either. However, whenever I finish a short story I have at least a dozen people whom I know I can call on to get constructive, well-thought-out, timely critique. How? The magic of the Interwebs! Online writing communities are usually pretty open affairs, and while each do have their own peculiar cliques and preferences in writing, they provide a way for hobby writers such as myself to get the same external input as writing groups offer.
A few months ago I was thinking of hitting up a real-life creative course. I asked around to see if there was any particular writing course or workshop that people could recommend. I had always seen RL courses as containing some indefinable ‘more’ than what my online experiences had afforded me. After talking to quite a few people in various stages of writing (at uni, in a critiquing circle, published and with editor, etc.) the message that I got was that univeristy courses are very good at giving you the nuts and bolts, but don’t offer you much more in the way of critique than I could get online. Workshops, it was generally agreed, were very dependant on the group dynamic and how accustomed the people in it were to giving and receiving critique. Overall I came away with the impression that online discussion groups were just as effective, if not more so, than RL groups.
Since most online workshops generally co-exist with a social portion of a website, it’s easy to find out who is among your peers in terms of age and motivation. Ease of communication is achieved through email, rather than awkward up-front conversations; though if you want that instantaneous reaction feel you can always set up a chat event. Online groups are generally pretty wide-reaching, I’ve been part of critiques that featured writers from all continents of the world.
Of course there are disadvantages. Open to everyone means that they are open to everyone and that can mean some seriously terrible stuff getting pushed through. But generally speaking online groups have a tiered system of skill, banding people of roughly the same level together. Or if they don’t, groups will form naturally within the site. There are subtle disadvantages too, in that most writing sites have a social aspect to them, and it can be easy to get distracted by this. Or, worse still, you could be so charasmatic that you endear people so that they won’t say a bad word about your writing! Not something I have to worry about, fortunately. ;P
Of course, a lot of folk will still say that nothing compares to the act of standing up, presenting your work, and having it ripped to shreds by your colleagues. That’s their prerogative, I guess. When I look back at all my writing (and I can, thanks to it all being digitised, with annotated comments from critiquers and my own notes) I can see how much the online communities that I have belonged to have improved my writing, and I’m incredibly thankful for it.
Gosh, that turned into a bit of a rant, sorry! Thanks for the thought provoking article!
01 Dec 09 at 13:50
Thanks for these very interesting responses!
Chris, I agree that you have to pick and choose out of the feedback given – another crucial skill to pick up.
Phill – the idea of online writers’ groups is a fascinating one, and perhaps something that will go from the strength to strength (I even heard about one beginning on Second Life a while back). I imagine it’d take a bit of trial and error to find the right one though (much like in ‘RL’). I also wonder if the anonymity would mean that people are much more forward with the opinions, for better or for worse? I have heard of some bad experiences with comments getting carried away. Good if you have a thick skin, but perhaps not if you’re just starting out…
01 Dec 09 at 14:02
‘I have heard of some bad experiences with comments getting carried away.’
That can happen, for sure. As always, personalities can cause friction. It gets handled in different ways on different sites though. Either you can choose to hide the author’s comment, or a moderator will warn the commenter that they are overstepping bounds, or straight out ban them. Most of the time there is always an option to ignore, it’s just up to the author to take the higher ground, as tempting as a rebuke may be. As Chris says above ‘…one needs to choose very carefully whose advice one actually listens to.’
As I have participated in online writing workshops, I have build up a list of trusted individuals that I can ask for crit directly through email or sharing pieces in Google Docs. I don’t usually ask the same people for successive pieces, and I never complain if they do not read my work. As far as I can tell, it’s all about giving and taking; you need to put yourself out there and give good critique before you’re going to receive any.
01 Dec 09 at 15:59
‘you need to put yourself out there and give good critique before you’re going to receive any.’ – very true.
03 Dec 09 at 14:35
I don’t understand this idea that writing can’t be taught. We teach music, drawing, photography, sport… why not writing? (I should add that I am not a disinterested party: I have been teaching creative writing for several years.)
06 Dec 09 at 19:45
The mechanics of writing can – and should – be taught. It’s the inspiration; the muse; the light bulb; the creative spark; whichever pixie alights on a writer’s shoulder to whisper in their ear when inspiration strikes… that may not come in a uni tut room at the appointed hour.
08 Dec 09 at 4:54
Having been on a writing course that operated very much as a writer’s group – we read each other’s work and gave feedback each week, workshopping half the group of six each week – I think the most important thing a group can give you, whereever you do it, is an insight into your work as something that will be read by other people. My group would pick up on false notes, weak dialogue, inconsistencies in character or setting…. all the things you ignore or don’t notice in your own writing won’t make it past six sets of beady eyes. It is really useful. But then you still have to drag yourself away and just write…. which is a far less lively and sociable activity!
08 Dec 09 at 10:25
I certainly don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t have creative writing courses at universities etc. I’ve enjoyed the classes that I’ve done and I was glad to learn the basics of critiquing, giving feedback etc from them.
However, my belief, to quote the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is this:
‘Though we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught, we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed, and we see our possibilities and limitations as a school in that light. If one can “learn” to play the violin or to paint, one can “learn” to write, though no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well.’
02 Jan 10 at 19:03
Our writing group is launching a writing competition end of January. Are you interested in application forms? Thank you. H. Rogan
02 Jan 12 at 19:58
Can anyone suggest a writing group in the western suburbs of Melbourne, or a where to find an index of groups?
09 Jul 14 at 14:54
Hi, I’ve devoured the above comments without finding that any seemed to relate to what I want to do, but still very much like the idea of joining a writers’ group I can fit into.
I’m 78 years old and interested in writing my memoirs, largely around anecdotes about colourful individuals who have been important and/or just plain good fun to be with along the way. My eldest son (of three) was severely intellectually disabled, had no expressive language and was profoundly blind, so he had a difficult life. I would like to put on record the deeds of the many exceptional people who went out of their way to contribute to his welfare during his 54 years, and perhaps provide some insight into the hero that he was. I would also like to so this within the context of our family life and friendships. I have so many sub-stories to tell – and as I don’t currently know where to start I feel my greatest need now is to determine an overall structure. Heaven forbid it should simply be a chronological history. T’would prefer something thematic for example. Please let me know if I may benefit from participation in a writers’ group. King regards, Beryl Power