Friday, 2 December 2011

My Creative Writing MA Course

Creative writing courses (actually, arts courses in general) often get a bad press and it's been well-documented that universities apparently see creative writing MA students as cash cows who are too lazy and/or stupid to do a 'proper' subject. Call me crazy, but I chose to to my MA because I love writing. I want to be a writer, I want to learn my craft and I want honest feedback from good writers. I know there are other ways to do this, but this was the right path for me and after two months, I don't have a single regret.

I think the major problem with assessing writing courses of any type is that people have varied expectations - and some don't appear to have researched the course suffciently. I found this with the Open University courses I did. Some students weren't prepared to undertake an academic course in creative writing. The reasons varied: some couldn't commit to the time that needed to be spent on writing and studying, some weren't prepared to examine the writing process or approach writing from an academic perspective, many weren't prepared for the amount of independent study involved and wanted the tutors to hold their hand. Others just seemed to have trouble with constructive criticism.

The truth is (providing the course is well-run and meets its description), you get out what you put into creative writing courses. It may be frustrating at times, especially if you find a particular area challenging (I felt adrift through the poetry section of the OU level 2 course), but if you're dedicated to completing exercises, researching writing, reading widely and writing regularly, your writing will improve. Some people seem to view writing talent as an elusive quality that you either have or don't have. I think of talent - in any area - as being on a continuum. I believe that working on skills and practicing your craft helps talent emerge.

I find it fascinating when writing is regarded as intrinsically different to every other art. Yes, most people use language in their everyday lives - many use it creatively in conversation and/or in writing - but that doesn't mean that aspects of writing can't be taught. Most degrees teach critical thinking, analysis, research skills, discipline, how to communicate more effectively, etc., all of which can be applied to creative writing. Learning about painting or playing a musical instrument involves learning and practicing various techniques, as does writing. How important is innate talent, assuming it exists? Nobody can know for sure, but natural talent isn't worth a damn if you do nothing to nurture it.

Personally, I love my Creative Writing MA so far. It's intensive, exhausting and eating up all my time, but there's nothing else I'd rather do. I feel inspired by my tutors, all of whom have enjoyed writing successes. I am motivated by the enthusiasm of my fellow students. Doing a module in experimental fiction has introduced me to new books, new authors and new possibilities. I'm learning a lot. And for what it's worth, the amount of feedback I get on the informal weekly assignments alone makes the MA far better value for money than my BA. It's just a shame I've had to use a credit card and overdraft to pay for it!

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Random Musings on Rewriting

Reading: The Observations by Jane Harris
Writing: rewriting/refining a ghost story
Watching: Saturday Kitchen Live

Writing is mostly rewriting and whilst I find the process satisfying in many ways, it can also leave me frazzled, dazed and ready to give up writing altogether. A lot of writing on the writing process says that writers tend to fall into two categories: those who write first drafts like skeletons that need fleshing out and those who write first drafts like fat ladies who need whittling down into an elegant hourglass shape. I veer between both categories, often in the same piece of writing.

This means that, for me, rewriting is akin to clay sculpture: I have to add bits on and take bits off and if I focus on one aspect for too long, I find my sculpture has become out of proportion. The best approach I've found is to print off my drafts and go over each one several times. I usually use different coloured pens each time I go over a draft, mostly so that I can see which re-reading led to which alterations. If something has been changed several times, I can instantly see:
a). Which changes are the most recent
b). My thought processes in making the alterations
So, for example, I can see that I've fleshed out one part of the story in the first colour pen I used, then pared it down in the second colour pen and finally reintroduced a longer sentence or two to refine the pace.

I also tend to focus on different aspects each time I read through and sometimes use pen colours which correspond to what I'm looking for in each reading. So I tend to use:
Red - for spelling, grammar, punctuation, factual errors and other failures of logic/knowledge.
Green - for fleshing out, particularly in developing characters.
Purple - adding atmosphere and letting my imagination run a little wild; I tend to use it most often for freewriting in my writing journal.
Blue - descriptions, particularly of places, and pacing.
Pink - plot/story changes and background information; it also tends to overlap with the functions of green and purple.
Black - miscellaneous. I tend not to use it much, as it doesn't stand out on the printed page so I might overlook the changes I make.

I don't stick to this religiously - if I notice a spelling mistake when I'm not writing in red, for example, I'm not going to ignore it or go to the bother of finding another pen: I just correct it - but using colour codes does help me focus on specific tasks during rewriting. It might seem odd or fussy, but it helps me. I think it's especially useful for those of us who tend to over- and under-write in equal doses. It helps me to be a little more organised in my thinking - which is why my planner is also colour-coded!

Monday, 22 August 2011

Writing and (Mental) Illness

Reading: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Writing: not a lot
Watching: loads of films; clearing up the Sky Plus memory!

I've been having a difficult time lately - I have done very little writing and this has upset and frustrated me. I have borderline personality disorder with depression and anxiety, which tends to make a lot of things very difficult. I beat myself up for not writing but when I do write, if I'm going through a bad patch with my illness, I can be hyper-critical and that's often more damaging than not writing at all. I convince myself that I cannot write, that I will never be able to produce a good piece of writing. I tell myself that I will never be able to sustain a writing career.

It is only in recent years that I've found the confidence (or foolishness) to expose my work to others. Most of this exposure has been under the safety and security of Open University courses: I either submitted my work to a supportive tutor or posted it in a forum full of encouraging classmates. I thought people would laugh at me and tell me I'm kidding myself if I think I could be anything other than a terrible writer, but that hasn't happened (so far). I've finally found the gumption to invest in myself and my writing.

But depression and anxiety can jeopardise this confidence. In fact, calling it 'confidence' feels strange - I see it as a vital attempt to see if I can achieve my dream. I would regret not trying to make it as a writer. I wonder if this is just an excuse - I'm claiming that it's better for me not to write when my illness is at its worst points, but maybe I would be better off writing through it and facing the worst of my self-criticism. Maybe. But I can't help feeling that it would be counter-productive.

Of course, this ignores the fact that when my depression is bad, it's virtually impossible to read or engage with anything or anybody, let alone write. I should view mental illness as I would view a physical illness: I shall write when I am able to write and not beat myself up when I am unable. Writing (and life) is hard enough without dwelling on the drawbacks; instead of lamenting the times I cannot write, I shall focus on when I am able to write.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Un-Learning to Write

Reading: Light in August by William Faulkner
Writing: not going very well, but developing a short story
Watching: not much – been sunning myself in the garden!

I’ve been thinking about how much un-learning I have to do in order to write as well as I can. I feel that my years at school were a process of shackling my imagination. I spent so long trying to write ‘like a grownup’ that I find myself dismissing ideas as too adventurous, weird or just ‘out there’. It’s sad.
I have to learn to look at every possibility – even if it seems crazy – and to ignore the voices of teachers who held back my writing. I should note that I went to one of the few remaining grammar schools in Britain between the ages of 11 and 16: exam results mattered to them, but creativity did not. From their perspective, my fiction writing wasn’t going to account for a very big proportion of my English Language GCSE so it wasn’t worth encouraging.
In fact, I think we did one creative writing assignment in the last two years of school. I remember my teacher causing me to abandon a story because it was set in the south of France and I described the interior of a house as cold. It was a ghost story. My protests were met with her reiterations: ‘But it’s hot in the south of France.’ Yes, I understood that; I wanted an uncanny contrast to indicate a paranormal presence. Apparently she didn’t understand that there is such a thing as suspension of disbelief.
It’s only in the past few years, having studied creative writing with the Open University, that I’ve become more fully aware of the rich diversity of fiction writing. My tutors empowered me to try writing in different styles and to follow my own curiosity. I also have enough money to read more widely than I could as a teenager (libraries in rural areas don’t tend to stock much experimental fiction – it was classics or Catherine Cookson and I chose the former), which is made even easier by internet shopping. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of my former English teachers haven’t heard of magical realism, let alone more obscure types of writing!
The upshot of this is that I’m making up for lost time as I discover fantastic writers that I didn’t know existed when I was a teenager (why didn’t someone introduce me to Angela Carter 15 years ago?!). I also have to un-learn the rules and restrictions that have been forced upon me. I suppose this is about confidence as much as anything: confidence to trust my instincts, to experiment and to say ‘fuck you!’ to those who have tried to hold me back.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Musing on Possession by A.S. Byatt

Reading: Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler
Writing: planning/brainstorming a short story
Watching: Dawson’s Creek box-set, reliving my youth!

I recently read Possession by A.S. Byatt, which explores the theme of ownership. Its main plot is ostensibly about academic ownership – the ‘rights’ involved in acquiring sources and researching, the ethics of withholding or sharing knowledge and the concept of the subject (in this case, two Victorian poets) as a ‘possession’ versus the impossibility of owning anyone’s life, including one’s own. Subplots are woven into an already-complex storyline as the characters collude and clash. The novel also questions the boundary between possession and obsession.

I’m not going to tell you how amazing Possession is – plenty of people already have, and have expressed it far more eloquently than I would. Suffice to say I fell in love with the novel and lay awake until five o’ clock on Tuesday morning finishing it. Neither will I offer a critical analysis.  It raises many, many questions about the theme of possession but, more than anything, it made me ponder the ownership of stories.

Does anyone ever own a story? Even disregarding theories about there being a certain number of story types (read The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker – it’s a doorstop of a book, but worth its weight in gold), every story contains elements of other stories and all stories are open to multiple interpretations. For a writer, the act of publishing (or sharing a story informally) is a paradox: you are at once claiming a story as your own and releasing it to the general public. Presenting it in a specific, crystallised form but also exposing it to more interpretations.

I have waffled about the ownership of stories before (see Writing and Race: Whose Right to Write?) and Possession highlights the fact that complete, total ownership of a story is impossible and thus seeking total ownership is a futile endeavour. However, we tend to gravitate towards stories with personal meaning. In Possession, the poet Christabel LaMotte is influenced by Breton myths that she feels connected to through her family and nationality. Maud, an expert on LaMotte, is a distant relative of the poet. Other characters mention being drawn to the works of poets they were introduced to in childhood.

From an apologetically personal perspective, I experience a sense of ‘ownership’ when I read my favourite stories – or any story that evokes personal meaning for me. I adore Thomas Hardy (to the bafflement of my friends), partly because I can empathise with him as a writer, with his characters, with the environment he portrays. As an aspiring writer living in East Devon and straddling the fence between ‘working class’ and ‘middle class,’ I feel a connection. However, I’m aware that this connection has more to do with how I’ve constructed my own sense of identity rather than any natural ‘right’ to a kinship with Hardy’s work.

I suppose there is a subtle distinction between ‘possession’ and ‘ownership’: the latter evokes a sense of community and sharing that the former excludes. Stories are made for sharing. Ownership enables a story to be shared as the ‘owner’ feels an urge to retell the story, to extend its life and explore its richness. Feeling this sense of ownership compels us to lend books to friends, to recommend them to acquaintances, to discuss them with family. Possession just conjures up the image of a dusty book on a shelf. For me, ownership is integral to both the creation and the consumption of stories and I’d be honoured if anyone ever feels that they ‘own’ one of my stories.