Friday, March 4, 2011

The Write Stuff

By Russel D McLean

This week, with thanks to the wondrous Scottish novelist, Kirsten McKenzie, I attended a writing class as a “visiting speaker” or some such thing. Basically I went in and answered a lot of questions. It was informal. And it was fun. Lots of great questions.

But one in particular stuck with me above all the rest.

“Are classes like this worthwhile if you want to write?”

I admit I was stymied by the question. Because I couldn’t say yes considering I’d never attended a writing class, never been part of a writer’s circle (at least for long) and had never really advised anyone to do so. And yet I couldn’t condemn courses because, here I was, talking to one, trying to help these people.

In the end I think that the question is perhaps a moot one. Writing classes are perhaps only useful if you find them useful. They cannot make you a writer. But nothing in the world can except for luck, perseverance and a tiny amount of natural ability. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t do everything you can to make learn the craft.

For some people, like me, that’s all about immersing yourself in literature, in learning through doing, in making mistakes on your own terms. If you’re like me – that is, if you’re a grouchy hermit-type – then a writing probably isn’t for you.

But if you need structure, routine and support, then I think writing classes can be incredibly useful and productive environments. And sometimes they can even help you if you’re on your way in the craft, too. One writer I know is doing a course simply so they can teach and has been discovering all kinds of truths they had never been able to get to before simply through the rigours of the learning process. That’s great, and it’s done a huge amount for them.

But it’s one individual case.

I think I said it to the class multiple times, but the truth is that when it comes to writing and publishing – hell, just about any art form – nobody knows anything. Or, to put it in the words of one of the 20th Centuries greatest unknown poets*

What might be right for you might not be right for some

It sounds like a cop out of an answer of course. And maybe it is. But the fact is that writing is a very strange business to be in. And especially fiction writing. There is no one tried and true route to success. Everyone’s experience varies wildly.

And that’s part of the joy of writing and the reason I love it. Every writer I meet has their own take on the business, their own utterly unique war stories that couldn’t have happened to anyone else. They all come from different backgrounds. And I think the only thing I could to back up my non-answer to the question is this.

Ask each of them whether a writing course is worth while.

And see the number of different, conflicting and plain crazy making answers that come flooding back.

*The dude who wrote the Diff’rent Strokes theme


Sean Patrick Reardon said...

I'm not really a fan of anyone telling me the right way to do anything, no matter what it is. I most likely won't take a writing class and would fail badly in any collaboration project. I do put a lot of stock in observing and learning from people I admire and taking their advice or guidance.

Nice reference on the Different Strokes theme. You don't find too many good TV themes songs like you used back in the day. Good Times, The Jeffersons, and er, The Facts of Life ;)

Dana King said...

Everyone will get (or not get) something different from a writing class. Like Sean, I'm not a fan of class after class after class, when what would benefit the writer most would be to read more and, well, write.

I did, however, take one class, and I'm grateful every day. Almost ten years ago I was accepted into a workshop at George Washington University; that year the workshop was run by John McNally. Everyone else there was a "literary" writer; I wrote crime. McNally treated me no differently than anyone else, and taught me the craft aspects of writing are much the same, no matter what your chosen genre, and that crime was not a ghetto.

He was also dedicated to getting each writer to best utilize his or her own gifts and never tried to shoehorn us into a "right" way of doing things.

Serial writing classes may be best suited for those who want to think of themselves as writers, as opposed to actually being writers.

Chris Rhatigan said...

Interesting post. It definitely depends on the type of writer and the class. I took a class with a really great teacher who gave me very thorough in-text comments, which were helpful.

I think you could say the same thing about revising--works for some writers and not for others. For myself, revising is sometimes a great experience and a piece only reaches its potential after several edits. Other times I end up mangling the shit out of it and losing my original intention.