Wednesday, 26 March 2014

'Tis not enough to help the feeble up, but to support them after

- William Shakespeare

Funnily enough, just before notification of Helen MacKinven’s latest blog-post popped up in my in-box, I was browsing through this year’s little brochure for Arvon Foundation Creative Writing Courses. I’m too late to get on anything this year, but there’s one particular course I’d have loved to go on, tutored by Malorie Blackman (‘nuff said), but as I am currently unwaged (by choice) I’d feel guilty spending such a lot of money. The same goes for a creative writing MA, which I’d love to do.

Helen’s blog asked:
    Was your creative writing course worthwhile? Do you feel the need for support from a writing group? How do your family and friends support your writing ambitions?

It made me think. I began to write a comment to add to her blog, but it grew and so ended up on my blog instead!

I’m very lucky with my family support, especially that of my husband, who is tolerating my unwaged state and giving me room to try my hand at this writing game. My wider family also provide support and are proving to be valued readers and marketers of my books. Their clamouring for the sequel to ‘Witness’ has given me confidence that my writing has wide appeal, as I know they wouldn’t bother with it if it were not their sort of thing.
My family support!
As to creative courses, well, I’m a teacher, of course I believe you can be taught something. You can be given the skills, then let loose to see where your creativity and determination can take you.

In July 2009 I went on an Arvon course led by the authors Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman. I found this exceptionally stimulating. What gave me the biggest buzz was living and breathing writing with a group of like-minded people. This group proved to be of great support in the ‘you can do’ style of things, and we still meet up a couple of times each year, which has the effect of spurring me on, especially since a couple of folks (Deborah Meyler, Cherise Saywell) have now published great books.


Two life changing decisions came directly from doing that creative writing course. I resigned my job as a deputy head and took off in a small van on a tour of Europe with my husband and dog. At the same time I was mentored by Kathryn Heyman as part of  the Gold Dust mentoring scheme for writers. Jill Dawson likens Gold Dust to a fast track MA in creative writing. I can’t say how true that is, and there’s an interesting blog about it here, but Kathryn certainly taught me much about structuring a novel, tightening up the writing and strengthening the characterisation and dialogue.

I think it’s possible to teach yourself writing, but I am also certain that you can get there by a less tortuous route with a bit of well-placed tuition/direction/mentoring. Someone pointing out the plot holes, the clich├ęs and, in my case, quite how often your characters wink at each other, keeps you on a better writing path.

At the present time, much of my writing support comes from the ‘Writing for Children’ branch of the Cambridge Writers Group. This group is good at critiquing work, and I value their excellent commentary. They also spread the word about writing events in my area and it’s more companionable to attend events with a few familiar faces.

Not all writing groups support in this way, I know. The last group I attended (OK, ran) had less experienced writers as members, and we were rather more the blind leading the blind. Even so, we did writing exercises each week, and that in itself was incredibly stimulating for me and I produced a lot of writing which led to short stories and starts of novels (to be continued at a later date!)
Pieter Bruegel's 1568 oil painting, often called The Parable of the Blind,
Perhaps it depends on your personality. Some people get on better working in their little garrets, agonising over their writing until they produce masterpieces, others find their ideas flow better when they have someone to talk to. I think I am the latter type of writer. As I spend a fair amount of time on my own, sat in my study, I am considering trying to build more online writing support for myself. My writing group meets monthly, and in between sessions I could do with more than my husband to bounce ideas about with and to comment on chapters. He’s a fantastic proof-reader, but he concentrates on the linguistic side and I need people to get into the story. I’ve not found quite what I’m looking for as yet, but hopefully I’ll know it when I see it. Any suggestions would be most welcome.