It was a dark and stormy night . . .
If you are stuck on the first line of your first brilliant novel, a creative writing course can offer a supportive environment and teach the all-important art of 'applying bum to seat', writes JOE GRIFFIN
WOODY ALLEN once said that 90 per cent of life is showing up. Dorothy Parker said writing is the application of ass to seat. Having attended a number of creative writing classes and started a novel some time ago, I know what they mean. Most writers struggle to compose their poems, short stories and novels. Others with a yen to write don’t even know where to begin. That’s where creative writing classes come in.
I still marvel at the myth that gifted writers could not benefit from attending classes. One may be born creative, but doesn’t it make sense to hone that talent? Imagine if it were said no good architect had ever graduated from an architecture course or no good classical musician had taken music lessons.
If writing classes were good enough for renowned American authors Richard Ford, Michael Chabon, Alice Sebold and for Irish writer John Boyne, they are good enough for me.
An other myth is that those who cannot do, teach. But creative writing classes are frequently given by published authors.
Some of the teachers in the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin began as students there. They returned to the centre as teachers after becoming published authors. Juliet Bressan is one such. She has published three novels and co-written What Women Know, which came out last September.
“What I always tell people is that they should come along expecting to work hard on their novel,” she says. “If they are motivated and determined to put the time and effort into it, they can finish a first draft in the 10 weeks of the course, or at the very least have written about a third of it and have a plan for how they are going to finish it.”
Bressan says Dorothy Parker had the right idea about making time to write.
“The main problem students run into is that they haven’t thought about how they’re going to ring-fence the time they need to actually apply bum to seat,” she says. “They are trying to squeeze their writing into an already fairly busy week, and they haven’t thought it through. You have to make time, plain and simple.”
Bressan’s onetime teacher at the centre, Conor Kostick, is also an author of five published books. He still teaches the Finish Your Novel course at the centre.
Kostick agrees that time management is key to success. “Now and again someone joins in the same spirit of those who join the gym for the new year. They hope that having spent the money they will be motivated to do the work,” he says.
“But coming to a meeting where people are really working hard on their novels and where you have done very little must be discouraging and a cause for dropping out. I ask that those attending the course write 2,000 new words a week or edit 6,000. For some that’s not much of a commitment, for others, trying to juggle work and childcare, it’s a lot.”
Kostick says the biggest misconception among students is that the ability to write is a skill that either you have or you haven’t.
“This is not the case,” he says. “Writing is a lot like playing the guitar. The more you practise and learn from others, the sooner your own creations become something other people want to hear.”
Even Eric Clapton was once a novice guitarist, so one should remember that classes will be filled with timid, unpublished beginners too.
“Students can expect to meet a friendly group of like-minded writers in a venue that has a terrific atmosphere,” says Kostick. “They can expect an efficient administration around the organisation of the course and course organisers who listen to their goals and assist them during the course.”
Bressan says embracing one’s weaknesses is key to growing as a writer. So don’t let the fact that you are not Ernest Hemingway put you off. “If you’re hugely motivated to write and publish a novel no matter what, you will benefit from the course,” she says.
“You’ll be prepared to discuss your mistakes so that you can learn to improve, and you won’t be precious about your writing, thinking that you are brilliant and therefore you are coming along just to read your amazing writing for the others. You should come to a course like this to show other people your worst writing, and to learn why it isn’t working for you.”
Just as every writer is unique, so is every teacher. Greg Baxter, whose A Preparation for Deathwas published by Penguin last year, offers lessons in literature and writing through Some Blind Alleys in Dublin. He encourages writers to be readers first. One of the greatest misconceptions aspiring authors have is that they can write well without being passionate readers of good work, he says.
“A lot of students tell me that, within a few weeks, my classes have ruined bad books for them,” he says. “For the majority of people who attend these classes, that is my only goal: to annihilate their tolerance for bad books by helping them recognise what’s so wonderful about great books.”
Baxter’s courses look at great books that altered writing conventions, those that define them and those that break all the rules.
“People generally stick with the whole curriculum because they are excited about just how wild and exciting stories and personal essays can get,” he says.
These are not courses for those who are looking for five easy lessons in how to churn out a best-seller.
“Since my class is a literature course, it benefits people who like reading,” he says. “People who want to be ‘fixed’ and get published will grow impatient at the amount of time we spend reading and discussing great stories and personal essays.”
In his classes, students are encouraged to identify what is best in the works they read. “I urge people to stop pretending that they benefit themselves by saying negative things about masterpieces,” he says.
“I try to get people to praise, to embrace, and to find passion for sentences. Humility creates respect for great writing. And once you have that respect, you become a perpetual self-teacher, and a much better, more unforgiving editor of your own work.”
In my experience, creative writing classes demand homework be done, but they are fun, gratifying learning experiences.
They helped me to put a structure on my ideas and I am now a quarter of the way through my novel. I have mapped it out from beginning to end. I don’t know if anybody will read through to the finish, but at least I know that I will have completed it. This would not have happened without the guidance of my writing teachers.
Expect to attend the classes and to put aside at least a couple of hours a week to work on your craft. It may be the first step on the road to being an award-winning writer.
Where to start?
THE IRISH WRITERS’ CENTRE
The Irish Writers’ Centre has courses in Dublin and around the country in creative writing for beginners, the short story, memoir and non-fiction, script-writing and the finishing your novel.
There are one-day, weekend, six-week and 10 week courses. Writerscentre.ie
SOME BLIND ALLEYS
Less conventional options can be found at Some Blind Alleys, which offers demanding classes in writing and literature appreciation.
TRINITY COLLEGE DUBLIN
The university offers a one-year, full-time post-graduate course in creative writing at the Oscar Wilde Centre. According to the website, the course is intended for those who are “seriously committed to writing, are practising, or prospective authors and who wish to develop their writing within the framework of a university course”.
CREATIVE WRITING INK
This group has a number of online creative writing courses, where budding authors can share their work, feedback, encouragement and writing tips online. There are also monthly writing contests via a forum. It offers guidance in creative writing, poetry, screenwriting and even blogging. creativewriting.ie/online-writing-courses
CREATIVE WRITER’S WORKSHOP
This offers online fiction or memoir writing courses. For a shorter, more intensive experience, it also holds writers retreats at a number of centres around the country. These can range from four-day “work-in-progress” courses in the Burren, to two-day memoir-writing courses in Glendalough.
Other impressive locations, some appropriately isolated, include Inis Mór, off Galway, and a 14th century castle in Sligo.
This private college promises that you will develop your creative writing skills with confidence. Their courses are online and flexible. They run for about six to nine months and you can work on them at your own pace. Students are continually assessed and are each assigned their own tutor.
THE FABER ACADEMY
This organisation, which is linked to the publishing house, runs a number of courses in the capital, including six-month courses in writing a novel and becoming a poet. Both are currently under way in the James Joyce Centre, Dublin. The courses cost €3,000 each.