An Irishman's Diary

The village, in the deepest midlands, comprised a school, post office and pub

The village, in the deepest midlands, comprised a school, post office and pub. I had come all the way from Galway to read to a roomful of fidgeting, nostril-plucking farmers' children. Smiling the grin of the newly mad, I invited questions.

One scholar at the back, plump and probably the butt of adolescent jokes because he was brighter than the rest, put up a well-fed hand. No questions, but he wanted to point out that the second-last line in the last stanza of the first poem I had read made no sense.

He was right. Not only was it incomprehensible; it was rubbish. I sincerely hope he isn't chained to a mortgage and a desk job by now. He deserves better.

He had seen through the deception that, just because teacher said I was a poet and had published, I could teach him something, and was untouchable. Good for him! In today's creative "environment", it's easier to get a place on a creative writing course than it is to find a bed in a hospital. In some towns you can't throw a rock over a wall without landing on a "Poetry Master Class" or a course on "Short Story Writing for Beginners". The creative writing class is the new bingo, even a subtle substitute for sex: "Not tonight, dear, I'm rhyming." It has its snake-oil salesmen too, some of whom are women.


Creative writing classes are an industry and there's money in it. There is nothing wrong with learning to express oneself through poetry or prose; indeed it can be a healthy thing and - who knows? - one may have talent that just needs prodding. But in a game where expectation clashes with reality it follows that chancers and "wing-it" merchants abound. The blame is not theirs: they're just hopping on a bandwagon created by the ludicrous philosophy that everyone's an artist.

The fault lies with the "students", mainly adults, who in any other line of business would be more cautious when parting with their money.The presence of a "teacher", often half their age, causes mature adults to regress, giggle, forget assignments, and what's worse, to trust unquestioningly.

The creative writing class exercises a Svengali-like hold over its clientele; amazingly, no participant ever asks whether he might inspect his tutor's credentials before signing up. Some may grumble in the pub after the class or - too late - after the eight or ten week course is over, but their money's gone by then.

After writing and publishing for more than 35 years, I still have much to learn. On the first night of a creative writing class I warn my pupils that I will not conjure the mind-blowing novel or collection of poems from them. I can share experiences, some basic approaches, obvious dos and don'ts; but nothing substitutes for being in the firing-line, as it were, for many years, and taking rejection. If they are not prepared to work and fret, stamp-collecting is a less costly and disappointing hobby.

But who wants to spend time practising anything any more? Who wants to consider the late Brian Moore's dictum that writing is damned hard work? There are such marvellous sums of money going out to young (is that the secret?) writers. And besides, poems are small things and clearly not hard to write and no one rhymes them, these days, so what's the fuss?

Some may have attended a class at which some genius told them that everyone was a poet - which moronic statement no doubt was meant to suggest a liberal intelligence. Rather it panders stupidly to Victor Hugo's remark that, were a poet's entity to be represented by the number 10, it could be found to comprise one part self-interest and nine parts conceit.

Too many creative writing classes feed a media-spiced hunger to become a moneybags writer. Some are led by people who have much less talent, knowledge and life experience than their pupils and whose literary wisdom may be little or doubtful; others are good, decently led by people who have been around long enough to have doors shut in their faces as well as opened, who know the worth of their own work and are willing to share what painfully gained knowledge they have without making dubious promises.

No one can make someone else a great novelist or a successful poet. Furthermore, we live in an age when appearing often in newspapers is more likely to get one published than is good writing. Commercial concerns far outweigh literary ones.

A colourful personal background is at least as enticing to a publisher as an ability to write. Perhaps one would spend time more wisely re-creating one's image.

It may be sobering to remember that the bloke "teaching" you how to be a writer may long to be a writer himself. Ask the teacher to give you one good, short reason why you should be spending your money under his, or her, tutelage.

If you sense hesitation, go home - and read a good book.