It was 2011. I was a full-time teacher with one novel published and prize-winning, and another due the following year. I had just signed up for an Arvon YA course with Celia Rees and Linda Newbery, and I was so excited that I shared the information with an acquaintance who was an aspiring writer. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I wouldn’t like that, being told what to do. I would never go to something like that.’ She remains unpublished. (And by the way, the course was amazing, and many of us are still friends, with several now published or well on the way.)
|all will be revealed...|
This isn’t a contribution to the Can Writing be Taught debate: it’s my experience as both learner and teacher that talent can’t be influenced by a teacher or mentor or contact with others, but that many elements of craft and language-awareness can.
I love learning. I was a swot at school and I worked and played hard at university (four degrees at two universities). When writing became a big part of my life, it was natural to me to seek out places where I could learn about that too.
Back in 2001, I signed up for a course called Novel Writing at the local FE college. I had, then, a very rough unfinished first draft of an unpublishable novel, whose progress was erratic because back in those days I used to write ‘when I felt like it’ or ‘when I was inspired’. (Shrieks of silent mirth.) The very first thing the tutor gave us was an exercise in the correct use of the semi-colon. I had a PhD in English and to be honest, I was a bit offended. Surely, I thought, people on a novel writing course don’t need basic punctuation lessons? (OK, more shrieks of silent mirth: I was young and naïve.)
Despite the bad beginning, the course was useful, if for no other reason than that it gave me an incentive to make weekly progress, and introduced me to the importance of giving and receiving feedback. Now, when I meet and mentor aspiring writers I always encourage them to seek out something similar, and I often feel annoyed at their (not infrequent) reluctance. Don’t they know how lucky they are, I fume, to have access to so many courses? I give them Arvon brochures and tell them honestly how my first Arvon course taught me more about writing than a subsequent M.A. in Creative Writing.
Recently I was interviewed as part of an initiative of the NI Arts Council to identify areas of need for arts professionals, and the main thing I could think of was the need for professional development for published writers. There are plenty of courses and mentoring opportunities for aspiring and emerging writers, but anything beyond that tends to be generated by writers themselves, often informally. Of course there must be writers who feel they don’t need professional development, and good luck to them, but I’m sure there are many like me, with a few successful books under our books but no idea how things will work out in the future, who would love to be able to keep on learning. After all, professional ballet dancers take daily classes; athletes train. Yes, of course I learn on my own. Every book I read – and write – teaches me something. But there is something magical about being in a class, with a wise guide, and other learners to share experiences with.
Books are wonderful, but sometimes you need people. I’m teaching myself the guitar: I’ve always sung but this is my first attempt at learning to accompany myself. I have a reasonable ear, so I wince and try again when it sounds horrible, and I have made progress. After six weeks, when I could play a song all the way through at normal speed without embarrassing gaps while I fumbled for the next chord, I let my stepfather (a brilliant guitarist) hear me. My chord changes were grand, he assured me – but my strumming was wrong. I had been so focussed on the more difficult thing that I hadn’t realised how badly I was doing something equally important. If he hadn’t shown me, I would never have known – even with a lifetime of watching other people play. Even with a good Teach Yourself Guitar book. Sometimes you need people.
|sometimes you need people|
That’s why I was so thrilled when, last week, Arvon announced a course especially for its own tutors. I signed up immediately and, given that it’s in January, I’m just praying not to be snowed in, so that I can go and be a student again.