Thursday, 4 August 2016

Who shouldn't go on a writing course (and why writers should be like comedians) – David Thorpe

I'm about to start teaching a new writing course.

Part of me is looking forward to this as I enjoy teaching and talking about writing with other writers.

But then another part of me is wondering about the point of encouraging others to embark or continue on the thankless endurance test of such an obstacle-strewn odyssey.

Being a writer is still (perhaps strangely) perceived as an aspirational activity by a surprising number of otherwise rational people, often seen as a noble and impressive calling – adjectives which, in my Thesaurus, lie alongside such words as 'formidable' and 'dreaded'.

Isn't it odd that this rosy picture perpetuates in the age of the Internet? When it is plain for all to see from the clamourings that emanate from the blogosphere and the length of Amazon's long tail, that a writer could be said to be in the same class as someone with a minor self-inflicted injury – such as a D-I-Y-er who accidentally severed their left index finger while sawing a plank – to be pitied, but only so far, since they only have themselves to blame.

Notwithstanding the fact that anybody who has the balls to stand up in front of a crowd and try to make them laugh should be admired for something, if only their blind faith in themselves, you probably wouldn't consider a stand-up comedian starting out at the Edinburgh Fringe to be noble or impressive. You might go and see them – if you bothered at all – because you thought you might be able to watch them make a fool of themselves.

Comedians are like parliamentary candidates or local councillors in that both have to stand up in front of crowds and utter monologues – except that the politicians have far thicker skins and are not intending to be funny.

Writers (and I include myself of course) are in the same ballpark as comedians and politicians, since they put their own words in common view, but they largely lack the pluck to strut their stuff in public. Instead, they stow themselves in their sheds/bedrooms/cafes, lurking behind computer screens. They spurt out their souls in pixellated patterns using back-lit liquid crystals for ink without the benefit of immediate feedback from a live audience flecked with hecklers.

Comedians and politicians therefore have two advantages over writers:

  1. The lame parts of their script become immediately visible and must be hastily redrafted before the next gig. 
  2. They must either rapidly evolve a hardened exterior – or die. 

For – perhaps without the honing help offered by this exposure – the lot of most writers is repetitious rejection. A thick skin is advised.

Time and again I ask myself: why does anyone want to spend months – often years – producing a manuscript, when at the end it's the last thing an editor or agent really wants to see, because they've got enough already thank you very much.

Either that, or this hypothetical author decides to self-publish and must spend the remainder of their days regretting that if only they had blogged and tweeted more copiously then a viral tsunami of appreciation of the exalted quality of their work would have been triggered.

A non-critical mass of recognition is the holy grail of too many writers. But it is like winning the lottery. I would argue that this aspiration is a mirage – for most comedians and politicians remain in a low orbit... plying the municipal circuit, toiling around their district circle of clubs, pubs and civic halls.

Most writers also have their homely parishes, what marketeers call their niche.

To plagiarise Ralph Waldo Emerson: writing, like life, is a process, not about reaching the destination.

I think if I can give my students anything it will be enthusiasm to have faith in this journey. That what they must do – if they are to be realistic and serious – is to enjoy every single step of it: the inspiration, the planning, the obsession over style, the character development, the research, the redrafting, the copy editing, the proofreading, the selling, the marketing, and so on...

Being a writer is many things, and only some of it can be taught. Anyone may learn the craft, just as anyone can tell a joke or tell you how the world should be. But not all of them deserve to be listened to.

The writing journey must take you into the hinterlands, through the mountains, seas and deserts, perhaps the coldness of interstellar space, into the past and back to the future. You must face and kill dragons and then kill them again. You must sacrifice your loved ones ('kill your darlings') and impale yourself on the railings of doubt, then lever yourself off with the crowbar of self-belief. Over and over. No one thanks or admires you, or even knows, half the time. Why should they?

But even after this, why would anyone read your work, unless it had attitude, style, wit and authority?

These things can and must be practised, and a writing course may be the best place to do it – in a safe, structured environment, where only positive and constructive feedback may be offered.

You really do have only yourself to blame. But then, in the right company, it can be fun, and personally – if not always financially – rewarding.

So if you think you have what it takes, do come on my course. If nothing else, I'll offer you honesty, humour and enthusiasm.

David Thorpe's website is at


Sue Purkiss said...

Love this!

David Thorpe said...

Thanks Sue!

Katherine Roberts said...

It is strange, but not so strange... I think we all have an urge to create something, and also to win the lottery? Putting those two aspirations together seems a perfect match, so writing courses are a bit like buying a ticket. Good luck with the course.