If you’re in a creative writing class, you will likely find yourself in a conversation with someone who insists that “writing cannot be taught.” Don’t argue with that person. Don’t talk about Gertrude Stein tutoring Hemingway in Paris, or name the many writers who come from these programs who don’t fit any set mould.
The best thing to do would be to nod agreeably. This person can’t be helped; they live in another reality. In 2011, “Can creative writing can be taught?” is a question that’s about as relevant as “Is nuclear proliferation the best way to peaceably resolve the Cold War?” or “Should I own a refrigerator?” It would be harder for anyone seeking to publish literary writing to avoid a writing workshop than to attend a class run by a university, college, or arts centre.
With this in mind, the question should be “how can I be the best creative writing student I can be?” Well, it depends. Here is some contradictory advice:
Drink a Lot. Excess seemed to work for some writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Kingsley Amis. Socializing, and the community that can arise from elbow-tipping, might take the edge off the solitude of writing.
Don’t Drink a Lot. If you wanted to be a better golfer, would you start by sleeping with hundreds of interchangeable blonde cocktail waitresses then crashing your car into a tree? Don’t confuse effect for cause. The writing life and the work itself are not as closely linked as some might think.
Speak up in Class. Share your brilliant insights about narrative and point-of-view with the rest of the class. Flirt with a cute classmate by talking up their story.
Don’t Speak up in Class. You want to become a writer because you’re anti-social and shy. The cute classmate would probably break your heart, anyhow.
Attend readings. Through your class, you will learn of various book events around town. Go to them, meet other writers, hear some writing, and get into some stimulating conversations.
Don’t attend readings. Time used to attend book functions would be better spent writing. If you go to the book launch, then you’ll feel bad if you don’t buy the book, which is prohibitive if you are living off lentils and ramen.
Read A Lot. Books are made from other books, and it’s important to expose yourself to authors who not only shape the way you write but the way you see the world.
Don’t Read A Lot. There’s a word for people who read a lot: librarians. (And I love librarians.) While it’s important for writers to read, other people’s books can be a nice way to procrastinate as you attempt your own.
Write Seriously. Writing is a product of toil, persistence, and rewriting. If you aren’t willing to fully commit your life to writing, why bother?
Write For Fun. Not everyone who takes a writing class is meant to be a writer—and they’re probably better off for that. There’s nothing wrong about writing for fun, as a form of self-expression. Maybe some people write just so they won’t take a machine gun into a shopping mall and fire. That might be the best reason for a writing class ever.
Kevin Chong is the author of four books, most recently a novel entitled Beauty Plus Pity and a non-fiction book on horse-racing. His writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Walrus, the Toronto Star, Maclean's, Chatelaine, FASHION, Vancouver Magazine, and the CBC Arts website. He's an editor at Joyland.ca and teaches Creative Writing at UBC.
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