Wolves at the Writing Workshop

Can you imagine the terror I suffered when a fellow student posted this comment on Facebook days before my work would be critiqued in class?

 “The rewrite, the self-edit, the horror of it being fed to hungry wolves; some starting off kind of sympathetic, but eventually succumbing to the pack mentality, each taking turns to rip my literary efforts to shreds using their razor-sharp criticisms, but only when the pack leader allows, and she will allow!”

That night I woke up in a cold sweat and I was sure I could hear the sound of wolves howling in the distance. I checked my jammies were still in one piece and hadn’t been shredded to pieces. And yet I was sure that I could feel the hot breath of the hungry pack at the back of my neck. Or was that just my hubby snoring at my side? And then I noticed the scratch on my shin. Could it just be that my hubby’s toenails needed a good trim with a Black and Decker?  Maybe that explained the scratch. It was going to be a long night….

A friend claims that the best thing for insomnia is to get up and read.  Good idea. And that’s when I felt the panic set in again.

Never mind the wolves, an article by Cila Warncke in the latest edition of Mslexia (Issue 51-Oct, Nov, Dec 2011) about what’s wrong with the teaching of creative writing also had me worried. The title of the piece is, ‘Are You Wasting Your Money?’ This is not something you want to dwell on the week your P45 slips through the letter box and your bank statement shows the course fees have indeed been deducted!

Warncke completed a Masters in Creative Writing at Glasgow University and is highly critical of the workshop model. As she says, “great literature is not written by committee” and argues that fellow students often feel under pressure to pass judgement which is largely based on their individual taste. I can see that this is a potential problem as we have a very mixed group who are all writing in different genres. However, our lecturer was quick to point out that within any group, you have to decide whose opinion that you rate as not everyone is your target reader. I think this issue has also been overcome in our group by focusing on more specific issues such as POV, characterisation etc and avoiding petty comments on personal taste.

Until last Wednesday, I’d only participated in critiquing the work from two of my fellow students. They emerged from the wolf hunt workshop claiming that the feedback on techniques and common errors was valuable and the workshop model was an ideal opportunity to gain an insight as to how your writing is working for a variety of readers. They also felt that the whole vibe of the workshop was supportive rather than critical. But it didn’t stop the nightmares.

So did I survive the wolf pack feasting on my fiction?

Well, I definitely walked away with a few nasty cuts. Of course it hurts to sit silently and watch your work chewed up and spat out. But once the wolves have left you to lick your wounds, you realise that the comments were vital in shaping your work and making sure it delivers. With a little TCP and a lot of rewriting the wounds are healing nicely. When my turn comes round again next semester, I will hopefully face the pack as a better writer without suffering a wolf themed nightmare and have a hubby with manicured toenails.

Writing Exercises- Am I Fit Enough?

A BRAIN and a pair of jump leads walk into a bar. The jump leads take a seat and the brain 

If there was such a thing as a set of jump leads for your brain, I could’ve used a set over the last few weeks! After doing the same job for six years, autopilot was my daily setting. At times this was a cosy comfort blanket that meant I never lost any sleep worrying about work but my flabby brain was in definite need of a work out.

My creative writing course has certainly kicked started my brain! Weekly writing exercises have challenged the whole class. One of our favourites has been to write a series of pieces which start with, “When I was seventeen…” and the results from my fellow students have produced a range of emotions from funny to sometimes quite sad. It’s been really interesting hearing everyone’s work. The exercise I’ve enjoyed the most so far was to meaningfully include the following 5 things in a 1000 word piece. The things were a tower of top hats, the Oxford Book of Saints, Nescafe, a child standing in water and Bermuda. It wasn’t easy! There’s 7 of us in the group and it was fascinating to hear the other completely different versions on the exercise.

A highlight for me was the chance to hear the award winning novelist, Andrew O’Hagan deliver an excellent  talk on, “Civic Memory: An Argument on the Character of Scottish Culture” to a packed audience.The talk was adapted from a provocative, insightful, and often comical lecture commissioned by the National Theatre of Scotland and presented at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, exploring how our understanding of places in general and Scotland in particular depends on shared memories.

O’ Hagan argued that civic memory binds us together and is the currency of Scotland’s cultural life. Much of our sense of identity has less to do with politics and more about been shaped by fictionalised heroes. Whisky bottle mottos, such as, “Afore ye go” from O Hagan’s childhood memories were used to illustrate that the Scottish feeling of nationhood is largely a figment of our imagination but it creates a coveted vision of togetherness.

However, civic memory is not about nostalgia and referring to the works of writers such as Robert Burns. O’Hagan emphasised that modern writers such as James Kelman are bringing new energy to expressing a true history of what being Scottish means to most people. The positive side of this parochial instinct is that civic memory keeps politics alive and helps to change the cultural world. O’Hagan clearly celebrates the relationship between art and life and has an optimistic view of civic memory as a means to counteract defensive nationalism.

What struck me most was how our understanding of Scotland and other places is dependent on shared memories. For the majority of working class people this is based on verbal history. My dad was what O’Hagan described as a “real character” and was sustained by civic memory. When he died suddenly five years ago, I not only lost my dad but all his stories. Being raised in a deprived family with thirteen siblings made him the man he was and consequently there were many stories about his challenging upbringing as a Catholic boy in an impoverished mining village. O’Hagan’s passion for investing in today’s civic memory has made me keen to explore my own heritage in greater detail and perhaps try in some way to celebrate my dad’s life.

After 4 weeks at uni, my brain is now getting the work out it so badly needed and with all the writing exercises, reading list and inspirational speakers hopefully it’ll soon be in much better shape…

A BRAIN and a pair of jump leads walk into a bar. The jump leads take a seat and the brain g

A BRAIN and a pair of jump leads walk into a bar. The jump leads take a seat and the brain gets the round in, but the bartender refuses to serve the brain.

Never Too Late to Start to Write

What aspiring writer doesn’t day-dream about leaving the 9-5 to give their writing 100% commitment? But every bit of advice insists, “Don’t give up the day job!” 

But I ignored the screaming voices of reason and made a very very late application to university to do a Masters in Creative Writing. A week before the course started, I got the news that I’d been accepted. It felt scary and exciting in equal measures.

This week I received my last ever pay slip. The reality of what I’d done set in as I filed away the little scrap of paper. But instead of worrying, I felt liberated and thought, “What’s the worst that can happen?” 

And I knew I’d made the right decision when I returned from my ‘Welcome Meeting’ at uni. For the first time in years my brain was buzzing with the challenges that the course was sure to throw at me. 

At forty three years of age, I was way out of my comfort zone when I wandered around the Freshers’ Week stalls. It was weird. There was never any pole dancing clubs when I did my first degree! I wanted to stop to admire the skill and fitness of the girl demonstrating. But the look of terror on the acne ridden faces of the teenagers when I paused briefly at the stall made me keep on walking. Of course it was tempting to wind them up by pretending to want to join their club but I didn’t have the heart to cause such stress. One glance at me made it obvious that I was only able to polish the pole with Mr Sheen rather than my inner thighs.

At least my MLitt class was a safe haven from giggling girls planning what to wear to Dance Night at the Union. Almost everyone in class is mature in years or in attitude. It felt great to be surrounded with like-minded people and it was clear that everyone had made a sacrifice on one level or another to be there.

As a former Training Officer, I was for once on the other side of the desk. No longer the ring master and all I had to worry about was could I perform? Would I be able to cope with the workload, the reading,assignments, the creative writing exercises and the ordeal of having my work critiqued?

But I instantly started to calm down when the lecturer reassured the class that it’s sometimes too early to embark on creative writing but it’s never too late.

And as they say, it’s better to regret what you did instead of what you didn’t! But I’ll stay away from the pole dancing club…