Guest-blog: RHYS HUGHES

My guest blogger today is Rhys Hughes, who is one of the most successful Welsh authors. His first short story was published in 1992 and since then he has embarked on a project that involves writing exactly one thousand linked ‘items’ of fiction, including novels, to form a gigantic story cycle that will eventually be called PANDORA’S BLUFF. His latest book, Twisthorn Bellow, is also part of the cycle and concerns the adventures of a self-exploding golem.

Some time ago, Simon Kurt Unsworth wrote about how positively membership of a creative writing group benefitted his work and that he recommended aspiring writers to do the same – Rhys, on the other hand, begs to differ about their worth. Here, he explains his reasons.

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Creative Writing Classes – a Bad Idea

I’ve been saying the same thing ever since I started getting published back in 1992. Don’t go to creative writing classes! I have never joined one, so how do I know they aren’t a good idea? Well, I could (unfairly) point out that I have taught a few, but I was against them long before I reached that stage. They always seemed wrong.

Nothing I have seen or learned since has changed my mind about that. In fact I keep meeting successful writers who share my opinion on this issue and they substantially outnumber the writers who praise creative writing classes. By itself, this proves nothing, but the assumption that writing can be taught needs to be challenged.

I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who once said something like, “If you want to find a decent writer in a university, look in the Physics Department, not among the Creative Writing students.” I don’t go that far, but I do accept he was making a valid point about imagination.

There’s a plethora of imagination in physics and in the other sciences. The students of such subjects are forced to make massive imaginative leaps all the time, far bigger leaps on a routine basis than the students of a creative writing class. And imagination is vital.

If you already possess true imagination, you already have everything you need to be a real writer; and if you don’t have any, no amount of creative writing classes will ever give it to you.

Without imagination you can’t be a writer, it’s impossible; and there is no way of teaching imagination. You can develop your imagination, yes, but that’s something you must do yourself, alone. And certainly the best way of doing it is just to think about things. It’s as simple as that. If you drink too much alcohol you will get roaring drunk, right? Well, if you think too deeply you’ll get roaring thunk.

And that’s actually a very good thing…

The problem with creative writing classes is that they gradually smother the imagination and the process of thinking. They do this in several ways, primarily by exposing the students to influences that lower the standard they should be aiming for; and the manner in which the classes operate also undermines the principle of self-discipline that’s essential for success in the writing world. Self-discipline by its very nature is something that has to develop outside a social context.

This is going to sound bombastic, but it’s not bombastic really, it’s just a fact; unfortunately it’s an unpalatable fact for many new writers. The truth is that all writers are always strongly influenced by the material they read and if they read substandard stuff it does have a negative effect on their own work, and the majority of work paraded at creative writing classes isn’t very good at all. If you are a member of a creative writing class you are regularly exposing your style to near-lethal doses of amateurishness without any protection. Yes you are.

I’m not saying that the instant you read a piece of fiction that is poor, your own style will be irredeemably infected; that if you read hackwork you’ll abruptly transform into a hack. It takes more than a few drops of poison to bring you down. But quality does rub off, slowly, relentlessly, and that applies to low quality too. Over a period of time, mixing with amateurs and absorbing an amateur aesthetic will have a detrimental effect on the level of your prose, and far more damagingly on the depth, flexibility and uniqueness of your imagination.

Nor am I saying that there have never been any good writers who went to creative writing classes. Thomas Pynchon is the living refutation of that idea; he felt that classes helped him significantly with the technical side of writing, but not with developing his imagination. Sure, creative writing classes can help you learn the rules of grammar, or even just the ordinary conventions of orthodox writing: crisp prose, clear expression, etc; but that’s nothing you can’t pick up from reading. And in fact, reading is the only essential step a writer ever needs to take. Reading will help develop your technique; and your imagination too, by giving you plenty to think about. Read, read and read some more; but read great writers at least as much as mediocre ones.

That doesn’t mean you should exclusively read Tolstoy, Balzac, Kafka, Proust, Nabokov, Marquez, Beckett, etc; and even if you do that, you almost certainly won’t end up writing texts as fine or significant as they did; but the point is that you must always aim higher instead of lower. There’s an analogy here with crossing a fast-moving river in a boat: an experienced sailor will point his vessel to a part of the riverbank further upstream on the other side than he knows he will arrive at. Aim very high in order to maximise your chances of arriving high enough. Tolstoy used this analogy himself when viewing one of the early paintings of Nicholas Roerich, a picture that plainly demonstrated the truism in colourful terms. Shun amateurs as much as you can…

That sounds harsh but it’s practical advice. Creative writing classes will expose you to an overwhelming amount of amateurishness. But they can expose you to something even more insidious: the overbearing individual. When it comes to something as subjective as literature, there’s always the danger of an extroverted, controlling or narcissistic personality intruding on what is supposed to be a healthy learning process.

In the university near where I live, there’s a creative writing class that is taught by a local writer who believes himself to be an important literary personality. He is indeed well known in one obscure corner of the Welsh cultural scene. If I tell you his name, it’s probable you’ll have never heard of him, let alone have read any of his books. His method of teaching the secret of good writing is to show his students a film of himself in the bath and then to get them to read his books and try to write short stories in his own style, which he can then judge.

There is really no place for such dominating, attention-seeking behaviour in any authentic class. Almost twenty years ago I was briefly involved with a postal writers’ group; the idea was that each member would send a story to the next member, who would comment on it, before sending their own story to the next name on the list, and so on, until the package came back to you. It was supposed to be an endless cyclic process. Despite the inherently democratic nature of this scheme, one of the writers decided he wanted to be the ‘leader’ of the group and proceeded to attempt to assert his personality over the other members. The truth is that he had almost no talent; yet he succeeded in intimidating a few others who did have talent but who were too unconfident or shy to react against his schemes. I have never seen any of the writers in that postal group go on to achieve success in the writing world, although at least two of them had the skills to do so. I still wonder if his domineering personality managed to discourage them out of the running? A shame if true.

The writing market is small and growing smaller all the time. It’s a world where supply hugely exceeds demand. To succeed, a writer needs many qualities; and one of the most important is unflinching self-belief. If you don’t already have this quality, then attending a creative writing class may put you at the mercy of those who do, or who think they do, and who will attempt to control and dominate you. Personality clashes are common and bullying, usually subtle, is not unknown.

Another problem with creative writing classes is that they almost always teach only the most orthodox approach to writing. I wonder how many talented writers with an unusual approach have been discouraged from following their own path by attending a creative writing class? Earlier I mentioned the fact that I have myself taught creative writing classes. Does it seem that I must be a hypocrite by now condemning such classes? Well, I only ever teach one type of creative writing class: the techniques of a ‘workshop’ known as OuLiPo, which is actually a system for helping to generate unique ideas by using certain logical constraints. OuLiPo isn’t well known in Britain and I see my mission as spreading the message that there are alternatives to the orthodox approach.

The work produced by following OuLiPo techniques is often playful, odd and very original; and yet creating it is partly an objective logical process and doesn’t conform to the standards of the typical creative writing class. In OuLiPo there’s no emphasis on psychological interaction or character motivation; the process starts with pure form. One of the best OuLiPo novels is A Void by Georges Perec. It’s a lipogram, in other words a text written without using a specified letter, in this case ‘e’. Phenomenally difficult to construct, the novel is not just an exercise in formal style and technical ingenuity but also poignantly reflects real world situations and concerns to no less a degree than the best orthodox fiction; and it does this partly because our society itself is a sort of lipogram. This can be demonstrated simply enough by substituting the conceit of writing a story without using the letter ‘e’ with the equally random conceit of living a life without (for example) money or love. OuLiPo works take as their genesis an arbitrary constraint, just as real life does, hence the fact that Perec and other OuLiPo writers produce vibrant work that is emotionally engaged rather than exclusively intellectual.

But you can’t get to learn anything at all about OuLiPo in creative writing classes in Britain (apart from in mine, of course, which is why I decided to teach it in the first place!)… So we can see that another disadvantage of such classes is the narrowness of their range. It’s a sad fact that many teachers of creative writing classes are ignorant of the wider possibilities of fiction writing. In a literary magazine many years ago, I recall reading a series of articles designed to teach the skills of writing to hopeful new authors. These articles declared a set of inviolable commandments. One of the first was to always focus on characterisation, for without proper characterisation it was impossible to create worthwhile prose! Another was to develop only believable plots and never take inspiration from the implausible! A third was to concentrate just on personal issues, to write what you know, etc! Instantly I thought of Jorge Luis Borges, one of the finest writers in any language in any age, whose brilliant stories have no characterisation, no plots and are always utterly impersonal. Needless to say, those magazine articles were worthless.

I have expressed my contempt for creative writing classes in one of my most recent novels. Mister Gum is a satire that follows the misadventures of a creative writing tutor who is partly based on the aforementioned tutor at my local university; he is manipulative, opportunistic and egotistical in the extreme. He also lacks any vestige of talent. In the first section of my novel, he sequentially declares the orthodox rules of writing (for instance “show, don’t tell” or “write only what you know”) and then proceeds to tell a story proving the truth of that rule; but the form of this story always directly contradicts the rule. This novel is emblematic of my distrust of creative writing classes. I’m pleased with it for the way it puts content and form into opposition for satirical purposes. Plus it’s filthy.

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Many thanks to Rhys for writing this!

I want to generate some debate here, so please comment on what you think about creative writing classes. Have you ever attended one, and if so, was it a positive experience? Or did you come away feeling it had all been a waste of time? Feel free to add your thoughts…. =)

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29 Responses to “Guest-blog: RHYS HUGHES”

  1. I belong to a Writer’s Group here in Clacton since 1995. I find it gets me writing – which may or may not be a good thing for the world!

    However, I do agree with Rhys about Creative Writing Classes.

  2. .i too have always thought that creative writing courses are a source of viral infection to the writer’s imagination. never have i taken a class, but many of my friends did back in college, and as you mention…ed, it destroyed what little confidence they had in themselves. one that i remember in particular was a really good writer, his only problem was ending a story. he couldn’t end a story for shit. so of course he had a great idea to take a college course in creative writing. afterwards, not only could he still not end a story, but now he couldn’t start on the wonderful and creative ideas in his head. very sad if you ask me.

  3. brendanconnell Says:

    I think it might depend on the age actually. I think for very young people, 13 or 14, such things could be good. I agree however that in general, and especially at University or higher age, they are not good.

    Indeed, it is probably a good part of the reason why one cannot tell the work of one writer from another much of the time.

  4. Donny Boucher Says:

    I agree with Rhys’s points about creative writing classes. As a matter of fact, I never paid any attention to the creative writing segments in my English courses in school. When the teacher said to write, I wrote, and one teacher remarked that I must have been paying attention because what I had written was some of the best she’d seen.

    I have always felt that my ideas and style were my own, and that, other than the technical points, there was nothing anyone could teach me. After all, I doubt, rather highly, that any of the greats ever parked his or her bottom in a creative writing class.

  5. rhysaurus Says:

    > After all, I doubt, rather highly, that any of the greats ever parked his or her bottom in a creative writing class.

    That’s it exactly! Plenty of fairly good writers have parked their bottoms in such a class, but none of the GREATS did. And who is happy with just being fairly good?

  6. Jeff VanderMeer Says:

    This is such a meaningless post, because it deals in generalities. Unless you’re talking about specific instructors and specific approaches to teaching, and specific types of students, it’s kind of like saying all books on writing are bad–don’t read them! (That’d be stupid.)

    I’ve never been harmed by a writing workshop. I’ve also taught a lot of them, and our approach is always form-fitted to the student. Some students also gain a lot from reacting *against* what they learn in class, which is totally valid.

    I also don’t believe in recurring workshops and workshopping everything you write, but beginning writers do indeed often gain a lot from a good instructor and from a good class or workshop on creative writing when they’re starting out. It can also be a good kick in the pants to a mid-level or advanced writer who is stagnating.

    JeffV

    • Thanks for your input Jeff! This is exactly the kind of debate I wanted to generate, with both sides putting their view across. As I said above, I have no particular view myself, as I have never attended one. Rhys wrote this in response to another poster, Simon Kurt Unsworth, who absolutely benefitted, in his own estimation, from attending one. It’s good, I think, to have differing views so people can judge from themselves…

      Once again, many thanks for the input!!

  7. > This is such a meaningless post, because it deals in generalities.

    Do you mean that all generalities are meaningless when someone deals in them; or just specific generalities?

    Seriously, I find it somewhat bizarre that you seem to think dealing in generalities is a meaningless act. You’ve quoted plenty of generalities in your own time, Jeff. We all do.

    I’m more than happy to say that all books on writing are bad — don’t read them. I guess that makes me stupid. Well, I’ve been called a lot worse.

    Of course people with vested interests in creative writing classes will always oppose my own beliefs in this regard; that’s understandable. Certainly if I earned part (or the whole) of my income from teaching creative writing classes I would consider them to be a good idea. But I don’t, and I don’t. Maybe I’m pompous as well as stupid; maybe I need to get down of my high horse and learn some humility?

    Or maybe I don’t…

  8. One of the reasons I never took a creative writing class is seeing the film Throw Momma From The Train when I was 16.

    Have a look at the residents of Billy Crystal’s class – in paticular the bullying woman writer who’s wartime submarine adventure is a masterclass in gob-smacking amateurishismness (a word she would have used!)

    So, I leaned (and am still learning) from reading and writing. Oddly, when I went to university to study literature I found my creative side really blocked. Literary criticism – and that hideous word ‘deconstruction’ – would, I thought, teach me to construct a story as the masters did. Take something apart to see how it works…but it didn’t work.

    Why? Because like a kid messing around with his father’s car (or neighbour’s cat), taking something to pieces to find out how it works won’t teach you anything if you don’t know how to put it back together again!

  9. Jeff VanderMeer Says:

    Yes, Rhys, it does make you stupid. Sorry. If you’re saying you’ve never learned anything from a writing book, well, I really don’t know what to say to that. I guess Calvino doesn’t know shit. I guess Umberto Eco doesn’t either. And I suppose John Gardner knows fuck-all. And Carol Bly, too.

    This whole post is one of the dumbest I’ve seen recently. You are commenting on something you don’t actually know anything about or have experienced. And plenty of idiosyncratic and genius-level writers have benefited from good instructors and from workshops.

    What I find insidious is the *culture* of workshops–writers who don’t use the experience to improve their writing but who decide to live within a workshop culture and keep doing it for their entire life, basically.

    You can’t teach imagination–you either have that or you don’t–but sometimes writers are applying their imaginations to the wrong kind of writing, and need a little re-direction. And on all other things with regard to craft, beginners definitely can benefit from a writing class.

    Not everyone will benefit from a good class, or a book, but most will. The point is never to stagnate.

    JeffV

  10. brendanconnell Says:

    I think my own problem with writing being taught has more to do with it setting writing as a profession. I don’t mean in workshops necessarily, but more MFA courses. I think one can make money off writing, but I am not sure that it is healthy to present it as a money making profession, because there is the danger of, eventually, there being more writers than readers.

    I perfectly understand where Rhys is coming from, because the kind of writing he admires is, in good part, from another age. I am the same way. I admire lunatics who set themselves up in closets and write strange things, sometimes cheap and sometimes magnificent, but on there own terms.

    At the same time, I know that Lucius Shepherd and Robert Wexler, who are both fine, imaginative writers, as well as many others, attended Clarion. At least I think so. And so this kind of thing works for some people.

    Of course there is probably a huge difference between an intensive workshop and an MFA course.

  11. @Jeff: would you like to contribute a guest-blog, putting your views across? I think it would serve the debate well for you to enumerate and explain what you see as the advantages of creative-writing classes…. and it would also serve as the yin to Rhys’ yang, so to speak, and also I think it only fair for you to have your say….

  12. I’ll have to differ with you on this point, Jeff. I did read plenty of how-to-write books when I was younger, so I’m not exactly commenting on something I don’t know anything about. How do you know what I know about such books and don’t know? You really are quite pompous at times.

    I did wonder if my blog on this issue might upset you, bearing in mind your involvement in the business of teaching writing and writing books, but I do have a right to put my point of view, believe it or not.

    I guess it’s possible that I’m stupid. I really don’t think so, but I might be wrong. There are plenty of stupidities in the world. Some people read Nietzsche and stupidly misunderstand everything he ever wrote; others overcook lentils when making a dhal.

  13. …writing *writing* books, is what I meant to say! That stutter confused me. 🙂

  14. I didn’t realise this was such a sensitive issue when I made my initial comments after Rhys’ article. I didn’t think I knew anyone who was involved in teaching fiction-writing. But knowing that would not have changed my view. Nemonymous and ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ would lead me automatically to agreeing with Rhys’ views. My whole gut-feeling is that one can easily destroy the ‘daemon muse’ (as Matt Cardin describes it) by creative-writing lessons.
    However, friends should not fall out over these things.

    • I absolutely agree on your last point, Des. I dont mind open and honest and debate on these pages (in fact, I heartlily encourage it!), but only so long as it doesn’t descend into the personal and vituperative. As I have pointed out, I am more than happy to host an opposing guest-blog from Jeff at any point, because that’s part of an on-going healthy debate. What I get from this, is that some people have come away with bad experiences from these classes whilst others have benefitted enormously. That, however, is the nature of being human, and that diversity of opinion should be celebrated. And that is EXACTLY what I wanted to “Ramblings…” to achieve….

      Carry on arguing your points guys, but keep it civil – that’s all I’m asking.

  15. I’m not falling out with anyone. I’ve been friends with Jeff since 1997 and he has helped my writing career more than almost anyone. He has published me left, right and centre in the USA, for instance. But if someone states or implies or hints that I’m stupid I’m going to react badly regardless of who they are. That’s one insult I won’t tolerate. And I make no apologies for that.

  16. simonkurtunsworth Says:

    Let me draw a distinction here: I agree that no class, of any sort, can teach creativity, but I absolutely disagree that creative writing classes are automatically ‘bad’. Where they are of value, I’d argue, is in exposing your stuff to people who aren’t emotionally attached to either it or you. Their criticism may not be valid, but it’ll be honest, and it’ll force you to think about your own stuff more carefully. Bad creative writing classes, such as the ones Rhys describes, are clearly not going to help anyone, but good ones do enable and encourage an author to learn the techniques and discipline of writing. A good writing group can help acheive the same, but ultimately the only thing that’ll take you where you want to be is skill and imagination and determination. I seem to be doing pretty well at the writing stuff, and that’s in part at least because of the support and information and advice I received at the classes I attended. Of course, you do what feels right to you, whether that’s a class or a group or not shoing your stuff to anyone until you send it out and then never listening to criticism or comment when it’s offered. It’s a wide world and there’s space for everyone!

    • Very good points there, Simon, and I completely agree with what you say. I really do think that it’s a case of what you think will serve you best in your writing and what you hope to achieve with it.

      Thanks for your contribution, Simon!

  17. I certainly don’t mind being contradicted or proved wrong. I just don’t take kindly to aggression or insults as the opening response to the points I’ve made; so far the majority of responses to this blog have been conditionally positive to my stance — conditional in the sense that there’s a tendency to believe I’ve overstated my case but that many of the points I have made are valid.

    The only two negative responses to my blog both come from writers who have taught (or teach) such classes themselves and they were both kneejerk reactions containing insults. I don’t appreciate that. State your case logically and calmly and I may well end up agreeing with you. Use an aggressive or offensive tone and I’ll resist on principle.

    My blog post raises three points that no one has considered separately so far, but certainly they are valid issues and not products of stupidity. They are:

    (a) Exposure to amateurish writing will have a detrimental effect on your own ability. (If this isn’t true, tell me why not).

    (b) The potential hazard of encountering an overbearing personality (either fellow student or tutor) who will have a detrimental effect on your confidence. (If this never happens, tell me why not).

    (c) The fact that the vast majority of creative writing classes only teach an orthodox approach to writing, for example prioritising characterisation and psychological inteaction over ideas. (If this isn’t true, tell me why it isn’t).

    Even if I am stupid, these points remain valid… Now I’m off to look for the teach-yourself-to-write books that Calvino and Eco apparently wrote. Strangely, I don’t feel confident I’ll ever find them…

  18. Jeff VanderMeer Says:

    Rhys:

    First of all, you know I love you. And I love your work, and having a row here wouldn’t in any event mean I’d ever withdraw support from that work or stop inviting you to anthos, etc. Ann and I both love you. Besides, you carried me over a raging river once. That’s a memory stays with you for life. 🙂

    *You yourself* said that saying all writing books are bad might mean you were stupid. I simply gave my opinion that you were right–rather, though, I should’ve said, that it’s a stupid position. I wouldn’t have used the word stupid if you hadn’t.

    Regarding books, have you read any of these: The Passionate, Accurate Story by Carol Bly, About Writing by Samuel Delany, Revising Fiction by David Madden, The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter, Maps of the Imagination by Peter Turchi. I think all of these books are brilliant and a wonderful help to a beginning writer or a writer at any stage of their career.

    Samuel Delany taught at Clarion this year. Also, Ann and I always incorporate OuLiPo into our workshops and classes, along with all kinds of other approaches. I also find it hard to believe you’re the only one doing it in the UK. Seems hard to prove, for one thing. But my point is, your approach isn’t unique, others are doing it, and writers you respect, like Delany, teach workshops. And Clarion itself is composed of six different approaches to writing.

    But there’s a fallacy in that argument, too–that you’d want a course from Delany because he’s a favorite writer. Believe it or not, Terry Brooks is a great writing instructor. Do you like his writing? Unlikely. I’m not fond of it myself. But being a great writer and being a great instructor do not necessarily go hand in hand.

    Personally, I have a healthy skepticism of writing organizations, long-term writing critique groups (i.e., where writers continue to workshop their stuff in a large public group rather than use a workshop or class as a jumping off point for doing it all on their own, with some trusted first readers). I don’t belong to any writer organizations, am not a shill for Clarion or any other writer workshop. Ann and I do teach workshops and teach at Clarion, for example, and that gives us, within the context of being wary of bad advice, of groups, etc., a good perspective on what works and what doesn’t work.

    Re your three points, which I don’t agree with as points to have to refute because they’re kind of absolute-ist and I don’t agree with the foundational premise behind them:

    >>>>(a) Exposure to amateurish writing will have a detrimental effect on your own ability. (If this isn’t true, tell me why not).

    ***This is b.s. First of all, we encounter all kinds of amateurish writing out in the real world–in the world of publication. Tons of crap gets published every single day. Secondly, even if your supposition were correct, I believe a writer learns a lot even from bad writing–you get a sense of what approaches not to use.

    (b) The potential hazard of encountering an overbearing personality (either fellow student or tutor) who will have a detrimental effect on your confidence. (If this never happens, tell me why not).

    ****This also will happen in the real world. Of course there are bad workshops or bad instructors, just like there are badly built bridges and terrible politicians, etc. It doesn’t follow that just because these things may sometimes happen that you therefore should advise people never to take a class or a workshop. Or never build bridges.

    ***If you are a wilting flower, quite frankly, a workshop is more likely to build you up and give you some confidence than the reverse anyway, because the real world of publication and rejection out there is infinitely crueller than anything that happens at most workshops.

    (c) The fact that the vast majority of creative writing classes only teach an orthodox approach to writing, for example prioritising characterisation and psychological inteaction over ideas. (If this isn’t true, tell me why it isn’t).

    >>>>First of all, you don’t know this is true because you’ve not sat in on the “vast majority”. Secondly, these kinds of approaches are often conditional on who is teaching. Any reasonable person will do their research, perhaps even (gasp!) ask the instructor questions about their approach prior to attending such a workshop.

    >>>And any reasonable instructor will not try to make a student conform to their particular -ism. You obviously have a huge chip on your shoulder toward a certain type of writing. That might well make you bad instructor for some students.

    >>>Again, I would note that Ann and I teach OuLiPo and all sorts of other things, and we don’t find this an unusual approach–i.e., we have witnessed plenty of instructors utilizing a variety of approaches.

    Regarding great writers who’ve taken classes or been in workshops, even Kafka had at least a writing group, and most great writers had at least one mentor–perhaps you wouldn’t consider that a teacher but I would. They certainly didn’t get to genius-level without some encouragement, at least, and a foundation.

    Today, one of our best writers, Brian Evenson, is not only a product of writing workshops but also runs the creative writing program at Brown. Many, many contemporary writers have at the very least benefitted from a creative writing class.

    Are there stupid/bad classes? Sure. Are there bad workshops? Sure. Like anything in this world. But that doesn’t mean that writers shouldn’t seek as many tools and approaches as possible to help them enhance their skills, work on weaknesses, etc.

    You mentioned I’m in the “business” of writing advice and teaching. That’s really not true. Ann and I teach because we love to teaching. We love what we get back from the students, and we love being of use–whatever that means to each individual student. For some of them, it just means saying “keep doing what you’re doing”. But even that can be of use to a writer.

    If you had simply sounded a cautionary note, I’d have agreed with you. But I felt like you made several generalizations and statements that were wrong.

    As for doing a blog post here–I wrote a whole book called Booklife that talks about all kinds of things related to this subject. And, yes, it includes cautionary notes all over the place. I think writers should be careful to protect their imagination and their individuality, but you also have to be open to criticism and grow and change or you wind up treading water.

    Cheers,

    JeffV

    • Jeff: some nice points made here. However I still think it would be worth your while doing a blog for me, if you have the time. There are lots of people out there who won’t read your book for whatever reason who might settle down to read a good post from you and THEN investigate your book further. I believe in total fairness, which is why I offered you the chance to put your views across in the first place. The offer still stands and, in fact, I would encourage you to take it up. However, it’s up to you – a spot is always open.

  19. Jeff: thanks for such a lengthy and detailed response! Marvellous! I agree with most of what you say… The point you make about a favourite writer not necessarily being a better teacher by definition than a writer who isn’t a favourite is particularly interesting. Yes, if Samuel Delany was teaching a creative writing class anywhere near me, I would definitely sign up; if Terry Brooks was teaching, I pobably wouldn’t. And yet now, maybe I will reconsider my stance on this issue.

    I’m delighted that you and Ann teach OuLiPo. That’s excellent to hear! Maybe there are some tutors who teach OuLiPo here in the UK but I don’t know of any; yet I should have specified Wales (instead of Britain) when I made that remark in the blog itself. My mistake.

    Regards and thanks again!

  20. Barbara Roden Says:

    Responding to Mr. Hughes’s points:

    >>(a) Exposure to amateurish writing will have a detrimental effect on your own ability. (If this isn’t true, tell me why not).<>The potential hazard of encountering an overbearing personality (either fellow student or tutor) who will have a detrimental effect on your confidence. (If this never happens, tell me why not).<>The fact that the vast majority of creative writing classes only teach an orthodox approach to writing, for example prioritising characterisation and psychological inteaction [sic] over ideas. (If this isn’t true, tell me why it isn’t).<<

    Since I haven't taken a creative writing class since 1981, I'm in no position to state whether the 'vast majority' only teach an 'orthodox approach to writing' or whether they don't. Then again, you're in much the same boat, I suspect, as by your own admission 'Don’t go to creative writing classes! I have never joined one'. I do note, however, that you write 'The only two negative responses to my blog both come from writers who have taught (or teach) such classes themselves and they were both kneejerk reactions containing insults.' It's intriguing to note that you say of yourself 'Well, I could (unfairly) point out that I have taught a few [creative writing classes], but I was against them long before I reached that stage. They always seemed wrong.' Which does rather beg the question: if you're against them, and they seem wrong, why do you teach them yourself? Or is it that you feel your approach is the right one, and everyone else is doing it incorrectly if they're deviating from what you think such courses should be?

  21. Barbara Roden Says:

    Responding to Mr. Hughes’s points:

    (a) Exposure to amateurish writing will have a detrimental effect on your own ability. (If this isn’t true, tell me why not).

    You don’t have to go to a creative writing class to encounter amateurish writing; it’s everywhere. In the course of more than 15 years of reading thousands of story submissions, and a stint as a World Fantasy Awards judge, I’ve encountered more examples of amateurish (not to mention bad) writing than most people have had hot dinners. The fact that I had two stories from 2009 chosen for inclusion in two 2010 ‘Year’s Best’ anthos would suggest that, despite exposure to near-toxic levels of mediocre writing, my own writing hasn’t suffered. If anything, reading sub-standard works shows me what NOT to do.

    (b) The potential hazard of encountering an overbearing personality (either fellow student or tutor) who will have a detrimental effect on your confidence. (If this never happens, tell me why not).

    I can’t say that this NEVER happens in a creative writing class. Of course, it happens all the time in everyday life as well. I’d go so far as to suggest that anyone with Internet access encounters more than his or her share of overbearing personalities on an almost daily basis. And if these people truly do have a detrimental effect on your confidence, then you really are a fragile flower. If you want to avoid the possibility that an overbearing person might have a detrimental effect on your confidence, then either shut yourself off from the rest of humanity or toughen up.

    (c) The fact that the vast majority of creative writing classes only teach an orthodox approach to writing, for example prioritising characterisation and psychological inteaction over ideas. (If this isn’t true, tell me why it isn’t).

    Since I haven’t taken a creative writing class since 1981, I’m in no position to state whether the ‘vast majority’ only teach an ‘orthodox approach to writing’ or whether they don’t. Then again, you’re in much the same boat, I suspect, as by your own admission ‘Don’t go to creative writing classes! I have never joined one’. I do note, however, that you write ‘The only two negative responses to my blog both come from writers who have taught (or teach) such classes themselves and they were both kneejerk reactions containing insults.’ It’s intriguing to note that you say of yourself ‘Well, I could (unfairly) point out that I have taught a few [creative writing classes], but I was against them long before I reached that stage. They always seemed wrong.’ Which does rather beg the question: if you’re against them, and they seem wrong, why do you teach them yourself? Or is it that you feel your approach is the right one, and everyone else is doing it incorrectly if they’re deviating from what you think such courses should be?

  22. Thanks Barbara.

    I totally accept your answers to points (a) and (b).

    As for the question you raised when dealing with point (c), the solution to your query is contained in the text of my blog itself. Try reading the following extract again…

    “Another problem with creative writing classes is that they almost always teach only the most orthodox approach to writing. I wonder how many talented writers with an unusual approach have been discouraged from following their own path by attending a creative writing class? Earlier I mentioned the fact that I have myself taught creative writing classes. Does it seem that I must be a hypocrite by now condemning such classes? Well, I only ever teach one type of creative writing class: the techniques of a ‘workshop’ known as OuLiPo, which is actually a system for helping to generate unique ideas by using certain logical constraints. OuLiPo isn’t well known in Britain and I see my mission as spreading the message that there are alternatives to the orthodox approach.”

    As you should now be able to see, I only teach one highly specific type of creative writing class — a type of class generally unavailable (to my best knowledge) elsewhere in the country… and I do this to act as a counterbalance (however small) to the standard types of classes, which tend to the orthodox approach. I do this mainly to show students that alternatives do exist. It’s my small way of helping to increase awareness of the broad range of literature.

    There’s no right way or wrong way; but there are certainly ways that may never have occurred to hopeful writers; and in my experience I have found that almost nobody here knows what OuLiPo is. The students have never heard of it; and yet they soon became fascinated by its unique approach to writing. That’s my main contribution. I increase awareness.

    I’ve never joined a creative writing class, true; but I have helped to arrange and monitor them, and I have friends and colleagues who have been either students at such classes or tutors. A few years ago I was involved with the Arts Council on a work basis and I was constantly dealing with creative writing tutors (thus the basis for my satirical novel, MISTER GUM) so most of my knowledge of creative writing classes and how they operate comes from the administrative side of things.

    As to how I “knew” they were wrong before I had any involvement at all with such classes… Well, that comes simply from talking to friends and listening to their experiences, though I admit I’ve always been biased to an individualist autodidactic approach in any artform; that’s just my character, I guess.

    Does this answer your question?

  23. simonkurtunsworth Says:

    I think Barbara’s point about being exposed to amateurish/bad writing showing you what NOT to do is a really important one – the problem comes if the amateurish writing is presented as the epitomy at which to aim, as it were. If it’s presented for discussion/improvement, that’s surely the key idea of a good class or group? How to improve! And the other part of what being in a class teaches is how to a) accept criticism (which some people, even published and respected authors) remain terrible at, and b) to differentiate between the criticism you’ll acccept and the criticism which you agree might have some validity but which you choose to ignore because you’re happy with that element of your writing and feel it doesn’t need improvement/amendment.

    The stuff about dominant personalities: well, yes, but that’s surely true of any aspect of life, not just writing? The trick, ultimately, is to learn how to defend yourself against the bullies and fools of this world! I think I may have been very lucky – in all of the creative writing classes I took (I think 7 short courses between 2003 and 2007), there was only one person who was like that – a guy who brought his poetry and who then argued every time someone made suggestions. I had no problem with him being confident in the quality of his poetry, but couldn’t help but think, If it’s already perfect, why the bleedin’ hell have you brought it for us to see? And the answer, I suspect, was that he wanted us to tell him how great it was and to appear wonderful in our eyes.

    Just a query, Rhys: I don’t know OuLiPo at all (unless I’ve been taught it without realising), but isn’t any teaching method slightly at odds with the argument you made about classes not being able to teach creativity? Doesn’t it just provide a different set of rules through which we can generate ideas and form and so access our creative genes? Those of us who are creative by nature will respond well to it, those who are hacks won’t, no matter what? For me, creative writing classes gave me some tools to help the nuts and bolts of my writing, which I can now choose to use or not.

    A last point – we only ever seem to have these sort of discussions about writing. I can’t think of another art form where we’d get so irritated about people having lessons in technique that then allows their creativity to flower. The best painters, no matter how abstract or surreal or different their art becomes, tend to know and understand the ‘rules’ and techniques, and can then choose to use or discard them: Pollock and Picasso and a whole range of others that we might consider to be avant garde or different or ‘trend setters’ can all produce ‘standard’ art, and produce it well, but their creativity takes them further. The most out there musician tends to be able to play chopsticks and Wild Thing perfectly well, and knock out a 12 bar blues if asked to do so! And I’d hope that architects understand the basic rules of stone and wood when they build their strange buildings, or we’re all in trouble… Anyway, this is a really interesting discussion and I’m enjoying it immensely!

  24. I think architeture needs safety precautions etc and learning like staved music or making TV sets etc or the skilled collaboration of making films, all open to tuition.
    Just as an aside (and I don’t know what it proves) it is interesting few of the above skilled processes have up-front ‘author’ names like writing does (on spine, in contents and on top of each alteranate page etc). Writing doesn’t need Health & Safety skills, but if you want it to have Health & Safety for certain markets then tuition is fine, I guess.
    imo.
    des

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