****DISCLAIMER. The author actually enjoyed The Creative Writing Course he did and doesn’t mean half the mean spirited things said. The other half he did mean. Because he’s mean. Seriously though, best three years of my life.****
A while ago I told my friends I was doing a Creative Writing course and after the initial reaction of “Why would you ever do that?” some people were actually surprised to see that I went ahead and did it. Shortly after a couple of friends from back home decided to do the same, hah! Now I can stand on the lofty tower of experience and act snobby around my old friends.
1) You will NEVER be a best seller. Lecturers mostly consist of writers who’s primary income is not writing. This is hardly a surprise as there are only so many people to whom writing is a primary source of income. It’s also something they will tell you about over and over. The disparity between really rich authors and the rest is quite astounding. Not unnaturally the lecturers don’t want to hype you up by giving you a set list of what will make a best seller because no one is quite sure what will be a best seller. And more often than not best sellers tend to be disposable easy reading, so having entire classes creating disposable easy reading won’t result in a bunch of best sellers, it’ll end up being mediocre at best. So the lecturers try to impart some kind of artistic merit upon their students, for better or worse.
2) Grades depend heavily upon the individual tastes of the marker. A sadly true facet of any arts degree is how much your tastes and the tastes of the lecturers match. The best you can hope for is a decent variety of teaching staff with varying tastes. I’ve had short stories that I thought were mediocre get high praise whereas stories I spent half a year working on get sniffed at. It’s hard to tell what a lecturer is going to enjoy, I found the best way to gauge their reaction was to book a tutorial with the lecturers and talk about your ideas first. For instance one of our lecturers seemed to have a preemptive disdain for anything that wasn’t realism or poetry. Naturally he’s not the right lecturer to give my science fiction work to. That said on my course there was one genre that seemed to rank incredibly highly on everyone’s favourite kind of writing and that was post-modernism.
3) Post-Modernism. You either get it or you don’t. Apparently one of my favourite authors, Philip K Dick, is Post-Modern. But out of the glut of stuff our lecturers showed us I couldn’t anything resembling his work. Experimental writing is just one of those things you’ll have to learn about. And you’ll hate it. If you don’t hate it then everyone hates you for being a simpering sack of pretentiousness (I’m kind of kidding). There’s something incredibly backwards about telling people to break the rules. I tried but apparently my fourth wall breaking bit about a dinosaur having a chat with me about where to find a fish and chip shop wasn’t quite weird or rule breaking enough. Occasionally something decent will get recommended but more often than not the end of the lecture will just end up having lots of confused and irritated students. Maybe I’m just bitter.
4) All aboard the hate train! When I was doing my course the hate train for Twilight was just pulling out of the station and some of our classes devolved into people bashing the train window trying to get in to say their piece about a book everyone realised was crap two years ago. It happened every other lecture, someone would bring up the damn book and then the class would morph into some demented gladiatorial arena with everyone cheering on the murder of that one person who thought it was alright. I thought it was all over until Fifty Shades of Grey came out and renewed everyone’s loathing for demographic pandering bollocks. Perhaps now that’s gone the massive amounts of bile staining the floors of classrooms and lecture theaters will come to an end, but I don’t reckon so, doubtless something else will come along to ensure the lecturers never get to talk about post-modern writers because everyone has boarded a new locomotive of seething anger.
5) An honest workshop is hard to come by. No one will ever say to your face “You are terrible”. The worst criticism I ever had from a classmate was “It’s not my thing” because he didn’t like fantasy. This means it’s hard to tell if someone is genuinely enjoying your work unless you’ve written comedy. Mostly people will offer vague praise with the occasional critique of the odd sentence. Behind your back however someone will no doubt say “You know that Andrew, across from Dave?” “Yeah?” “You ever read some of his poems?” “Uh-huh.” “Is it just me or are they a bit shit?” Once that first barrier breaks it’s all they’ll talk about. It’s hard to tell what genuinely annoys people about your writing unless you find people who you can really trust to be honest. The trouble with finding honest people is that the lecturer will then do the school teacher thing where they try to get everyone to mingle with people they’ve never met and the entire process for finding a trustworthy critic begins again.
Ways to cope with some of these issues.
1) Just accept this. If writing is what you want to do then money won’t be a motivating factor. Some of the best artists in the world had to get second jobs to make ends meet. Writing jobs aren’t the easiest to come by, but with the internet being a thing they are more numerous now, with companies wanting content writers etc. Mostly people who want you to write in a clear, eligible, and grammatically correct fashion.
2) This isn’t always a bad thing. If it weren’t for this fact I wouldn’t have tried different styles and read different books. I could have been stuck in a niche for a long time. If you came into Creative Writing with a very specific idea about what you want your book to be then the course can be an eye opener to new possibilities. Alternatively it could just make you more sure of what it is you want to write, in which case what harm did it do? That said your sprawling sci-fi epic might not get all the feedback you want because you’re trying to bow to a specific lecturer’s tastes. That said if you manage to get a decent grade in a genre you dislike you can always come away with the comfort that you can write well in something, which could have some potential if you keep at it.
3) Ehh, it is rather ignorant to write off all of experimental writing but I can guarantee most students will hate it. Still it’s worth having a look at. Not everyone is going to enjoy a trip to London but it’s worth going. Personally I found both to be confusing and so full of crap that it’s difficult to focus. I didn’t learn nothing from experimental writing. There are plenty of techniques to pick up, cut-up, stream of consciousness, non-linear story telling etc. Some of the ideas you’ll like and some you’ll hate. Personally I loathed a novel where only two chapters had an order, the beginning and end, the rest could be put together in any order, I regarded it as a terrible idea.
4) Message boards, forums, Facebook, Twitter, Blogging sites. Go and whine on one of those. I was enjoying some of the hatred towards populist shite for a while until it started being every other lecture. Then I stopped caring. Apathy swiftly turned into antipathy and I desperately wanted the topic of conversation in seminars to be anything else, whatever the lecturer had planned might be nice. If you find you’re ranting about a specific book you hate every lecture you are part of the problem and are a boring person. Read something else. Because the moment THAT book gets mentioned everyone else in the class is hoping it’s passed by the sensitive ears of Boring McDullpants and they all collectively switch off the moment their hand goes up.
5) I’d say be honest with people but the moment you shit on someone’s work they’ll be waiting for a chance to shit on you. This happened with presentations. One person grilled all the other students, saying how shit they thought their idea was, and then when they went up all the questions weren’t from curious classmates but from rapid rage monsters wanting to show up the poor bastard. If it’s a presentation be polite and reserve your criticism for the genuinely constructive. Most people hate presentations. As for critiquing work I’d save it for the really glaring issues you have with the work they are showing you. If you absolutely loath what they are showing you then just pick out a few especially loathsome parts. Some people like licorice after all, and there will be one person in the class hailing the stuff you hate as brilliant; best you can do it advise they take away the extraneous bits of awful to make it slightly less awful. They aren’t going to change their whole style for you remember. They do that for the lecturers.