No More Workshops


Book event in lovely Grantown-on-Spey

Let me say up front that I love doing book events. I enjoy speaking about my books, and my writing and the research that goes into them. I love doing readings, and answering questions about the work and explaining as best I can how I write. There are always lots of questions, and audiences at book events are usually interested and interesting people.
But what I don't like doing, even though I've done lots of them, more or less successfully, are writing workshops where emerging writers learn about some aspect of creative writing, such as story structure or character or dialogue. And lately, I've begun to try to analyse why I don't like doing it. 

I've done a fair bit of adult teaching in my time: English as a Foreign Language in Finland and Poland and more recently helping students with their academic writing, as a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow. I loved all that Fellowship too - but it wasn't creative writing. It was far more about teaching young people how to structure an essay, how to choose the right words, how to say what they themselves wanted to say with clarity and simplicity. 

All of which, I hear you say, would be useful for creative writing too. And you would be right. 

I began my writing life as a poet, mutated into a playwright, but now work almost exclusively on fiction and non-fiction, which means that I could theoretically wear all kinds of workshop hats. In a sense, my career has been too varied for my own good. When I look back, I can see that I've always been faintly uncomfortable with the notion of a creative writing workshop. I was discussing this with an artist friend recently, both of us acknowledging that we've gone off the whole idea of teaching other people in our own disciplines  - although I have to stress that I do still enjoy the notion of 'sharing' how I work with people. 

Two little stories may help to explain this. One dates from many years ago when as a very young, aspiring writer I contacted a more experienced writer to ask for advice. 'The only way to learn how to write is to write' he said. Adding that it may seem a little harsh, (it did!) but it was the truth. The older I've grown, the more I've seen that he was right. You have to do it to do it.

The other story involves a conversation with a writer friend - a very successful one - who confessed that whenever he was asked about how he wrote, he realised that he 'just footered around for a while'. Footer or fouter is a good Scots word meaning fidget or fumble although like many words in another language that doesn't quite encompass it. Potter might be nearer the mark. Anyway - I just fouter around, he said, and do a bit here and a bit there, and quite suddenly, I look at it and there's a book. 

I identify with this. Which is not to say that - as time goes by and deadlines loom - I don't work very intensively indeed, because I do. Sometimes ten or twelve hours a day and waking in the night to think about it. I think we all do. And then spend days and weeks and months editing. 

Another example. I was once asked to do a workshop on writing dialogue. I've always been able to write dialogue - for radio, for theatre, and most certainly in novels. But when I sat down to plan a 'workshop' about it, I didn't have the foggiest notion about how I did it. Because what I really wanted to say was 'I just listen to what the characters are saying to me, and then I write it down'. Which is no help at all if somebody can't hear a word their characters are saying. 

It reminds me of whenever my woodcarver husband is asked how he goes about making something. He says that he looks at a piece of wood, and then cuts off everything that doesn't look like the idea in his head. 

Which is no help at all to impractical people like me - but it works just fine for him! 

Monkey, carved by Alan Lees for Kelburn Country Park