Monday, 17 October 2011

Please Sir! A guest post by Sam Payne

'Is this the writing class?' asked the dishevelled latecomer.

'Yes, please come in and take a seat,' said our twelve year old tutor.

'My daughter enrolled me, it was a birthday present.'

'That's nice,' said the tutor.

'NICE? NICE?' Laughed the latecomer somewhat manically, 'I'm bloody furious.'

I almost choked on the end of my pencil. This was my first creative writing course, excitement and anticipation had been bubbling away inside of me for days.

This was it. This course was going to teach me how to be the next JK Rowling. I was going to write a bestseller, make a shitload of money and retire to an island in the sun. Or, buy a campervan and tour Cornwall, I hadn't quite decided which. So why was the dishevelled latecomer or Bob as he later became known, so furious about being enrolled? What did he know that I didn't?

I’d always dreamt of being a famous novelist, hasn’t everyone? Trouble is instead of actually putting pen to paper, I decided I needed to learn all there was to know about writing a novel before I could make a start. So I bought a book: How to Write a Hugely Successful Novel that Sells Twenty Three Billion Copies and Gets Made into a Feature Film which Wins Six Oscars and a Golden Globe. At least I think that’s what it was called. I devoured the book in a single sitting and then as I sat picking bits of paper from my teeth I contemplated making a start. Over the next few days I wrote a grand total of one thousand, four hundred and twenty six words. That was the beginning of my novel, an epic thriller set in a cake factory, but something wasn’t right. It didn’t quite sound right. The story I had in my head didn’t quite match up to what was on the page. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong with it. I needed more than a book, I needed feedback. I needed help to coax my inner genius out from under the rock it called home. So after a quick flick through the yellow pages and an even quicker phone call I was enrolled on a Creative Writing course at the local community centre. Which was where I found myself the following Tuesday and after Bob’s dramatic entrance, Tutor Boy introduced himself. He said he was a university graduate and a successful poet.

‘What do you mean by successful?’ asked Bob, whose voice seemed to have gone from manic to sinister in the time it took him to find a seat.

Tutor boy shifted uncomfortably, ‘well err...’

‘Have you won the Bridport Prize?’

‘Urm...no.’

‘The Poetry Society’s annual competition then?’ continued Bob.

‘Well no, but I’m a published poet.’

‘Oh really and where have your poems appeared? The New Yorker? The Paris Review?’

Tutor Boy looked confused.

‘Hmmm I thought so, just a bunch of failed writers running these things. All these courses do is teach you never to be satisfied with what you write.’ Muttered Bob.

Oh dear. It didn’t occur to me to check out the tutors credentials before enrolling on the course, I just assumed it would be someone who, at the most, knew what they were talking about and at the least, didn’t still wipe their nose on their sleeve.

Bob didn’t turn up the following week; in fact he didn’t come back at all. Tutor Boy said it was because he’d been committed to a mental institute but I didn’t quite believe him. I attended every week and listened intently as Tutor Boy ‘taught’ us the fundamentals of creative writing which, quite frankly, left me wondering if he’d just read the same book I had. It should’ve stopped there, but come the end of the course I still didn’t feel equipped to write a novel. So I enrolled on another course and then another one and then another one after that. Pretty soon I was attending every workshop and seminar going, although, in hindsight, I probably should’ve given ‘How to Write an Erotic Shopping List a miss. I became obsessed. I was an addict. My life was over. I’d gone from spending all my time thinking about writing to spending all my time learning about writing which, would have been fantastic if I’d actually managed to produce something I was satisfied with. Did I write a bestseller? No. Did I even get close to writing a novel? No. Why not? I hear you cry. Because, try as I might, I couldn’t get past the opening chapter. Every time I looked at it I’d edit it a little bit more and then I would pass it over for feedback on whichever course I was attending at the time and some helpful soul would suggest ways on how I could improve it. When I’d done what they suggested I’d hand it back to the group and someone else would add another smidgen of advice and so it went on and on and on and...

Four years after that first course, (I know, slow doesn’t quite cover it does it?) I realised something. Bob was right. Yes, yes I’d learnt about the technical side of the writing process but I’d also turned into a perfectionist freak wielding a red pen. I spent so much time picking and picking at a piece of writing, before I knew it I’d stripped it of everything that made it good in the first place. Creative writing courses can be great, providing you find one with a tutor who knows what they’re talking about, but I’m done with them. From now on I’m just going to concentrate on getting past the first chapter of that novel. I aim to write a complete draft before I even think about editing and redrafting and hopefully, by then I’ll be able to trust my instincts and have a good idea of when to stop.

Sam lives in a quiet corner of Devon where she spends most of her time staring at goats. www.chasingtheplot.wordpress.com

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