Those Guardian Masterclasses look good… but do they work?

There’s a debate about whether creative writing can be taught. The demand for courses is steady and the supply apparently limitless, so a lot of people must think it can.

I got a great deal from some of the writing courses I’ve been on. But the best weren’t about the teaching-learning transaction but something much more diffuse, more involving, and ultimately more valuable.

For my money, the oldest-established and by far the best are run by the Arvon Foundation at their three retreats in beautiful places. I only ever went on one and it was years ago, but it had a lasting impact.

Here for five days a dozen of us wannabe writers lived writing.  Without TV, radio or newspapers (these days there’s no wifi or internet access either) we were cut off from the world with nothing to do but concentrate on putting words together and talk about writing. We only stopped to eat (meals were prepared, messily and with much laughter, communally) and sleep.

For the first time in my life I had time, space and permission to write for myself, not to someone else’s tune. It was unimaginable bliss.

The course was called ‘Writing from Life’. Arvon still runs something very similar. Led by a travel writer and a journalist/novelist, both widely published, we did writing exercises, critically appraised each others’ work, heard from guest writers, and had one-to-one tutorials with the course tutors.

Often the experience of sharing our life writing was so intense that tears were shed, mine included. It was part catharsis, part inspiration, part revelation. Another world had opened up.

I’m not sure it made me a better writer, but I left a more confident, more excited one, determined to try new things.

The only way to find a good writing class or course is to ask people who’ve done them. I recommend starting with Arvon if you can afford a week away from home, but I’ve also been on a Saturday Guardian Masterclass and weekend residential courses at West Dean College and they were all helpful in their different ways.

One of the best things to come out of my Guardian Masterclass was meeting another student who has subsequently become a valuable reader of my work. (I’ll do the same for her as soon as she gets off her bottom and writes something!)  Here’s more about choosing a reader..

There are lots of courses on the market but the best, in my experience, will:

  • Expose you to published writers. They may not always be the most effective teachers, but you need to hear from people who know what they’re talking about.
  • Offer a supportive, non-competitive environment where you can share your work and ideas with others without fear. (You’ll learn as much from your fellow students as you will from your tutors.)
  • Stretch you and draw you out of your comfort zone.
  • Provide practical information about the book market and publishing process from people who work in it.
  • Inspire you with the real-life experience of published writers – who will know failure as well as success.
  •  Give you some concrete ‘takeaways’: practical ideas, techniques and tricks that you can apply to your writing to improve your craft.
  • Kick-start or reignite that imperative to get going and get down to it.

If they don’t deliver on all or most of these, it’s just an exercise in self-indulgence for tutor and student.

P.S. Feeling more ambitious?  Fancy doing an MA? Fine. But be sure it’s not an expensive excuse to put off writing that book. I know. I’ve been tempted myself…

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