Narrative Writing and Creative Writing Classes

March 3, 2010 in Novel, On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

Yesterday I attended my second class, this time in ‘narrative’ writing.  I guess they didn’t want to use the term ‘creative’ writing because for whatever reason that tends to get frowned upon.

I was really looking forward to this one to re-kick start my stagnant fantasy novel and to get the creative juices flowing.  I’ve only been writing blog posts and journalistic stuff the last few months and I’ve been dying to get back into the swing of things from a storytelling standpoint.

It was another reasonably sized class with around 20 people, but only 4 guys.  The tutor seemed nice, but it took a while to get the ball rolling.  A lot of chit chat (for 3 hours!) and not much actual learning.  Hopefully this will change from next week.

There was a discussion on the difference between narrative, story and plot (seriously, no one had any idea; all confident attempts at answering were futile and bordered on embarrassing).  I, of course, kept my mouth shut.

For those wondering, ‘narrative’ involves a story and a storyteller; ‘story’ is a series or sequence of events; and ‘plot’ is the way those events are arranged.  I don’t really see how that helps much but nevertheless…

The tutor did hand out an interesting piece from journalist Lisa Pryor (you know, author of The Pin Striped Prison, which I reviewed here).  In the UK, The Guardian published an article with some advice from great authors on how to write fiction (link below), and Pryor decided to rip into creative writing courses by effectively piggy-backing off The Guardian.

She said that amongst the hundreds of tips, not one recommended taking a creative writing class.  According to Pryor:

“Perhaps this is because they know that if you can’t work out what good writing is by reading widely, if you need it spelled out with the benefit of a circle of plastic chairs and a whiteboard, you lack the mettle to be a great novelist.”

Ouch, and she was just getting started.  Pryor then tore into the “creative writing racket”, what she calls the “pyramid selling scheme” where schools and universities essentially trick students into taking these courses to provide much-needed funding.

Look, I am often a cynic myself (and I hate that), but this article just rubbed me up the wrong way, and it’s not because I am taking a writing course.  Yes, it is probably true that to be a truly ‘great’ writer, you need lots of talent to go with skills picked up from copious amounts of reading and writing.  But for the ordinary folk (like myself) who know they aren’t capable of becoming or don’t necessarily want to be a ‘great’ writer, there’s nothing wrong with taking a class to learn some basic writers tools to improve their writing (for whatever reason or purpose).

You may argue that these skills don’t need to be taught – they can be picked up from years and years of doing your own readings and writings; but why not pay for a short cut?  It’s like saying people who want to be prudent investors (just to improve their lifestyles) should play with their money through trial and error for ten years rather than take a simple financial management course.

Besides, writing courses offer credentials, and like it or not, that’s what you need to get a job.  And there’s nothing wrong with being a writing teacher, or an agent, or an editor.  Not everyone is doing these courses to be the next Cormac McCarthy.  I probably could have studied law texts and cases by myself at home for ten years and become a more knowledgeable and capable lawyer than by attending law school, but that’s not going to get me admitted or employed at a law firm.

I must say though, such an article is quite typical of Pryor, who likes to put things down without actually having experienced them.  In The Pin Striped Prison, Pryor was scathing in her criticism of law firms, management consulting firms and investment banks.  I agreed with a lot of what she said, but at the same time it irritated me that someone could be so denigrating to professions she has never worked in (and no, being a paralegal doesn’t count) and never experienced the very things she was taking a dump on.

Pryor’s full article can be found here

The Guardian‘s original article can be found here – includes pointers from, amongst others, Elmore Leonard, Hilary Mantel, Neil Gaiman, PD James, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Ian Rankin, and Philip Pullman (who probably gives the best advice of all).