Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Reasons why people walk out of Fran's creative writing classes #1

I wrote this article recently for the magazine of the Association of Christian Writers.  I thought you too might like the story of Mr Eggshell who was once in my creative writing class.


The writing gift is precious. But we mustn’t be.

I’ve never trodden on eggshells (life is so busy, and one doesn’t get to try out everything) but I have taught creative writing to adults.  I suspect that treading on eggshells is much, much easier.  
  
Here’s a story about a student I’ll call Mr Eggshell. 

Mr Eggshell wanted to be a crime writer.  So he signed up to my creative writing classes ostensibly to study the writing craft.  He joined in the activities with gusto, shoehorning a serial killer, a bent cop and three corpses even into ‘Describe a landscape’ and ‘Recount a joyful moment’ exercises.

On Week 3, Mr Eggshell read us his new crime story.  We listened carefully, although Brenda, a lavender-scented lady from Virginia Water, blanched at the throat-slittings.  I made my customary notes as he read, and wondered where the story was leading, when the dénouement suddenly arrived, like a thunderclap.  Several students gasped, which I suspect Mr Eggshell took as awed ‘Oh my, what talent!’ gasps. 

They were not.

I chose my words carefully.  ‘I thought your characterisation convincing,’ I said, ‘but I wonder whether you might have dropped some clues to make your ending more credible.  What do you think?’

What Mr Eggshell thought was that it was time to leap out of his chair, smack his notebook down on the desk (Brenda put her hand to her heart) and shout, ‘Do you KNOW how many people read my story and thought it publishable?  My mother, my sister and my wife all loved it.’  And, with that, he left the class, pushing past other students and slamming the door with venom.

‘Oh dear,’ I said to the class.  ‘TWO over-dramatic endings with absolutely no warning!’

Actually, I didn’t say that, although I wanted to so very, very much.

The students were shocked, but reassuring.  ‘You were right, Fran.  We all thought the same about his ending,’ said one. The others nodded.   Then we continued the lesson.

Do I need to say that Mr Eggshell didn’t return for Week 4?

I heard someone speak at a conference and describe a writer as a ‘craftsperson’.  He said writing was a skill which had to be practised, studied and improved, although he did believe that innate talent was necessary for eventual success. 

Many of us would agree.  But that doesn’t stop it hurting when someone says, ‘Sorry, but despite your talent, you need to address the long and rambling Dickensian sentences/tendency to use adverbs like confetti/sudden forty-year time shifts.’

This hurt is intensified if we feel we have received our talent and our words from God.  Surely, the ideas we have poured onto paper under the inspiration of God himself (aided by a candle and a Praise Him on the Strings CD) cannot be faulted?

I once heard Christian songwriter Chris Bowater say that optimistic lyricists often presented a new song to him, insisting, ‘God gave me this, so I know you’ll want to hear it.’ 

‘And when they’d played it to me,’ he said, ‘I’d think, well, I know why God gave THAT one away!’

We cannot afford to treat our writing gifts and ministries like precious babies.  It’s bad form to say to the mother of a newborn, ‘Nice face; shame about the conical head.’  But we should never think it bad form to say to another writer, with tact, ‘I like your structure, but do you need all nine adjectives in that sentence?’

Mr Eggshell believed he had a natural talent and perhaps he did; he didn’t stay around long enough for us to judge.  But instead of seeing constructive criticism as positive, he saw it as a personal slight.  So why was he in the class, if not to receive help to improve?  I think he believed his talent came ready-made and that, once he was discovered, bargain bins would be stacked with Rankin’s novels to make way for his on the shelves.    

I fear he may be waiting a while.


Despite Mr Eggshell's hopes and dreams, Rankin was still top of the bestseller lists, so his wait for fame continued.






25 comments:

  1. One of these days, you'll see Mr. Eggshell's photo in the paper and learn he has slit the throats of his mother, sister, and wife. Is that what he intended all along, or will he be angry that they steered him the wrong way?

    Love,
    Janie

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think it's more likely that his mother, sister or wife may have engineered a surprise ending for HIM.

      Delete
    2. What fun. I'd like to write that book.

      Delete
  2. That guy only took the class because he expected praise. For the moment, he isn't listening to constructive feedback.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm being harsh on him, no doubt. Perhaps we all start out that way until we realise that getting praise you don't deserve feels nice, but is the quickest way to rejection slips ...!

      Delete
  3. I did a creative writing course earlier this year and learned quite a lot. For instance I am a better reader than I am a writer, but I know now the things to watch out for, some of them at least and I learned that sentences which ramble on and on without going anywhere won't do anything for your story. I also learned that time or character shifts need some sort of explanation if you don't want your readers to be confused and toss your book in the trash halfway through chapter one.
    And I learned the teacher preferred literature to popular fiction, not that she actually said so, but it was evident in the examples she enthused upon.
    Mr Eggshell is in for a rude awakening I fear.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I owe much to a creative writing tutor called Colin who was one of the best. He didn't hold back on criticism but you knew it was good for you and he was fair.

      Delete
  4. You need an ego to write. But once written you must put aside your ego to critique and accept criticism. One of my writing tutors once told me "murder your darlings" - basically any line you think is brilliant or an award winner is probably spoiling the entire piece. Bizarrely that piece of advice has been proven true many times. A good line or phrase comes as a result of the whole working together and driving itself forward not out of a moment's contrivance. Ooh. I got all serious then, didn't I?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You certainly did, and I got worried. You're right, though. I also think that it's worth looking at the first sentence/paragraph/page/chapter of anything, and thinking 'Do I need this?' Often, it's superfluous. Annoyingly so.

      Delete
  5. I read this on FB this morning, Fran. Poor Mr Eggshell. He obviously just cracked! Still, a good writer would recycle the moment at some point along the line. I wonder if he did?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, maybe at this very moment he's writing a blog post about an unnecessarily harsh creative writing tutor who ripped his work apart and is responsible for the fact that he's now working in Asda.

      Delete
    2. In the egg department?

      Delete
    3. Ha ha! Probably!

      Delete
  6. With such a devoted fan base , why did he bother going to creative writing classes ?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Have you read Kate Atkinson's "Emotionally Weird"? It's an absolute hoot - about a creative writing course (and, mainly, what the students produce). Of course, it's much easier to mock than to do better oneself... .

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No, I haven't read that one, although I've read some of her others and loved 'Behind the Scenes at the Museum'. She's very clever. I will look out for this one. Thanks.

      Delete
    2. Oh dear - the reviews are very mixed. Not sure whether to buy it or not now ... I am very affected by reviews.

      Delete
    3. Don't be. It's great. What do reviewers know?

      Delete
  8. I am sometimes quite alarmed at some of the dramas / series on TV ( serial killers & torture being by biggest scare ) How do they think it up ? Scarey imaginations & hours or research into the darkest of beings. I get nightmares.
    I try to avoid reading disturbing fiction though it resonates for a long time when I do .. I read Mr Pip on holiday Matilda's story will stay with me for a long time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I read Mr Pip and I agree with you. I know what you mean about drama on TV. I've been watching 'Happy Valley' on the BBC and it's so dark and twisted. But I got hooked on the story straight away.

      Delete
  9. Interesting post Fran. I once submitted a short play to a theatre producer with a covering letter that explained my (ahem) advanced age for a 'new' writer - I told him I had been sick and unable to write for many years.
    He read the play and wrote back saying, for the literary world at least, it was a pity I had recovered from my illness!
    His critique made me even more determined. Mr Eggshell needs to be more hardboiled......

    Anna May x

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh my! That was cruel! But it obviously had the right effect on you. I'm not so good as you at recovering from the harsh blows. I think it was about a year for 'We can only take books we fall in love with, and yours wasn't one of them' and then a couple of years for 'I'm afraid I just didn't find the first page funny enough so I got no further'.

      Delete
  10. I think this is why I've never dared to go to a creative writing class...

    ReplyDelete