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Are creative writing courses worth the money?

Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.

Cwtch-Corner

Cwtch Corner was in Cardiff last month at the launch of Kate North’s collection of short stories Punch. Kate is a lecturer in creative writing and programme director for the MA in English Literature and Creative Writing pathways at Cardiff Metropolitan University. So naturally we talked about the value of creative writing courses. But first we chatted about her new book and the popularity of short stories. 

 Q. How would you describe Punch in just one sentence? 
A collection of strange and unsettling stories exploring the unexpected in the everyday.”

Q. Short stories are hugely popular with readers – why do you think that’s the case? 
“I think their size means that readers can get through a story in one sitting and feel like they’ve got something out of it in a short space of time. The ideal short story leaves the reader with something to think about or to continue in their own mind after reading.  I think that’s also part of the appeal.

Q.Which writer of short stories has influenced you the most? 
“That’s a hard question! There are so many good short story writers.  But, if pushed to name one, I would pick Anna Kavan.  I think she has been overlooked in past years but people are starting to notice how important she actually was in the mid 20th century.  She wrote some very beautiful and uncanny things.  The collection I would recommend isJulia and the Bazooka and Other Stories.

Q. Do you have a particular routine you like to follow when you are writing?
“There are consistent things I do when I write.  Like I try to start as early as possible in the day.  I am not so good at writing later in the day. I need to be in a quiet room on my own, I’m no good at writing in cafes or with music on like some people can do.  And I tend to write in solid blasts for a period of days and weeks, then I take a bit of time to do something else before returning to things. But, that said, it does depend if I am writing to externally imposed deadline (like a commission) or not.

Kate North reads from her short story collection Punch

 Q Your home is on fire… Which book from your overflowing shelves will you choose to save?
“To be honest, I would probably save my laptop before anything (other than my partner and kids of course).  But, not to be a spoil sport, I’ll go with Six O’Clock Saints by Joan Windham.  It’s a book written in the 1940s that I used to read around my grandparents’ house when I was little.  It’s not very well written but I have an emotional attachment to it.”

Q. In a recent BBC Radio interview, Will Self made some highly critical comments about the value of creative writing courses.  Do you think he has a valid point? Are creative writing courses worth doing?
>I think he makes a fair point and I don’t believe he suggests that creative writing (CW) courses aren’t worth doing.  I would be suspicious of any course promoted as being able to help graduates ‘make a living from literary fiction’.  I don’t think that is something anyone can guarantee.  And as Self points out, CW courses offer the opportunity for students to develop themselves as writers.  The possibilities that come from developing writing skills are hugely varied.  I know of graduates from cw programmes who have gone into all sorts of jobs that need them to use their writing skills, such as computer game design, marketing, PR, editing, copywriting and teaching.  So, yes, I would say that if you want to develop your writing skills, then courses are worth doing.  You may find a career in literary fiction on the back of a course or you may not.

This perennial discussion always puzzles me.  It doesn’t happen in other areas.  For example, will a BA or MA in Music  guarantee you will become a concert pianist?  No, but if you would like to become a concert pianist it may be helpful to study on such a course.  Will taking a sports science degree guarantee you will win the London marathon?  No, but it may be helpful for you to study on such a programme if you are interested in winning marathons.

Q. As programme director for an MA creative writing programme you must meet scores of aspiring authors. What’s the number one piece of advice you give them?
Read, reflect, write and repeat.  Good writers are good readers, read widely and critically.  Also, find out how and what you need to write for yourself.  To achieve this refer to the earlier instruction; read, reflect, write and repeat.

 


Kate North is a poet and short story writer. Her latest short story collection Punch was published by Cinnamon Press in May 2019. She also has a poetry collection The Way Out, published by Parthian in 2018.

If you’d like to learn more about Kate or discover how to buy her books, take a look at her website  

She’s also on Twitter: @katetnorth 

 

 

 

Sunday Salon: Author Inspirations

sundaysalon

Young children seem to have this capacity for asking questions that appear simple yet feel impossible to answer.  Like “Why is yellow? ” What is yellow I could manage but I’d be stumped to find an explanation of why yellow is yellow and not green or red.  Another one that threw me a few years ago came when I was  coaching some slow readers in my local primary school. One child stopped in the middle of reading, looked up at me and asked: “where do ideas come from?” I tried my best but at the end she simply repeated the question.

It was a conversation I remembered two nights ago during an uncomfortable flight squashed in an economy class seat next to a stranger  who fell asleep almost immediately we took off and then proceeded to snore loudly while listing ever closer to ‘my’ space. Unable to sleep but yet too tired to cope with a lengthy flim I flicked through all the entertainment options in the hope of finding something to distract me. And then I discovered some wonderful bite size entertainment in the form of Ted talks. Even better, one featured Tracy Chevalier .

Now one thing that I’ve often wondered about is how authors get ideas for their stories. What ignites their interest and gives them the initial spark for their plot? Through Chevalier’s talk I  discovered one way in which the creative process can work.

Chevalier gets ideas by visiting art galleries and asking questions about the paintings that most interest her. Not the usual questions about the techniques used or when the painting was created. But questions about what is happening in the painting, looking for the story behind the story in a sense. It’s a practice that made her a household name – seeing Vermeer’s painting Girl With a Pearl Earring (also known aGirl In A Turban caused her to wonder …..” what Vermeer did to her to make her look like that. Now there’s a story worth writing.”. The result, one can say is history for it resulted in her award-winning book of the same name and later an award-winning film. She seems to have used the same approach when looking at other works of art – a book on tapestries for example, gave her the inspiration for The Lady and the Unicorn.

In the TED talk she gives another  practical example of the technique in action. One day, seeing a painting of a young man dressed in a sumptuous Elizabethan doublet, she began to speculate why he was blushing. I won’t spoil this by revealing the story she spun from this exercise -just listen to her TED Talk here to find out.

it got me thinking whether other authors follow similar practices? I can’t think of another book inspired by a work of art. Does anyone have a suggestion??

Mistakes authors make

sorry-sign

photo from Pixabay under creative commons license

They’ve done the research; spent hours in libraries or on line checking their facts (or maybe their paid researcher actually did the grunt work); the book is now out – and guess what? Some  tweed jacket wearer sporting a handlebar moustache  spots an anachronism and can’t wait to point out said defect to the author.

Do we set too great an expectation on our leading authors? Undoubtedly there are some books where the writer has made a fatal flaw that anyone with just a modicum of common sense would recognise (I hate it when authors use twentieth century expressions – usually of American origin – in narratives set in an earlier period). Then there are other novels that contain errors which make no material difference to the narrative. You note them but push them to one side because you’re enjoying the story so much?

Booker Prize Winner Ian McEwan apparently spent two years observing a neurosurgeon for his novel Saturday.The surgeon was less than pleased to find McEwan had his protagonist use a paintbrush to apply antiseptic prior to an operation (not a tool that is common in an operating theatre it seems). I can recall the gruesome details of the surgical procedure in that novel but can’t honestly say that knowing whether the surgeon used a paintbrush or an artist’s brush matters much.

Even his winning novel Amsterdam came in for close scrutiny. After it was published McEwan received a letter from a World War 2 veteran that he’s used the Americansm “on the double”  instead of the ‘at the double” term used by British soldiers of his day.

McEwan reflected on such trips and hazards that confront the novelist at a recent  lecture – summarised in this news article,http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2012/04/mcewan-recounts-his-missteps/

Maybe I’ ve been fortunate but I’ve not often seen something amiss  in a work of fiction published by one of the reputable houses. I imagine the texts go through a pretty rigorous process before the print button is pushed. Self- published works are a completely different matter however since the same protective screen is nowhere near as exhaustive.  My frustrations are usually where  one or more characters is a journalist or the plot requires some news item to be reproduced in the text – unless the author is, or has been a journalist themselves, they usually get this wrong. The fictional journalist never behaves as any real journalist would (they don’t check their sources for example, dont ask basic questions) and as for the so called news reports, they make me wonder if the author has ever read a newspaper. The worst offender I’ve come across in recent years was in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen byPaul Torday where the so-called newspaper article read more like a government report. Dire.

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<td><span style=”color: #000080;”><strong>Error spotting </strong></span>

Have you ever found a mistake in a novel? I don’t mean a spelling error  – those are not the fault of the author anyway, but more a problem in typesetting and proofreading. I mean factual errors or anachronisms? If you spot them are you inclined to write to the publisher to point out the mistake or do you just shrug and move on?
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