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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 

 

 

 

Armchair BEA: Novellas and short stories

book heart armchairbeaDay 3 of Armchair Book Expo America (BEA) and the attention turns today to novellas and short stories. 

I don’t read that many works of fiction that are short. This year was the first time I’d ever read any Alice Munro for example and that was only because it was the book club selection for that month.

It isn’t that I have a specific aversion to short stories, or that i think they are the poorer cousin of the novel because I don’t. Having tried a bit of fiction writing myself I can appreciate that it is often harder to create a convincing picture of the world and a convincing set of characters when you have less than 5,000 words in which to do so than in a novel  where the word count could reach as much as 100,000.

i think my issue is that if the author is particularly successful at creating this believable fictitious world then I feel cheated when it comes to an end too soon. It’s a bit like when you were young and you were packed off to bed just when the interesting programs came on the TV.  It’s simply not fair!

For me the outstanding short story I’ve read in recent years is Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Written right at the end of the nineteenth century this was a work that stunned readers because of the way it challenged the idea that marriage and motherhood gave women all the fulfilment they needed in life.  It’s a story of Edna Pontellier, a woman in Louisiana who rejects the domestic role and instead embarks on a quest for freedom, with the huge personal sacrifice that entails.

Chopin herself paid a hefty price for having published this story. Faced with criticism that it would encourage young people to have ‘unholy imaginations and unclean desires’ she printed an apology for her heroine’s behaviour. Then the story simply disappeared. It wasn’t rediscovered until the 1960s as a result of the women’s movement which saw it as an example of early feminist writing. Critical opinion now considers Chopin to be a writer whose work can be compared with Gustav Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant.

What I loved about this story was the psychological complexity of Edna’s character and the enigmatic nature of the narrative (Chopin uses many metaphors drawn from nature in this book). It’s so enigmatic that there is a question mark about the nature of the ending. I shall say no more in case I spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it.

 

 

Alice Munro’s Dear Life: Review

Dear LifeReading Alice Munro’s latest (and what she’s said will be her last) collection of short stories, it’s evident why she has  so many devoted fans.

Her tales are concise, subtle narratives located firmly in rural Ontario where she has lived most of her life. It’s an area into which the trappings of twenty-first century life seldom seem to intrude —you won’t find any of the characters in Dear Life for example, spending hours texting their friends or surfing the Internet.  Yet these stories radiate out from the small town settings of Lake Huron communities to themes and issues that are far broader and universal.

None of the people in her stories are showy individuals or great individuals.  They are just ordinary people of the kind you can meet in the coffee shop or the grocery store. When they walk into her narratives however they become transformed into people capable of deep emotion, suffering anguish they might lose their husband’s love, of the trauma of blackmail, of the vacuum created by a sick partner’s slow walk towards death, of the confusion of old age. Munro treats them with warmth and compassion, never judging them but simply showing that she understands.

In Leaving Maverly, one of the most memorable stories in this collection, we meet a community policeman with a sick wife. He devotes himself to her, even moving to the city so she can get better care. As time passes and she slips away from him into a coma, his visits to the hospital become less frequent.  It isn’t that he doesn’t care, it’s just that he gives up waiting for the day when she will open her eyes and see him. The emptiness caused  by her eventual death hits him unexpectedly:

He’d thought that it had happened long before with Isabel, but it hadn’t. Not until now. She had existed and now she did not… And before long, he found himself outside, pretending that he had as ordinary and good a reason as anybody else to put one foot ahead of the other.

That last image of the policeman walking out into the night is a good illustration of the way Munro leaves you feeling that her characters have a life before we meet them, and a life that will continue long after we have read the final sentence. It’s also an example of the unshowy, understated way she writes. She doesn’t go in for narratives stuffed with grand rhetorical flourishes. You won’t find multi layers of imagery or lengthy descriptive passages as a rule so when her images do materialise they are even more effective because they fit the theme so exactly.

One memorable example comes at the end of Pride. The two characters are both social misfits though in very different ways. He is scarred by a hare lip, she by the shame of her banker father’s mismanagement of funds. They forge a friendship while enjoying cosy meals watching BBC comedy series on tv and eating their supper from trays on their laps. A misunderstanding threatens their relationship but then they notice unusual activity around the birdbath in his garden that re-unites them

… how beautiful. Flashing and dancing and never getting in each other’s way so you could not tell how many there were, where each body started or stopped.

While we watched they lifted themselves up one by one and left the water and proceeded to walk across the yard, swiftly but in a straight diagonal line. As if they were proud of themselves but discreet.

We were as glad as we could be.

These are not stories that I could read in rapid succession. At first I felt they were rather underwhelming and the style too measured. But then after a few days had elapsed I found an idea or an image from the one I’d just finished, would come back into my mind and I would want to read it again.

I’m not sure that I would be in a huge rush to read another collection by her but if I come across one of her stories in the magazines where typically they get their first airings (some of those from Dear Life were originally published in Harper’s Magazine and The New Yorker) I know I won’t want to turn the page.

For the Record

Paperback copy. 319 pages
Published in the UK by Vintage Books 2012

 

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