Learning to Write Well

By Peter Mallett

In 2005 to 2006 university professor and writer Peter Mallett did a master’s degree in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University in the U.K. where he began his first novel, Appassionata. Formerly Arts editor of Kansai Time Out and publisher/editor of Artspace, he has written for the Asahi Evening News, Gramophone Japan, Opera News, the New Internationalist, etc. His textbook From Word to Letter was published in 2007. The following article is adapted from a presentation at the 7th Annual Japan Writers’ Conference at Okinawa Christian University on November 2, 2013.

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In his Essay on Satire, John Sheffield, 1st Duke of Buckingham and Normanby, exhorts us to “learn to write well, or not to write at all."1 Is good writing a skill that can be taught? The proliferation of creative writing courses in the past few decades suggests that it is.

We have all heard it said that “everyone has a book in them.” The corollary, of course, is the assumption that everyone has the ability to write and that writing is a simple leisure activity with which to fill up the odd empty hour when there is nothing more worthwhile to do, or that it is a pursuit to be turned to after a lifetime’s labor in a “proper” job. While everyone may have interesting stories or experiences to tell that could be suitable material for a book, making those stories into books worth reading is a very different matter. The Internet has provided a new medium in which writing can be published, and also plenty of evidence that many people who think they do have a story to tell patently lack the skills to tell it.

During the creative writing course I took a few years ago, one of my tutors told us how she dealt with this assumption that anyone can write: “I may meet someone at a party who asks, ‘What do you do?’ I say ‘I’m a writer,’ and they reply, ‘Oh, how interesting, I’m thinking of writing a book after I retire.’ So I then ask, ‘And what do you do?’ They may say, ‘I’m a brain surgeon,’ and so I respond, ‘What a coincidence! I’m thinking of becoming a brain surgeon after I retire!’”

Those of us who do write know that while writing may be a gift, it is also a skill that has to be developed and practiced, just like playing a musical instrument, or doing athletics or cooking a meal others will want to eat. Or even being a successful brain surgeon.

As an increasing number of people want their writing to be read, so too are there more institutions offering courses in creative writing to those serious enough to take steps to improve their writing—or to those who naïvely believe they have within them the next Harry Potter, and that J. K. Rowling’s success and unimaginable wealth are theirs for the taking if they will just put pen to paper. Writing courses are nothing new—an early and famous example being the Iowa Writers’ Workshop that began in 1936. However, since the 1990s they have proliferated—it could be said there has been a global boom, both in academic institutions and community groups.

According to an article in The New Yorker,2 in 2009 there were 822 degree programs in creative writing in the United States; a quick skim through the Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book 20143  reveals listings for 45 courses in the U.K. and 49 universities offering postgraduate degree courses. The most famous of these, and the first in the U.K. to offer a master’s degree in the subject, is the School of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia founded by the novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson in 1970. Graduates of this school include Man Booker Prize winning novelists Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan.

Louis Menand, author of The New Yorker article mentioned above, begins provocatively by observing that “creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem.”4

Skeptics of the merits of creative writing programs may argue that Jane Austen and Charles Dickens did not enroll in a school to learn how to write. A glance at their notebooks and manuscripts, however, reveals that they did not write publishable novels at first draft but struggled over phrases and plot and, like us, honed and refined their prose. The University of East Anglia justifies its writing programs with the School’s founding assumption that “creative experiment merits the same commitment and deserves the same educational attention as do other arts like painting, dance and film.”

In 2005, I was lucky enough to be offered a paid, one-year sabbatical by my university, Kobe Shoin Women’s University. When I learned that I was going to have this unique opportunity to spend a year studying, I considered what I really wanted to do with the time and quickly concluded I did not want to spend it studying linguistics or anything connected with TEFL or TESL. What I really wanted to do was develop my writing skills in a new direction: I had been a freelance journalist for many years and now wanted to learn more about the craft of writing fiction—both novels and short stories. I was confident of my ability to write non-fiction; I was far less confident that I could create character or plot, or even develop a story into an extended piece of writing.

I applied to universities offering postgraduate master’s degrees in creative writing and was accepted by Bath Spa University, which was gaining a reputation for its writing school and courses in the performing arts.

The Benefits of an MA in Creative Writing
All good creative writing programs should be able to offer what mine did:

  • Advice from published authors;
  • Professional feedback in tutorials on your writing;
  • The chance to meet agents, editors, publishers, booksellers and thus gain knowledge of all aspects of the publishing industry; and
  • Academic courses on criticism and different genres of writing.

The greatest benefit of such courses, however, is the workshops with other unpublished writers who will critique your work and offer up their own work to be critiqued. The four workshops I was enrolled in during my year provided a supportive, nurturing community with a shared passion and commitment. One of the most difficult aspects of graduating from the program was to re-enter the “real” world and continue the solitary writing life back in Japan without this support—and without the luxury of the time to devote to writing.

In Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, author Francine Prose recalls her experience in a fiction class in the 1970s: “That year, I was beginning what would become my first novel. And what made an important difference to me was the attention I felt in the room as the others listened. I was encouraged by their eagerness to hear more…"5 My personal tutor, the best-selling novelist Mo Hayder (the pen-name of Clare Dunkel), warned us never to ignore the criticism and advice of fellow students or undervalue this experience—an opportunity, and a luxury, we would never have again.

Particularly as I was writing about Japan, the workshops provided a testing ground for what could be understood by an audience largely unfamiliar with this country. I could see more clearly, for example, what needed explanation—often points that I, along with my foreign friends here, just took for granted.

A dedicated full-time writing program also means that you have to work and write within a time frame and in a disciplined manner. Work has to be produced regularly, whether you are feeling creative or not: a good habit to get into. Being a full-time student justifies the time spent writing and allowed me to devote the best part of a year to the first draft of my first novel.

In the safe environment of the workshop, I was able to take risks as I experimented with new techniques and styles, some of which worked and some of which didn’t. I also tried new genres with some attempts at poetry. I have never considered myself a poet but I found writing poetry had a beneficial influence on my prose writing.

The course also required extensive reading in different styles, an exercise that increased my awareness of good writing and technique.

The biggest drawback of the course I took was schedule conflict as I had to fit in with the Japanese academic year (April to March) while fulfilling the M.A. degree requirements within the British academic year (September to July). Enrolling in February, I spanned two academic years at Bath Spa University. That gave me the advantage of working with two different groups of students, but at the same time forced me to meet the course’s major requirement of submitting a two-thirds finished novel in September when I was only half way through my study.

Other negative points worth considering if you are thinking of taking such a course:

  • Even if you are only interested in producing creative work, you will find there are often requirements to produce academic papers.
  • Well-regarded authors are not necessarily the best teachers. Possibly the most distinguished writer I studied under was a Man Booker Prize shortlisted novelist and poet who offered very little advice in workshops, allowing the students to do most of the work. His lack of direction of the discussion resulted in a few over-confident students dominating. In fairness, Man Booker Prize short-list nominees probably want to spend their time writing their own novels, rather than encouraging would-be novelists in producing theirs.
  • Finally, you need to bear in mind the time involved and the cost—full-time university programs are not cheap.

Did I think the time was well spent and the cost justified? Absolutely. Would I do it again? If only I had the chance. Despite the cynical note on which he began his essay on creative writing programs, Louis Menand, concludes:

And if students, however inexperienced and ignorant they may be, care about the same things, they do learn from each other. I stopped writing poetry after I graduated, and I never published a poem—which places me with the majority of people who have taken a creative-writing class. But I’m sure that the experience of being caught up in this small and fragile enterprise, contemporary poetry, among other people who were caught up in it, too, affected choices I made in life long after I left college. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.6

Whether my novel is ever published or not, the year I spent in such a creative environment, freed from attending unproductive meetings and the daily grind of earning a living, was a time I will hallow in my memory. Having gained the maturity and experience I lacked as a 19-year-old student, I could fully appreciate my second chance of university life. I did not complete my novel during my year in Bath–indeed, it was only later that I really understood what it was I wanted to say–but the course gave me the necessary tools to continue writing it, and to continue improving my writing.

Alternative Ways to Develop Writing Skills
Most writers do not have the time or the money to enroll in a full-time creative writing course. When I returned to reality after my sabbatical, I found the writing life back in Japan even harder: no supportive group to workshop with, not even anyone with whom I could share ideas or talk about writing and books, and a job that took up the days I had been able to dedicate to my writing. Writers based in Tokyo have some advantage over those in other parts of Japan as there are enough to form writing groups and a community so they are much less isolated. Facing these problems, I discovered alternative resources to continue developing my skills and maintaining my interest in writing.

My first problem was that I returned with an unfinished early draft of my novel. How was I ever to complete it? My tutor, Mo Hayder, had said that the first obstacle in getting a book published was to finish it. It sounds obvious, but it is true: an unfinished manuscript is never going to be published. And finishing that manuscript seemed like an insurmountable task.

At this time, I was given a book familiar to many writers that I found enormously helpful in getting over this obstacle: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.7 Based on her experience watching her 10-year-old brother struggle to complete an essay about birds and her father’s advice to take it “bird by bird,” Lamott breaks down the huge task of completing a novel into manageable segments—sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph—and deals with all the psychological barriers preventing us from writing. With her help, I set myself targets and ploughed on until I reached the last chapter.

Satisfying as it was to complete my novel, the satisfaction did not last long after the agent’s rejection slips appeared, if my approaches were even acknowledged. I rewrote the novel and tried again, and then put it aside to work on something else. A year ago, I felt I was ready for a major re-write and was helped at this time by another book I had just heard about on the radio, the above-mentioned Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose.

In this excellent book, the appropriately named Prose makes us look at words, paragraphs, character, dialogue and plot by examining examples from the great masters of fiction. As she says,

Long before the idea of a writer’s conference was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors. They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson . . . As I wrote, I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls “putting every word on trial for its life”: changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in. (pp. 2–3)

Using this book, a chapter at a time, I re-wrote my novel, examining the sentences that were dull and the descriptions that were lazy and, I hope, improving them.

Like every writer I’ve ever heard give advice on the art of writing, Prose instructs us to read—to read carefully, looking at technique and style and understanding why reputed authors have become successful. To writers who say they fear their work may be influenced by reading Tolstoy or Shakespeare, she retorts, “I’ve always hoped they would influence me…” (p. 9)

Besides reading, I’ve always found it helpful to hear what authors say about writing. Opportunities may be limited here but the annual Japan Writers’ Conference in the autumn is an excellent and stimulating forum for discussion and interchange with other writers. For those who travel overseas, literary festivals are held throughout the world, throughout the year. One that I particularly enjoy and recommend is Adelaide Writers’ Week, now an annual event, at which you can listen, free of charge, to renowned writers, should you find yourself in Australia in March.8

Available at any time for nothing, however, are the weekly BBC Radio 4 podcasts Books and Authors, featuring Open Book in which leading authors talk about their work, and A Good Read in which three speakers introduce their favorite books. In Book Club, another BBC Radio 4 program, a group of readers talk to acclaimed authors about their best-known novels.

With just one day a week now available for writing, I have devised a routine: I start to write in the morning and during my lunch break listen to one of these podcasts. Invariably, I find that something someone says about a book, or about how they came to write, will inspire me and trigger an idea for the afternoon.

BBC Radio 4 Podcasts
Books and Authors

This podcast features Open Book and A Good Read. In Open Book, Mariella Frostrup talks to leading authors about their work. A Good Read features Harriett Gilbert discussing a range of favorite titles with guests.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/openbook

Book Club

Led by James Naughtie, a group of readers talk to acclaimed authors about their best-known novels.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006s5sf

 

Notes:

1 Essay on Satire, John Sheffield (1648 to 1721), The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (Oxford: OUP, 1979).

2 Show or Tell: Should creative writing be taught? Louis Menand, New Yorker, June 8 2009.

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2009/06/08/090608crat_atlarge_menand

For a full discussion on creative-writing programs and American fiction, see The Program Era by Mark McGurl (Harvard, 2009).

3 The Artists’ and Writers’ Yearbook 2014 (London: A&C Black, 2013).

4 Show or Tell: Should creative writing be taught? Louis Menand, The New Yorker, June 8 2009.

5 Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them (London: Union Books, 2006).

6 Show or Tell: Should creative writing be taught? Louis Menand, The New Yorker, June 8 2009.

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2009/06/08/090608crat_atlarge_menand

8 Editorial Note: The Tokyo International Literary Festival was held for the first time in 2013. See http://tokyolitfest.com/?lang=en; plans are underway for a sequel in February 2014. For information on the upcoming 2014 festival, see http://tokyolitfest.com/.