On The Writing Course

Well, I’m back and glad to report that the family party was a big success. The sun actually came out, not a drop of rain fell (amazing for England at Easter time) and the guests had a wonderful time. Even I, confirmed non-party girl, enjoyed it. Now I’m back home and exhausted, although I stood up to the rigors of three days of socializing better than I have done on any occasion I can recall in the past four or five years. I don’t want to tempt fate too much, so I’m not going to wave goodbye to CFS just yet, but I’m encouraged.

Still too tired to write a proper book review, however, so instead you might like to hear a little more about my writing course. So far, I couldn’t be more pleased with the way it is going. I’ve written a couple of assignments, each one a 500-word exercise in reportage. The small word count and the number of possible storylines on each occasion has really highlighted the way I organize and structure stories, and it’s become very clear that old academic habits die hard. I’ve done okay on each homework, but my tutor has instantly put her finger on the way I include excess information without necessarily drawing it into the arc of the narrative. As an academic, I’ve been taught that I need to justify everything I say. I couldn’t possibly write a story or an analysis on the simple basis that it’s the way I see it – I’d have people howling for proof, for back-up, for additional information with every sentence I wrote. My writing up until now has been about marshalling big quantities of information and then creating a very small story from it – and I’ve focused on trying to find the best information out there. What I need to learn to do is take a small amount of information and create an interesting story out of it. And intriguingly enough, that prospect makes me feel uneasy. On what basis do I find the authority to mould that information into the storyline that pleases me? I instinctively hang back from taking such a bold narrative step, or else, when I’ve had to, I overcompensate and grip the material with such force that it’s a bit limp afterwards.

My tutor’s really got the measure of me. She wrote in her last report: ‘What I’m trying to show, is the difference between facts and story (narrative) and the power of the writer – a power you are still anxious about exercising. Litlove, you are the writer. You are in control. You are not dependent on the facts for meaning or direction: they are dependent on you.’ This is very astute, as I’ve always conceived of my role as a writer as a kind of conduit for information. I don’t feel in the least bit entitled to stamp my meaning on events, or at least not as a truth, only as a viable hypothesis. I always felt that, as a critic, the important thing was to let the books speak for themselves. And that’s perfectly reasonable in the field of literary criticism, just less helpful in the field of commercial non-fiction writing. And of course we all know theoretically that facts are forgettable unless they are woven into a story, and meaningless unless tied to a plot, but the consequences of this for writing are quite significant. In short it means you have to understand, with complete clarity, why you are writing every sentence, every word, you commit to the page. Confidence in your mastery of the material is paramount. You may never state your purpose outright to the reader, but you have to know it in your own mind. Or else the reader is confused, bored, and quickly lost.

I’m finding it a relief to have the problems pinpointed for me, after weeks of staring at my writing, knowing something is not quite right and yet not being able to put my finger on the issue. It’s like having a doctor tell you that a course of physio is the answer to an ache that on your worst days you thought might be terminal. But what I was most grateful to the tutor for was her insistence that this changeover in conventions, from academic to narrative, would take me the full ten weeks of the course to accomplish. Don’t do anything more than think about it at present, she advised me, and again I think that’s so very sound. Learning is a slow process, if it’s to effect a proper, dependable change. I’m the worst at wanting to jump through a hoop the moment it’s placed before me. But only the gradual, slightly painful accumulation of understanding results in a long term and reliable change of perspective.

My next assignment is to take the recent news story about the Somali pirates and their hostage and write it from three different perspectives – pirates, military and hostage. Gulp! Oh and no more than 250 words for each perspective. Now, do I pick the exact same events and relay them in different terms, or do I focus on slightly different events for each protagonist? I don’t know and I’m only going to let my mind drift over it for the next few days. Here’s hoping that I end up in the rescue boat headed for the shore rather than shot down in flames.

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24 thoughts on “On The Writing Course

  1. Glad to hear the socializing went well! It sounds like you have a very good tutor who is giving you good advice. It makes a difference when you can trust that the person teaching you knows what s/he is talking about and won’t let you slip by easily. The pirate assignment sounds like it will be fun.

  2. The writing course sounds terrific. In all honesty, litlove, I still wrestle with those things. I just am so interested and so enthusiastic in my research that there is a long process for me in carving away the excess and allowing the story to surface and tell itself. In fiction a little goes a long way. That always surprises me. Even after all these years.

  3. You have a very perceptive, interesting tutor. The class sounds wonderful! Pirate assignment could be great fun (but I am not the one who will be writing it)–good luck!

  4. Sounds like you have a really good teacher. That Somalian pirate assignment sounds hard, though. It’s hard not to use some facts, I mean you sort of have to know something about boats. Or what the heck, follow her advice and just make it up. Good luck with that.

  5. I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed the party and that you’re feeling well. And your writing class sounds amazing. I think that such a class often takes you to a place that you would have eventually reached on your own, but if it can take you there that much faster, it’s serving its purpose beautifully.

  6. Glad to hear of your enjoyable Easter. I would have wished you such in advance if I had seen your earlier posts sooner. Unfortunately something is wrong with my browser (according to son), and your posts appear later than they should. This has happened a lot of late, since I had trouble with a bug, now sorted. Your post today is the first to appear on time, as it were, for a long time. It also has no gaps in the text. Anyway that writing advice seems spot on, though the desire to absolutely justify your content will be quite hard to escape given how long it has been your practice and how ingrained it must be as a result. As to the three versions I suspect differing viewpoints would involve a slightly different selection of and emphasis on the events, almost like a lawyer in a court case. Good luck with it and best wishes.

  7. Oh you are going to have fun morphing your writing! This assignment will be awesome, tearing up the usual perspectives. The great thing about courses that “don’t count” (as in grade point average) is that you can really take chances, break free. Have fun! And look forward to hearing more about the course. (yes, your fellow readers and writers love reading about reading and writing!)

  8. As an academic, I’ve been taught that I need to justify everything I say.

    You’re in a good course, with a good tutor, from the excellent report you’ve given here. I’ve always run into the exact same problem when editing/coaching writers with academic backgrounds; it’s so hard for them to just … be. This blog is good practice for you, I think. :-) I’d love for you to post the multiple-POV-pirates project.

  9. How lovely that the party went so well and your general good health with it – tremendous! And I do find a little bit of sunshine goes a long way where all these things are concerned.

    Litlove, I agree these things are never obvious, not even after a lifetime of writing. Writing news stories is SO different to writing, say, a travel feature, and academic writing is so very different again – to say nothing of fiction! Egads! After academia, I found professional non-fiction writing extraordinarily liberating, and as the course goes on, I bet you’ll be the same. It’s also excellent that you have the guidance of an astute tutor, it’ll make all the difference.

  10. I hope you’re going to share the pirate adventures with your loyal readers. I once read a similar writing exercise based on Captain Cook’s death in Hawaii. Employing three different perspectives on the same event meant there was no need for scene setting in the second and third sections. Very handy with a tight word limit. Good luck!

  11. I am so happy your mother-in-law’s birthday party and Easter went well. The writing course sounds like a lot of fun – and a real challenge. I love what your tutor said about the writer being in control of the facts. Most of what I write is legal writing – the facts and the law are in control there, and they are not always on my side! (Which I hate).

  12. Oh, just one more thought. When I heard you were going to review Mister Pip, I read it over the weekend. I’d seen it in the New Arrivals section of our library and loved the cover, but didn’t check it out until you mentioned it. Can’t wait to talk about it.

  13. Wow — what a great teacher! It’s so wonderful to have a great teacher who can tell you just what you need to hear and guide you through the process of learning what you need to learn. I like the idea of taking it slowly to make the change a real one — that sounds like a lesson a person couldn’t absorb quickly. I know what you mean about wanting to jump through the hoop immediately! I’d be jumping too :)

  14. Sounds like excellent writing advice. I’d love to hear your three POV on the pirates when you’re ready to share them. I imagine the POV would be very different (and the fact selection also very different). Great to hear the party was a success and that you survived all the festivities.

  15. Oh I just did a load of comments and the computer ate them! Argh! Well, en bref this time…

    Stefanie – the course is proving a lot of fun, thank you, and if I could only get ‘Speak Like A Pirate Day’ out of my head, I’d get on better with this week’s assignment.

    Lilian – thank you for the solidarity! I so admire the structure of your longer blog posts, and I returned the other day to note down a comment you’d made that really struck me. So it’s reassuring to think that all writers struggle with these issues.

    ds – what is it about pirates that’s so resolutely jolly? I’m in grave danger of getting the tone wrong and rewriting Peter Pan here! ;)

    Honeypiehorse – that was exactly what crippled me in the last assignment about the Grand National. I know ZERO about horse racing and kept floundering in the middle of sentences, all idiomed out.

    Tim – it sounds like you speak from experience there! But still, sharper focus sounds very good to me.

    Kate – that’s exactly why I decided to do the course. It’s so much more fun, so much less painless to have someone help me out here. I feel I can relax and just do my homework like a good girl! :)

    Bookboxed – how lovely to have you drop by – I wondered if your computer had been acting up. A belated happy Easter to you and your family. And indeed it will take some time to circumvent 20 years of academic training. Still, I will think like a lawyer when I come to write about the pirates! ;)

    oh – I’m so glad if this is interesting to you! I know I’m always curious about what people do on these courses. And the prospect of no nasty exams or hurdles I have to jump is very pleasing!

    David – never a truer word spoken than that academics have a hard time just being! That’s possibly the underlying message of my entire life. :) I will post the pirates piece if it has any shred of value in it, but be warned that it might not….

  16. Di – when I first began blogging, I felt so liberated from academic demands. And then I felt somewhat out on a limb, not sure what I was writing. Now I’m somewhere in the middle with good days and bad days! You’re right that there are so many different forms of writing and each has specific requirements. Makes you wonder how we ever get anything halfway right! ;)

    Care – you are very welcome! I’ll write about it again when I’ve done a few more assignments, I’m sure.

    Catherine – how nice to see you – are you blogging again? Captain Cook and Hawaii sounds even more taxing that Somalian pirates and hijackings! I’ll post what I do if it’s any good at all, although I have my doubts at the moment. Still, the course is lots of fun and I’m really enjoying it.

    Gentle reader – thank you so much! The pirates do sound like they will be fun, although it is very, very unlike the usual run of writing I have to do! :)

    Emily – it’s kind of you to tell me that! I need the solidarity. :)

    Grad – lawyers and academics share their subordination to the facts! It’s a pain in the neck sometimes, although a strong discipline to be guided by at other times. And I’m so pleased to know you read Mister Pip! I have just posted on it – your word being my nicest invitation and all. :)

    Dorothy – I’m always so reassured to find another hoop-jumper! :) I feel so lucky with the tutor I’ve been given. So far she’s really put her finger on my writing difficulties, and I’m sick. I love criticism – well, of the constructive kind! :)

  17. Maybe the pirates, military person and hostage have as much desire for and failure in control over their predicament as you can hope for in writing, non?

  18. Are you going to share with us any of your writing exercises–the final product that is? These are learning exercises, though, so I might not want to share them either in an unpolished form. It’s nice that it seems to be helpful–sometimes it takes someone else’s eye to spot what’s not working in what you’re writing. Good luck on the pirates–I’m sure you’ll come up with something good! And glad to hear you’re weekend was nice–it always feels good to get through these things without suffering too much.

  19. D – alas, you are probably quite right!

    Danielle – I have been hesitating all day about posting my exercise! It is sort of okay, and it would be fun to share with people as the exercise itself is interesting. But I am very unconfident of my abilities at anything in the least fictional! Well, I will continue to mull it over. I am really appreciating having a tutor put her finger on the bits that have gone wrong – it’s surprisingly satisfying! :)

  20. L

    I understand what you mean about the academic drive for things to check out all the way down the line, and how the facts in your story depend on you, but my scepticism is directed at the degree to which control is possible or even necessary in fiction. I can recommend watching any episode of Twin Peaks for how the facts are revealed in order to pose further questions. The authors’ explanatory shortfall relinquishes varying degrees of control over meaning to the audience. It is often impossible to know whether manipulation or generosity are at play.

    The danger in putting academic work aside and then picking up fiction is in the need to get things right getting in the way, which (I imagine) would make posting your exercise fraught, but it would be interesting to see how you’ve worn the different shoes you’ve stepped into.

    D

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