So, The Writing Course

For all the uncertainties I had at the start, I am very glad that I did the writing course. There is nothing like being forced outside of your comfort zone to make you pay attention and learn new things. Plus, for fatally curious people like me, there’s always an intriguing narrative to be uncovered when a bunch of strangers get together. On this occasion, what made the course a pleasant experience – a group of quiet, polite and well-mannered participants – reduced the potential for good anecdotes afterwards. Out of a group of 12 there was only one person by the end who I really didn’t like and only one person who semi-dropped out. I thought that was pretty good going.

We were trying our hands at three different techniques. The first was braiding two or more lines of narrative. This was by far and away the technique I found most difficult and my first attempt at it was frankly a mess. I had a look around the internet and came across an extremely useful piece of advice. Take each line of narrative separately, this author suggests, write each story out individually and only then combine the two and tweak from there to make them speak to each other. This made all the difference to me. I rewrote the piece almost entirely, and found it worked much better. Call me sick, but I really enjoyed the process of getting this wrong and then figuring out how to make it right. It reminded me how inordinately satisfying it is to learn, if you can give yourself plenty of licence to make mistakes. Plus I’d gone into the course uncertain whether I’d be able to write anything at all, so the sheer relief of completing an assignment gave me a boost.

The second technique was incorporating research. I felt that this one ought to be a doddle for me as it’s generally what I do. So I thought it might be the moment to pick more challenging content and decided to write about the experience of chronic fatigue. Well, by the time I’d reached the end of the first draft, I realised that fifteen years of experience could not be fitted into 3,500 words. You might think I’d have figured this out beforehand, right? Well, I already knew that writing is like taking a pencil torch into a windowless cellar. The thin beam illuminates a contour here, a detail there, the shadowy mass of an object in the far corner, but a full picture of the entire room is out of the question. The first draft is like putting a burning torch in a wall bracket, but you never really get to see everything. I never expected to write the entire cellar, but I’d believed I could pack in more than I could. To swap metaphors a moment, I thought I might be able to write the piece like skimming a stone, glancing off the biggest ripples across that sea of time. But no. Once again I had a 3,500 word mess on my hands.

The answer was to go smaller and more detailed. I figured I’d only be able to write half of an essay at best with so few words at my disposal. So I spent a lot of time trawling the past in my mind, trying to find the scenes where the material was full of the ineffable. I’d been a bit unsure about tackling this subject in the first place, but my fellow participants and the instructor had assured me that writing lends distance and emotional liberation, and putting it down in words is a way of saying goodbye. I sort of agree, but it works best when an episode in life is over and finished. And whilst I am sure I’m in the end game of chronic fatigue here, I don’t think it’s exactly the end. Writing the theoretical parts was, by contrast, a delight. Unfortunately, I did them too quickly. I finished the assignment, and it was okay, and I submitted it. But was it a coincidence that shortly afterwards, I must have trapped the nerve in my neck that led to my bruised nerve in my gum and my sore arm? ‘Those nerves must be really irritated,’ the osteopath said to me (and they still are troublesome). And what was the feedback? Less theory and more you! my readers cried. I gulped and decided not to finish the essay during the course, on the grounds that so much emotional liberation might kill me.

By the time I was in any sort of state to write my third and final essay, I had five days left before the deadline and still had a jangling tooth, a sore arm and no idea what to write. The course participant I did not care for had annoyed me by leaving a highly critical comment of the reading we’d been assigned. It had not been to her taste, and so therefore she declared it bad, and demanded to know why we had been given it to read at all. My nerves were already irritated and so I was not impressed by such an attack of solipcism. Around that time I read a phrase on a blog that really struck me: empathy is the job of the reader. How I wish I remember where I read it! That phrase saved me. The assignment was to write an essay that moved about freely in time and I decided to write about the experience of extreme empathy, both as a reader and as a mother. I knew I had one shot at getting it right, wrote a steady 700 words a day and produced my best essay of the course. Isn’t that ironic? I thought that if, as I had often suspected, I did my best work up a corner with everything stacked against me, it was time to retrain as a plumber. That was not a deal with destiny I was willing to make.

So what did I learn? Well, I learned that you can say a great deal less in 3,500 words than you think you can, thus the skill is in knowing what to leave out. I learned that a good scene can do an immense amount of work for you. I learned that the past is stored in more detail and intensity than we think, but that looking back over it is never easy. I learned that I can write more to order than I feared I could (I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it at all). And I learned that other people’s problems are far more entertaining to me to write about than my own. The best part of the course was an experience that I wasn’t expecting. The emphasis throughout was on slowing down and taking the time to figure out what we really wanted to write about. The story we think we want to tell often turns out to be a screen or a veil over the story that actually needs to come forth. Like all the best art, that concept has a lot to say about life. And that’s why art is not some frippery or foible, but deeply worthwhile.

47 thoughts on “So, The Writing Course

  1. “Fatally curious,” ha! That’s why I like teaching writing. I’ve always told students that I’m naturally nosy, that I really do want to hear what they have to say.

    • Yes! I used to feel exactly the same! And the joy of students is that you never quite know what they are going to say – it could be just about anything….🙂

  2. Especially gripped by your note of having fifteen years of life with CFS. That is exactly how long it have managed it also. And no writing much just long journaled pieces and this year at last some sessions with a psychologist.
    Unsurprisingly, I would be enthralled to hear more about that writing task
    And how therapeutic or otherwise it was

    • Martina – one thing that this blog has been wonderful for is putting me in touch with other cfs sufferers. I am so very sorry to hear that you’ve had to struggle with it, but I’m really grateful for your comment. I had about ten years in and out of therapy (although that part I hadn’t even begun to write about on the course!), and it did help, though in all honesty, a drug I was given a couple of years ago (a simple anti-anxiety) played a big part in my improved health too. I’d thought it would be really therapeutic to write about it – I went in with the attitude of saying goodbye, and was surprised to find how very hard it was. I do hope you are doing better and finding a way forward – sending all my sympathy and solidarity.

  3. I am so glad it has in the end become a positive experience for you. I am a great believer (if still a somewhat a hesitant practionioner) of leaving my comfort zones but in almost every case it has been extremely worthwhile.

    PS A skimming stone usually crashes and sinks on hitting a big ripple🙂

  4. I’m interested in what you say about writing on a topic lending you distance and liberating you from the experience. As per usual I switched the radio on this morning in the middle of a programme, so I don’t know who the actress was that I was listening to, but she has just publish an autobiography that she has written herself – no ghost involved. She was making the point that this had been very painful because she had actually reacted to things that had happened to her many years ago far more strongly than she did when they happened and far from liberating her the experience had been so draining that she had lost twenty pounds in weight during the writing. I did wonder if the fact that she was talking about things that happened to her in her late teens meant that at the time she hadn’t the experience to appreciate just how devastating the long term effects might be, but that now she was in a better position to understand the full impact. However, that wasn’t a line the interviewer took. Perhaps it is the case that for each of us the writing process is different. Some it liberates but others it tortures.

    • Alex, it was June Brown (Midweek, Radio 4). She was wonderfully thoughtful and articulate, I thought. I’d like to read her book, which may be not quite what many readers expect from a celebrity soap-opera actress.

      • Online reviews suggest that it’s interesting, frank and quirky, but very long, rambling and disjointed and ill-served by a lack of decent editing. How unsurprising, and what a shame.

    • Alex, that is very interesting indeed. Everyone on my course was very positive indeed about the writing process as therapy, or (from my point of view) at least very cavalier about throwing themselves at their dark moments. I am sure you’re right and it’s essentially down to personality. But it must also be to some extent about the events that get recounted. I think it wasn’t great timing for me – I’m feeling the need to look forward at the moment, and to make peace with the past. Raking it up in that sort of detail wasn’t quite right for me.

      And Jean, thank you for supplying the actress’ name – I wouldn’t have guessed June Brown in a million years.

  5. I am so glad you ended up enjoying the course and learning so much! Are you likely to take another one once you have recovered? I believe the empathy is a reader’s job came from my blog when I was writing about a book panel I went to at a book festival. Glad it helped🙂

    • Yes! That’s right it was that post – thank you, my friend! I can’t tell you how much it helped. I’d do another course, certainly, though it’s more a question of saving up!🙂 Though really, they are excellent value for money, when you think of all you get.

  6. I don’t think I could write to order so I am fascinated that you went through the same process and managed it.

    I’m also interested in your attempts, and how they helped you see a better way to go each time… for example smaller, more detailed.

    • I’ll bet you could do it more than you think. I really was NOT sure how it would turn out! But it was much easier than I’d imagined. Once you know the parameters from the start, your creative mind just accepts them and works with them. If they’d changed the instructions halfway through, I would have blown a gasket! Doing multiple attempts was really the thing that made me learn from the course. It’s funny how hard it is to know what you are doing until it’s done!

      • This made me think of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath – I remember reading that he helped her by setting her subjects to write about. I find this interesting – part of my problem has been not having to do things and then putting them off. But part of me thinks if someone was setting me subjects, I’d really have to trust them not to take me off on a tangent. So it’s interesting to think about the way your mind latches onto something because you *have* to do it. Sometimes I get really into my children’s writing assignments – not in the actual doing of them, but in trying to get them to think like the characters and understand their motives. So I guess that is a similar thing.

  7. This really resonated with me, Litlove:

    The story we think we want to tell often turns out to be a screen or a veil over the story that actually needs to come forth. Like all the best art, that concept has a lot to say about life. And that’s why art is not some frippery or foible, but deeply worthwhile.

    Thank you for another wonderful post. It’s only by writing that we find out what we need to say.

    • Absolutely! When I was an academic I had far too much emphasis on getting everything right first time because the presence of a small son meant I had so little time for writing. It’s only now that I’m really beginning to see how ruthless you have to be with a first draft to get the best out of it. I sort of sigh a bit inside at the prospect of all the time it takes – but it is for the best in the end, for sure.

      • One of the aspects of my huge collaborative research life as a particle physicist is that we endlessly redraft our papers in larger and larger groups of people (finally all 2000+ of us get to comment if we wish). Typically (for the papers I have been involved with directly) we might release draft 20 to the total collaboration.

  8. Any hope that we might read what you wrote for the course? Yay you for successfully completing it and coming out the other end a better writer (although it is hard to imagine you needed any improvement, Litlove).

    • You are a darling! I might post the first essay I wrote. I’d love to post the last, but it includes a scene with my son that I really ought to have his permission for if I’m to put it in a public place. And the middle one is only half done. And really they could all do with a lot more work!🙂 But the first isn’t too awful. I’ll certainly say if I do put it up in the ‘other writings’ section.

  9. Sounds like such a great course. Would love to attend one similar. Love the idea of the story that we need to tell being veiled by the one we want to tell – strikes me as true for fiction writing as well.

    • I’m sure you’d get a lot out of it, Charlotte. The course instructor was very good and his feedback was incredibly detailed and thoughtful. I am beginning to think that a certain degree of ruthlessness with a first draft might make a huge difference further down the line. Now of course we have to see if I’m brave enough to put my money where my mouth is!🙂

  10. Thanks for sharing this, I was so curious to hear more.
    “The story we think we want to tell often turns out to be a screen or a veil over the story that actually needs to come forth.” Very interesting, something to ponder.

  11. It looks fascinating, and really worthwhile (except the part where your writing seems to have affected your poor nerves). I second Grad and would love to read parts of those texts you wrote.

    • Bless you – I might post the first one up, as it’s not too awful and not too personal! It would have been really great if I hadn’t tramped a bit far down memory lane, but then, this is the kind of thing you never know in advance! I am really glad I did it.

  12. I think you hit on a lot of important truths about writing here, particularly in that last paragraph. The story I really want to tell is often lurking beneath other stories. Really I’m examining something of myself each time I write, even though I’m telling other people’s stories. Sometimes I find that it’s OK to leave it there, to tell other stories and be unconscious of the real story that bubbles up to the surface regardless.

    • That’s very interesting, because my belief when I was a literary critic was that my job entailed digging the hidden story out. I think there is always another story, no matter how deep down you go. I also think it’s interesting what you say about fiction. I wonder whether fiction writers are always examining a bit of themselves, whereas non-fiction writers, in writing blatantly about themselves, often end up trying to say something universal. We’re almost always touching more bases than we know!

    • It was a really good course, and a slick operation, it has to be said! I might post the first essay, as it’s the most post-able, but you can always check out my writing in the ‘other writings’ section of the menu (not that I can remember what’s up there now!). Thank you for asking!

    • Thank you, dear Lilian. Writing is the only thing I do where I don’t spend my time thinking I really ought to be doing something else. Although at other times I think it’s the most frustrating job (outside of parenting!) on earth….🙂

  13. I’ve been following your accounts of the course with great interest and I’m so happy that it has been worthwhile.

    As ever, there’s so much in your post that I am still reading and thinking about it. I wonder if writing about painful experiences ever grows easier, perhaps for a full-time and very experienced writer of creative non-fiction (or even fiction), or if it slips into slickness if it does?

    • Dear Helen, that is such a good point. There was one person on the course whose essay I finished thinking, wow, that was one slick essay, what great writing! And then when I thought back over it and the subject material, I realised my first thought really ought to have been, my goodness what a shocking story. I think you can get too polished, too slick, particularly if you write a piece over and over to get it perfect. There’s something to be said for retaining some of that first, rough, un-managed emotion. There’s something honest about writing about difficult experiences and finding it hard going – even though it would be much nicer if that weren’t so!

  14. Oh, this sounds so good! I’m glad to hear the course turned out well and you learned good things from it. I like what you say about giving yourself license to make mistakes. I agree that that experience can be immensely satisfying!

  15. Pingback: Never mind teaching it – can you learn creative writing? | book word

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