Taking Advice

Whenever I start a new venture, I tend to read, extensively, around a subject. I’ve always done things this way. When I was pregnant, I read everything I could from the ‘experts’ of how to look after myself well: from what to eat and what not to eat, to how to prepare for becoming a new parent. (Hint: you can’t ever prepare for becoming a first time parent.)

Once I had my children, I read whatever I could on how to nurture and keep them alive and well, and so on.

Reading ‘how to’ guides for creative writing was the same. Writing has been a lifelong obsession, as I know it is for most writers, so I have indulged in this activity for a long, long time. The thing I started to notice a while ago though – and this goes for books on how to write better, to manuals on how to raise your kids – you have to know when to quit reading, and when to just throw yourself into the whole business of doing the shit.

Whether it’s how to deal with sibling rivalry, or how to create a great opening sentence in a short story, the only true way to learn and develop and become better is to actually put the time into working at it.

Last year, I completed an Open University degree in English Literature, and as one of the modules, I took Creative Writing. I thought this was a no-brainer, as I was working on my own writing at the same time as reading other great literature.

This was the WORST module I ever took. Let me explain.

I had a tutor who loved to discharge her ‘advice’ on which writers we should be reading; how we should be writing; the ‘rules’ of writing, if you will. I struggled through the course, rubbing up against her feedback all the way. At the end, I actually passed the course, gaining a really good grade for my final piece of writing, which was marked by another, independent tutor. Proof, I felt, that she didn’t particularly ‘get’ my style of writing, yet the other tutor obviously liked it.

The thing is though, after the year of studying that module, I didn’t write for about two years.

I mean, I obviously scribbled occasionally in a notebook; but then I would scribble it out again. I ripped up and threw away all my old bits of paper I had written ideas on, and deleted files from my computer. I told my family: ‘I’ve realised I will never be able to write good enough, so I quit’.

The inevitable happened, though. I slowly began to pick up my pen, as though against my will, writing snaps of conversation overheard in café’s, or memories from my childhood. Writing out my fears, and dreams, and troubles in my journal.

And bit by bit, I began to love writing again. I met a great short story writer, who offered a short mentoring course, so I decided to brave it. I showed him bits of work that I had been creating, that I didn’t think were really stories – I wasn’t sure what they were.

He took those pieces of writing, and told me that in his opinion, with a little editing, they were publishable.  What I had been creating were small pieces of micro/flash/short short fiction, whatever you want to call it. I was shocked. And of course I didn’t believe him. But over the past 12 months, I have indeed had some of those pieces published in online magazines, and have had fantastic feedback from other pieces that haven’t quite made it.

The one thing this mentor told me that I feel improved my writing was to stop holding back. He felt I was trying not to offend anyone, or was too concerned with who might read the stories that I held myself back from really letting go. I was trying too hard to be somebody else.

That made all the difference, and with his gentle prodding, I began to unfold the ideas that were stored in my head, and even I could see that my writing was improving.

I stopped trying to emulate what other writers were doing. I stopped taking advice from so-called ‘experts’ in the field of writing. Such helpful advice as ‘only write what you know’, which is a bit of a misnomer anyway, isn’t it? (I mean, I don’t know what it’s like to have dementia, or to lose a partner in old age, but I know what it’s like to love somebody and I know what it’s like to lose somebody. Does that mean I can or can’t write about being an old person with dementia?)

And the result? Well, I have two pieces of flash coming up in two different lit mags; I have a piece of life writing coming up on The Real Story, whom have also asked me to appear on the line up of their next live event (yikes!); and I have an essay being published about short story writer Grace Paley.

Not bad, for someone who can’t get up to write morning pages, goes against the advice of ‘writing every day’, and writes about some stuff she knows and other stuff she just, well, you know, makes up. Like writer’s do.

(and parents, in case you were wondering).

I’d love to hear other writer’s comments on where they stand on ‘how to’ guides, and taking the advice of others’.

Happy writing (and reading).

Kate x

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5 thoughts on “Taking Advice

  1. I seriously think it might be the luck of the draw, Kate. I haven’t done a writing course in 20+ years admittedly, but, like you, did take a one-term module of Creative Writing when studying for my degree, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was one of two non-Americans in the class, if I remember rightly, despite us being in Norfolk, East Anglia; Creative Writing courses back then still being quite a novelty in this country. The tutor gave us prompts – eg the opening of a Maupassant story which we’d then have to finish – and we’d read what we’d written to the rest of the class the following week. Nothing prescriptive, simply a safe place to share our writing and get feedback. Perhaps because (lowers voice) I didn’t think any of the others’ stories were especially better than mine, apart from one young woman who always wrote/read about intense sex with room-quieting authenticity, I loved every single week of it. It didn’t ‘make’ me a writer but it didn’t stop me. (It was actually the rest of my degree, the reading of godlike Great Writers who were impossible to emulate, that stymied me for years.) I wish I could remember our tutor’s name but whoever she was, she didn’t force anything on us, she simply allowed us to write.

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    • I think you’re right, Nick. I have spoken to other people about this before, and had a mixed response. I have been questioned as to why I haven’t ever considered doing the MA in Creative Writing (which is run at Sheffield Uni, where I live), but again, I’ve met people who’ve done it who’ve said the same thing – it stunted their writing more than helped it. I think it depends on 1. the tutor and 2. the other people in the group. One issue I had was that it was distance learning (obviously, being the OU), and we were encouraged to ‘workshop’ on an online forum, but only me and one other woman ever commented on one another’s work! The tutor never bothered responding to the forum, leaving me always thinking I’d ‘done something wrong’. I think you’re right though about other ‘Great Works’ putting you off!

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  2. Great piece, Kate. You have to be so careful with teaching of creative writing. The last thing any writer needs is someone who doubts what they do or criticises their work – without being positive – to the extent that the writer closes up. This is, sadly, all too common. The fact that you picked your self back up and got back to writing speaks volumes about you, not the teacher. There truly are some amazing, nurturing and helpful creative writing teachers out there – the trick is to find them. Anyone who makes you feel a bit rubbish – in writing or any walk of life – is not worth your time or your money. Keep on writing 🙂 x

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    • Thanks Nikki! And totally agree – I have heard from many other writers that they have found a positive and supportive tutor – perhaps I was unlucky there, but it’s also good to recognise I think when you are ready to just go for it and see what happens – scary as it may be! Kate x

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  3. I can imagine how discouraging that method of “teaching” writing must have been. I was lucky in that I had a great teacher in college, who was a published author and editor himself which I do think helps. He would have us read the occasional short story or maybe do an exercise, but mostly he just made us write, and in no way did he ever say we should emulate anyone else’s style. I’m sorry your experience hindered you for a while :-(. I like Anne Lamott and Stephen King’s books on the subject (though King does try to give out specific advice a few times it was mainly just in aid of clarity/to be taken with a grain of salt I think). Great advice you received eventually though on not holding back. In my attempts at memoir writing I have REALLY struggled with that! 😉

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