Monday, January 10, 2011

Faber Academy discussion on Creative Writing: Marcel Theroux's view

I am pleased to publish today a contribution to this debate from Marcel Theroux, co-tutor of the upcoming Faber Academy course, Getting Started. Marcel is the author of four acclaimed novels including Far North (Faber) and is a winner of the Somerset Maugham Award (2002).

Thursday's very thoughtful piece by his fellow course leader Sue Gee brought a very lively response and several issues have emerged. Marcel now cuts to the chase:

I share the ambivalence that many people feel about the Creative Writing industry.

Arts coverage in the conventional media is shrinking; publishers are panicking about the future, digital sales and the end of the book; bookshops and libraries are threatened - and yet there's a mini-boom in courses in creative writing.

There are some really tough questions that need to be asked about them - particularly by the students.  Is it a route to publication? (No - but I have yet to meet anyone who accepts this in their heart, and the concomitant truth that publication is not the answer to all their hopes and prayers.)  Would my teacher be here if she or he had sold the film rights to their latest novel? (Probably not - and that's assuming your creative writing teacher can even get published.)  Are these courses a money-making wheeze for the institutions who run them? (Undoubtedly.)  Might I be better served by renting a cabin in the woods for two weeks and sitting there in front of a computer, or, better still, a typewriter? (Perhaps.)  What do I want to get out of this? (Harder to say...)

In Tokyo, a few years ago, I went along to a haiku club. They are popular in Japan. They met in a park, under the guidance of a teacher who assigned them specific kige - words like maple leaf, dew, and nightingale which evoke a specific season and are intrinsic to the form.  The students then spent and hour or two wandering around the park and writing half a dozen haiku.  After that, they had lunch, read the poems aloud, and their teacher made suggestions about how they might be improved.

Was it a route to publication? (No.)  Was it a money-making wheeze for the teacher? (Kind of - but not exactly on a par with hedge funds.)  Might the students have been better served by renting a cabin in the woods for two weeks? (I doubt it, but they would have probably written a lot more haiku.)  What were they getting out of it?

Well, you'd have to ask them, but I wrote a couple of haiku when I was with them, and I loved the whole experience. Oddly, the deepest pleasure of writing the poems was an ego-less one.   It's the feeling of being an instrument of the words themselves, of recognizing that maple leaf, dew and nightingale have their own loveliness and it requires no authorial genius to make them beautiful.  There's also something instructive about the conciseness of the form - it's what gives each one its poignance and gravity.

There is also a more egotistical thrill of knowing that, whatever the gulf in talent between me and Basho, Issa and Onitsura - haiku masters of the past - we are all just people with pens trying to describe the harvest moon or cherry blossom in 17 syllables.  It's a strange thing about writing - that there really is no special equipment or secret knowledge that separates the amateur from the professional. And whether or not I've improved as a haiku writer, I read the poems with a new appreciation for the difficulty of the form.

But I think probably the most uplifting thing of all is this: last week one of my haiku got picked for the Richard and Judy Haiku Club, and now Ridley Scott has just made a huge offer for the film rights! Cancel my classes! In your face everyone!

Thank you to Marcel!  Once again, readers, your own views and questions are more than welcome, and in a later post Sue and Marcel will tackle the issues raised. You can also discuss the issues on Twitter on #whywrite.


Tim Love said...

There'd be fewer "What's the Point?" queries before and after attending courses if the courses were more upfront about Aims and Objectives. Especially with evening class courses, there's not enough time to tackle all aspects of writing. A description like "This course aims not to teach aspiring authors how to write but how to get published" helps to avoid disappointment. The Poetry School's programme seems good to me in this regard.

Sue Guiney said...

Another great contribution to the discussion. The question of where will getting such a degree lead reminds me of the same question people are asking now about uni courses:what job will I get out of it? There is no value placed any more in education for its own sake, and I fear it is often the same with writing. Everyone wants to spin it into a money making proposition, and unfortunately, too many people still believe that getting published equals making money - real money. As a writer about to publish her 4th book, I can tell you, one thing usually has nothing to do with the other.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Oooh Im enjoying this series.

I think Sue puts her finger on something here. Not one, not two, or three, but four books soon - all of the highest quality, a play in poetry, two novels and a poetry collection (can't wait) from someone who is articulate, clever, deeply interested and involved in the broader world all these books cover. Cambodia and the plight of the street children (the novels), and original fresh work for the theatre (the play in poetry - and her involvement with Curving Road charity).

Would the world lose something if those works weren't out there? Yes, absolutely.

Have they brought her riches from advances and so forth? Absolutely not.

I too am on my fourth book. For the first time in 8 years, I will be getting an advance.

That adds up to seven books out there, with no real financial reward for the authors. Two novels, one play in poetry, one poetry collection, two short story collections and a text book on writing short fiction -Short Circuit (complete with a brilliant chapter from one Elizabeth Baines...) a book which is ironically, being used at university CW courses. Follow that one..(!).

The point is, we'd both still have written exactly the same books, whether or not we were paid for them. Funny old world,, innit.

Group 8 said...

I agree with Sue - 7 books in and I still haven't made any money. I've been with small publishers and I just don't write that heavily commercial work that sells well.
When I go to speak at CW courses in uni's, the students hate when I tell them how little I earn. But I'll always be upfront about it because anyone doing it for money will most likely be disappointed.
Publishing is a disappinting world, so one would hope that writers write because they have to and because they love it.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Litrefs: I agree that courses need to be clearer about their aims and objectives, and in signalling them to potential students. Courses should make clear also when they are merely providing expertise and rather than a route to publication.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Is it not fair to say that a qualification awarded by a good course is a useful addition to a writer's CV - and will add credibility when submitting to agents or publishers? So their work will stand a better chance of a read as opposed to languishing in a slush pile?

Elizabeth Baines said...

I liked the points made on Thursday day about the usefulness of creative writing practice to other disciplines. I always thought it was a good thing when creative writing was introduced as a module in Eng Lit courses, and I briefly taught on the one at Manchester Uni. As Marcel points out, practice is a great way of helping you to appreciate any art form. The trouble is, I found, the students right away hope that this is the first step on the ladder to publication, and it's not an unreasonable hope - some are indeed capable of it, and lo and behold Clare Wigfall was later plucked from that very module by Faber!

There is such passion in the desire to be published, and such mystique surrounding it, that this comes to override all other considerations in the running of such courses, and to muddy the waters...

S J Watson said...

I too am really enjoying this discussion, and this is a great post, Marcel (though I wonder if the reference to Ridley Scott making an offer for the film rights to your haiku is a dig at me?! If so I suppose I deserve it and shall take it on the chin..!)

A number of people are asking me about my route to publication, and what I find interesting is that most assume I started the Faber course in order to get to where I am now, that it was all some sort of master plan. The truth is of course that I did the Faber course because, first and foremost, I wanted to become a better writer. Yes, of course I had dreams of being published, and the fact that the course I did promised an insight into how 'the industry' works was undeniably part of its appeal, but my main reason was because I wanted to learn how to better express my thoughts on the page. Long before I'd even finished my novel, when the publishers and the film deal were still a distant dream, I'd already realised that the course, for me, had been a success and worth every penny.

This was in contrast to one or two of the other students, who seemed to think that they were already 'good enough', that their work could not be improved, and that the course would merely facilitate the discovery of their masterpiece and propel it towards publication. These were the people who found themselves sorely disappointed at the end of the six months, who felt that they'd learned nothing and probably now feel that the course was a 'waste of money'.

So, when people ask me (and they do, all the time) if they 'should' do a creative writing course, I tell them to ask themselves why they're considering it. If it's because they want to develop their writing, discover their voice, practice their art and surround themselves with a network of like-minded individuals, then I say, 'Yes, if you're struggling to do those things alone then I think you might find what you're looking for on a course.' If, on the other hand, they say, 'I want to get my novel published' then, despite what happened to me, I have to tell them that a course might not be for them.

It sounds trite, but (as a hitherto unpublished writer at least) the only way to get a novel published is to write a great book that people want to publish. There are no shortcuts. If being published is your goal (and it doesn't have to be), the question then becomes 'Will a creative writing course help me to do that?'

So, yes, I think Marcel is right. Prospective students do need to ask themselves some tough questions. And 'What do I hope to get out of this course?' is perhaps the toughest, yet most important, of all.

JG said...

This much I know:

It's not just about the writing.

It's about the right book with the right agent with the right publisher at the right time. Some of this is luck, most is judgment. A different kind of judgement than might be available on a creative writing course.

I'm writing for an audience: a market. Otherwise I feel i'm gambling.

I'll be using the course @faber for a variety of reasons mostly to do with verification and being around others in the same boat, and some for reasons i'm sure will arise as I undertake the course itself.

I'm not expecting to be 'discovered' on a CW course, I'm expecting to be to be able to make a decision, give up and get back to the day job or finish the bloody novel.


Dan Holloway said...

Elizabeth - have you seen McCrum's piece on today's Guardian blog about creative writing courses?

In answer to Vanessa, I hope having a creative writing qualification on the CV doesn't make you more likely to be read than a really well written pitch that doesn't have one - that really would be rewarding those with talent and money over those with just talent. I have a feeling in practice it polarises agents. I'm sure Vanessa is right in some cases, but I've read plenty of blogs from people in the industry who dislike CW MAs because they feel they flatten out talent. Probably a case of doing one's research before pitching

Elizabeth Baines said...

That's an interesting article, Dan - thanks for the heads-up.

Interesting response to Vanessa's point as well: an important point re privileging those with money. It's certainly true that some agents do have relationships with MA courses - they are invited to speak, they offer prizes of publication for the best student etc - but I suspect you are right that some take a different attitude (look at Agent Orange on the bookseller blog).

Any more creative writing teachers want to contribute to this discussion? The stats imply that you are reading...

adele said...

This is a really enjoyable series of articles and I'm enjoying the posts very much. Must now go and read McCrum but I think that creative writing courses, if they do nothing else, should at least be places where you can a) meet people in a similar situation to your own and b)show your work to others in the same boat, ie, get a few readers. Courses which promise publication I'd avoid. They cannot promise such a thing and shouldn't be doing that. I don't think any of the good courses does that. I do love the idea, though of a Richard and Judy Haiku club.

Sue Guiney said...

I'm back again, though not a CW teacher, just a practitioner :-) But I did want to add that I have often wondered if I should have gotten a CW MA. I was able to get good training in a different way, and I continue to do so - so my answer was 'no - not for the training.' But I still wonder if I missed out on being a part of the 'old boys' network, the connections that that brings, the imprimatur of legitimacy. Getting known, despite what I realize is a sort of success in getting published, continues to be a struggle and a frustration. But I see that business part of the process as secondary to the writing itself, which I do because I can't seem to stop myself -- and I have tried!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

@ Elizabeth - I do teach writing. I will tell students what I know about the world of publication if they ask - but always stress that my workshops are about the writing.
I've attended a writing course or two. One started me as a writer and was very useful indeed. The next, I left. I was told not to write my novel but some other novel suggested by the then professor. That bit of diamond advice cost me £600. (The novel, finished anyway, is the once Bloomsbury are publishing this year...).

@ Dan - It's a fair assumption, Dan, thats all. If I was an agent looking for quality, and something in the slush pile was by a writer with a qualification from one of the good courses, taught by teachers who are known to bring the best out in writers - I'd read that submission first. Bet I'm not far off the mark. The good courses are actively targetted by the agents anyway. Why wouldnt they?

Anonymous said...

I teach Creative Writing in an Adult Ed. evening class. I don't promise publication and most of my students don't want or expect it. They join for a variety of reasons. Tonight was the first night of a new term, so I had four new faces, all wanting something different. One was a recently widowed ex-teacher, who wants to 'get out of the house', another, a Brazilian woman with a Masters in journalism, who wants to improve her written English; the third, a young Asian woman who's 'never done anything creative', so 'wants to give it a go' and finally, a young autistic girl, accompanied by her mother, who just loves to write fantasy and who, apparently, was writing about vampires long before 'Twilight'. My challenge is to ensure they all get emotional support and encouragement from the course. The writing is almost secondary.

Rachel Fenton said...

This is a realy interesting debate. I suppose there's some small distinction to be made between those who believe creative writing can be taught at all and those who assume that people wishing to be taught already have the talent and are merely seeking to have it honed. There also seems to be a suggestion here that there are good and bad courses - could we have this defined? And also a suggestion that good courses are ones that offer more in terms of contacts than writing advice, presenting the notion that contacts, and presumably publishing potential, can be bought. For the record, I'm pro-creative writing courses; as anyone who is familiar with the careers of the graduates of Bill Manhire's (Victoria University) creative writing courses, here in NZ, will know, the benefits of a respected tutor will outweigh the costs of enrolment. But I sense, also, something of a hint that the creative writing MA boom of recent years is a tad cannibalisitic insomuch as writers are paying writers who've made it, for the privillege of grabbing on a coat tail.

Tim Love said...

So, there are reasons both public ("I want to write a blockbuster") and private ("I want to find a partner") why people go on courses. There are the benefits one hopes for and perhaps very different benefits only realised years later. I'd imagine a long course will try to cater for these stated and unstated aspirations. Degree courses in other subjects do this. What makes CW different? It's a newer subject, one that some academics are suspicious of. Its borders are flexible, porous - its strength and its weakness. A range of courses is good for the customers, but makes validation and standardisation harder. Some versions of it sit unhappily amongst traditional univ subjects. Also many UK courses are fairly young, and have yet to develop a distinctive character that might attract suitable people.

Though a degree course couldn't be based on the idea that (as blogaboutwriting said..) "The writing is almost secondary", one might as well exploit the social aspects. In "The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing", David Morley mentions the some benefits of workshops that apply to courses too
* creation of a community or peer-group. Networking.
* learning about others' experiences and writing strategies
* combatting loneliness

Anonymous said...

I agree that you can teach the nuts and bolts of writing [for example, syntax, grammar, how to develop a character, the nature of plotting, the requirements of pacing, and the function of a narrative arc] and I also agree that writing creatively [ideas and voice] can be developed. But I think there’s a larger distinction to be made. Both ideas and voice can be developed using the nuts and bolts of writing, but the nuts and bolts can’t provide either ideas or voice.

I wonder, rather than asking about teaching, ought the question be directed towards the learning experience. Can you learn how to write creatively in 46 hours? FA’s ‘Getting Started’ course is not selective and comprises two groups of 15 who take 16 x 2 hourly sessions + 2 x 7 day sessions, 10am-5pm (not taking account of breaks/lunch). It’s not clear how much feedback students receive, who, if anyone reads material, nor whether ongoing support is available after the 46 hours.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Mark Farrell sent the following to me via email, for posting here, as he couldn't remember his google password:

the third draft of my novel has just gone to the agent, who has voluntarily steered it all the way in her own time. this has only happened because i took professional tuition on my manuscripts. i didn't go on any courses, i just paid to have my earlier novel assessed by a pro writer / editor who showed me how to take it apart and rebuild it. she didn't do it for me, she just filled in the gaps in my knowledge and understanding of how and why readers tend to respond. in the end i started something new from scratch with the tools i'd acquired and hey presto! my (top) agent now does what the writer / editor used to do, only for free, and with a view to making a profit out of it for (hopefully) both of us.

courses provide a service; they sell people something they want, and in that way justify their existence, plain and simple. whether or not people ever get published after attending them, or turn a single coin, is at the whim of the marketplace which nobody can control, no matter how hard they try. as my lovely, wonderful and successful agent says, if we knew what the magic ingredient is, we'd all be living in the bahamas

best wishes, mark farrell

Tim Love said...

The suspicion by non-CW people about CW works the other way too. "Creative writers have traditionally suspected the intellect, analytical thought, of being the enemy of creativity" (Philip Gross, Iota 88)

Vicky Grut said...

Interesting debate. Rachel Cusk wrote on this subject in the Guardian last year. Her view is that many people come to creative writing courses in search of something they once had as children - an unselfconscious ability to express themselves - which is then lost as we grow up and become more 'educated'. Here's the link if anyone wants to read the article:

As many people in this discussion have suggested already, there is a craft to writing fiction, and for me that provides the underpinning for any workshop or course that I run. But very often, what people value most is having a safe space in which to explore their own creative inner worlds, imaginations, whatever we call it - permission to play! Which makes the world a better place as far as I'm concerned.

S J Watson said...

Litrefs makes an interesting point. The "creation of a community or peer-group" and "learning about others' experiences and writing strategies" are both invaluable aspects of creative writing courses.

While of course both of these things are possible outside formal CW courses, it can be difficult to find like-minded individuals for whom writing is as important as it is to you. A CW course can give that (perhaps because they cost money? The fact that the course I did at Faber was relatively expensive actually worked in its favour - everyone on it was 'serious' about their writing).

ms_well.words said...

I took the Faber Academy course, Writing a novel from start to finish, last year. Richard Skinner was the tutor. The course was expensive, but no more so than a university-led course of that level/length. It was well run, and RS was an excellent tutor. Our group was an interesting mixture of types and talent. We did have to 'audition' for a place on the course - 24 people were chosen from around 70 applicants.

I've been a secret writer since childhood, but always face self-imposed barriers (I'm not good enough, too busy etc) so haven't stuck at it enough to have completed a novel. Making a substantial commitment via the Faber Academy, in terms of money and time, gave me the incentive to put more words on to paper and, much more importantly, show them to people.

As an editor by trade, I'm so used to criticising and being criticised that I was overwhelmed by the warmth of feedback from the tutor and other group members. Whether I ever get published will be down to me - can I get out of the habit of putting myself down and making weak excuses - not to the quality of the course, which I am happy to tell you is the best money I've ever spent.

The poster who said 'where will getting a degree lead' is quite right - there are other ways to value learning.

Anonymous said...

ms well words highlights the difference between FA's Writing a Novel course and the one currently under discussion:FA's 'Getting Started' has no selection process so that, presumably, no one pays attention before the course starts to whether anyone signing up has creative talent which can be develolped.

Anonymous said...

or even developed...

Valerie O'Riordan said...

I'm really enjoying this series, Elizabeth - thanks for hosting it.

I think Vanessa's comment up at the top is reasonable - after an MA from a reputable course, you might expect to do better in the slushpile. The key word is 'reputable', though; it's not to do with paying the frees - it's that if it's actually a good course, you'll have been vetted before you got in, you'll have learned to develop your craft while you're on the course, and you'll have gone through a mentoring experience via a dissertation supervisor - and the agent/publisher will be aware of that, so they'll probably be more likely to pay attention to your submission. I wouldn't say it's a shortcut - you'll have spent a year working bloody hard on the course, and god knows how long afterwards working on your manuscript.

I've done the MA in Manchester and I value it mainly because of the peer group and the time and space it gave me to focus on my writing. They never told us we would get published - in fact, they were pretty anxious to stress that publication was a tricky, tricky business. So people going into it with blind optimism can't really blame the course, but their own, well, blindness... I think any degree course has its share of deluded participants - from chemists who expect to win a Nobel to art students who assume they'll win the Turner Prize. There's nothing special about CW - either the student writers, the non-student writers, or the courses and their teachers - that makes it immune from people with unrealistic hopes.

Anna May said...

I started a creative writing course three years ago and found myself sat in a room with 20 other aspiring writers. The good, hardworking writers inspired me, the bad ones made me realise I should have more confidence in my own work and the agonised geniuses who suffered from word constipation and loved to complain about it constantly gave me a kick up the backside. I knew I didn't ever want to be one of them.

I never did finish the course - timewise I had to choose between it and the paid writing work that started to come my way as a result of my new determination and focus.

The course I didn't end up doing got me an agent and a book deal with my favourite publisher Virago, so I'm all in favour of them - they can work in many different ways.....

Anna May x

Anonymous said...

Hi there. This is an awesome discussion -- Marcel Theroux's controversial take is refreshing! See Robert McCrum for the opposite.

Having stumbled my way into publishing via interning at literary agencies, I feel it can't be overstated how the most important thing is the first page. The cover letter will always take second (or third, after synopsis!) place in the slush-slayer's considerations, after the quality of the writing on the first few pages. If you have an engaging voice and solid, instantly vivid prose, you've done the best you can. Whether that comes from a Creative Writing MA, or the Faber Academy, or an Arvon course, or from 10 years at your kitchen table, I really don't think it matters. Whatever works for you, to get that first page as honest and engaging as possible, whatever the genre.

And I know it sounds trite, but a reader can tell whether a writer's heart is in it. You have to be writing for the right reasons, because you love it, because you feel good about it, because you are good at it. As Marcel says, it's that engagement with writing, whether that comes from an inspirational teacher, or an inspirational form, or whatever.

The only letters that mean anything after your name are the 500,000 odd good ones that make up your novel.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Mark Farrell asked me to post this (as he can't access the comments box):

nice to see someone breaking in with a Virago debut! congrats Anna May, and good luck.
a breakthrough can come in many different ways; the service i used to equip myself with the extra skills needed is ideal for people who are working and raising families and thus wouldn't be able to sit a course in some far-off town. they simply read your ms without any prior input then give advice on improving it and finding your place in the current market, i.e. they largely assume that publication is your ultimate goal. it's not cheap in itself but is i imagine much quicker, easier and cheaper than attending said course!

i was lucky in that the agent who spotted me was an editor for many years previously and knows her market inside out so can say exactly what to change about a novel to suit the current trends; but even a small amount of one-to-one tuition designed purely to improve whatever you've written should help to bring out whatever talent you have and make it more attractive to agents generally. the bottom line remains, though, that they have to see something they love enough to persuade a publisher to buy it and if they don't see that, they'll just send straight back.

Virginia Moffatt said...

As I said on the last post, courses are worthwhile, but you need to know why you are doing one.

For some people, a course is just an opportunity to hang out with writers, play with words etc like Marcel's haiku experience.

But for some of us, the point of a course is to give us the time to refine our skills and work out what kind of writer we are.

I am not so naive to think doing a course means immediate publication. It took 18 months after I finished mine before I got a story accepted, and I still have to be paid for a fiction piece. Besides my twin sister works in publishing and is herself a published writer of commercial fiction (Julia Williams in case you are interested!) so I know how difficult it is. (It took her 9 years).

But, nor do I want to write just for myself. I have stories I want to tell, and I want others to hear. So I won't be content till I get that book deal. Even if it takes another 10 years!

So I guess it depends what you are after. Writing for fun, or writing for a long term artistic purpose. Both are fine (& not mutually exclusive)but it's best if you know what kind of writer you want to be.

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Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks, Shelly, I'll check out your blog

JSJ said...

Having completed the Faber Academy online course (Getting Started), I wouldn't recommend it to anyone else. The course content and structure may offer useful advice and provide impetus to your writing, but it is overpriced. The same advice can be bought in a book. The main problem is that, considering the cost of the course, there is no individual feedback provided by course tutors (unless you pay an additional fee). If Faber considers this to be a way of drawing in more participants for their other courses, it has had the opposite effect on me. I will approach with caution any courses with the Faber Academy name attached.

EJJackson said...

I was interested to see SJS’s comment about Faber's Getting Started Writing Fiction Online, because I found the course extremely helpful. He/She has a point about the lack of individual Tutor feedback (it surprised me - although the course information page does actually mention this, to be fair) but the way the course is structured shows participants how to give and receive critique and in doing so, you learn what works and what doesn't. I can recommend it!