Studious Reflections

I’ve been silent for the last two months because there’s been a lot going on in my head. I’ve been challenged, frustrated, inspired and encouraged. I’ve written, workshopped studied and striven and now that university semester one is over I can look back and assess where this studying journey has brought me so far.

When I re-ignited this blog back in February I touched on the debate about the merits of studying writing and the two competing schools of thought. One school says that either you’ve got writing talent or you haven’t and that no amount of studying will ever generate genius. The second lauds the benefits of exploring new writing styles in a supportive environment and the saluatory nature of structured feedback and the opportunity to learn about the nuts and bolts of the publishing industry.

At this point, I’m inclined to stick with my original stance in support of position number two, but not without some reservations.

At the outset, I wrote that I was looking for ideas and inspiration and for challenging stretch tasks that would push me out of my authorial comfort zone. I’m scoring a big tick for all of these aims. And I really do think that this degree is turning me into a better writer.

Feedback from workshopping sessions where fellow students tear your writing apart – constructively and in a colleagiate spirit – has enabled me to look at my writing in much sharper focus. I’m now more critical of my own work even as I’m writing it. When I reach for an adverb I now pull myself up sharply and seek a better way of expressing my vision. I’m less prone to resorting to clich├ęs and I know that if I chortle with smug glee at a sentence that I’ve written then it’s really, really bad and should be cut immediately. The workshopping process has definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone – in a good way.

Less helpful has been my experience of the academic world’s fixation with ‘literary fiction’. I’ve previously stated that I never aspired to be a literary author. I’m an out and proud populist who will be fully satisfied by producing a rippingly good commercial bestseller that makes people happy. I’m simply not interested in exploring deep agendas, stretching the boundaries of literary form or writing a book which, in Kafka’s terms, should wound or stab one’s readers.

I beg to disagree …

I was concerned before I signed up that this degree would be pushing the literary fiction barrow and I specifically asked the senior lecturers who ran a preliminary information session whether the course also catered for writers interested in the commercial arena. I was assured that all narrative tastes and genres were welcome and supported and so I blithely enrolled. Patently, the advice I received was untrue. What I discovered was that underlying almost all aspects of the course was a strong but unspoken bias towards literary fiction.

Yep

This really messed with my head. It was clear that if I wanted to be graded well I had to extol and emulate literary styles. As I supressed my own informal and vernacular writing voice I felt stifled and stilted. Worst of all I was beseiged by self-doubt about my writing capabilities and aspirations. I worried and fretted and squirmed and seethed. I found I couldn’t even summon the creative confidence to pen this blog.

And then I decided to get over it.

I don’t need High Distinctions in this course to reassure me that I can write. I don’t have to believe that winning the Miles Franklin is the pinnacle of authorial achievement. I don’t have to write in the hope of impressing the small literati elite who believe they are the sole artibers of merit in literature.

Happily, just as I made this decision the course offered scope for me to flex my own creative muscles and I enjoyed producing new material for my final assignments. I haven’t written literary pieces so I don’t know how they’ll score, but I don’t care. What I do know is that I really enjoyed writing them and I think they have promise.

In the final class of Narrative Writing we looked at a fantastic list of Ten Rules for Writing Fiction pulled together by The Guardian, with inputs from some of best contemporary writers around the world. The competing sets of rules are so contradictory that you’d go mad trying to follow them all but there are some wonderful nuggets of wisdom and inspirational gems. The one I liked best came from English author Nail Gaiman.

Now, there’s a man with some sense

Thanks Neil! That’s some advice I’ll be happy to follow.

Having re-embraced my own voice, I’m plotting new writing ventures which I’ll be able to build out in my subjects next semester – Novel Writing, Memoir and Life Writing and Narrative Non-Fiction. I may still have moments of discomfort but that’s OK. I think the outcome will be worth the struggle.