Six Months on a Writing Course.
The final sessions of the Curtis Brown Creative Six-Month Creative-Writing Course have just taken place, and in this honest and at times unflinching piece – which we’ve taken from the author’s @howverylovely blog – Colette Browne looks back at her half-year on the course.
Six Months of My Life on a Writing Course …
January 2014 – It’s dark, dank and a week after I’ve applied to go onto a writing course.
Six months since my half-century birthday – I’ve been writing for just under two years. It’s the new cocaine of the my generation. Writing. In our generation, there is a pattern, twenties it's generally "weed of any description, or anything you can sniff with a twenty." Thirties – house profit – ‘How much have you made this month?’ Forties – State v’s Private (schools for children) and as I crashed headlong into my fifties, I find it is University choice for your kids, (for the ones who are not completely screwed up by our rubbish education choices). Care homes for our parents, which divorce lawyer? Which oncologist. However, if you really want to get Costa buzzing: Which writing course? Which agent? Which writing competition? Best of three. Pick one.
I get the email from someone who sounds like a singer – Rufus – I am in! Hooray. But wait. The fee isn’t cheap. There is the train into London (£25) the parking (£4) – twice a week – cover for the kids endless taxi requirements. I decide I don’t want to continue with the book I’ve been trying to write. – I want to write about shooting people who are grooming our kids – in the head. Who doesn’t?
I get a phone call from the boss, a lady Anna – we discuss what I hope to get out of the course? We agree – I will stick to my existing novel in progress – she believes it’s worth it. Someone believes what I’m trying to do is worth continuing. I had given her an out – a way of saying to me – ‘Write anything else, darling. Please’. For the first time someone who knows about the industry has said – continue. That is what everyone who writes wants – a ‘stop’ or a ‘continue’.
The first night we meet – classmates – a varied mix of lovelies – all hiding their fierce ambition with polite smiles and self-deprecating comments. We do a round robin of our ideas in progress. An amazing buffet. Most people say they are at 3 – 6,000 words. I’ve already been on the roller coaster of having my MS called in three times and rejected three times. I’m envious of those starting out. (I now know my MS wasn’t ready to see daylight).
Our tutor is someone who was big in the music industry. I walk to the train with one of my fellow students, they have been working on a novel for five years, this is one many courses they’ve done. Many of their previous fellow students have been published, with success. I wonder if that’s my destiny – to be on a course with someone famous. I am wondering which is better – being a never was or a should have been? What is the element that propels one person forward and not another? We all begin the course on a level playing field. It’s clear from that evening some people more than others are in a competition. Maybe I should have stayed at home. I was never good at sport. Will this course be the extra sparkle to help me be published?
I get home and go on You Tube I still don’t recognise the music of our tutor, nor have I read her books. I decide I won’t – for fear of fettering my opinion of her.
We all have to submit our writing for the critique of each other. I set up a template with an opening, ‘I may not be your target audience – if I offend you in any way please let me know – it is not my intention.’
The first of our submissions arrive for us to critique – they are good. Very good. I write my views, trying to help. I vocalise my opinion in class. It is clear some people are offended. I wonder what they wanted me to say. It is perfect. All brilliant? When it is my turn I get a completely Marmite reaction. The people whose work I loved – generally love mine and those I didn’t like so much – hate mine.
There are comments on the same page of my writing – ‘ I love this – it’s a lovely piece of writing -I recognise myself and it made me laugh’ to ‘I would cut this – it’s irrelevant – the characters are dull and it doesn’t move the story forward.’
I am offended by some of the comments but thrilled by others. It’s a big lesson and an excellent example of cognitive dissonance – we are all influenced by our opinion of the person who wrote it. Two weeks later I reread the comments – I see some differently. I cut some out and make a rude poem which I hang in the downstairs loo. It makes me smile.
The course carries on – I start to get bored by the group discussion. I’m wanting someone to mention The Bell Jar or discuss it v’s Kill Your Friends as a wet weekend’s reading choice. The admin pull what is a stroke of genius, in the form of four sessions with MJ Hyland. OMFG. I quickly scour the local charity shops for her book, Carry Me Down and read the first chapter. Wow, she can write. But it’s a horror opening chapter about teaching a child to drown puppies. I should have worked out what was coming. She is lively, clever, shit scary – in a way few men are, intimidating and attentive. Comparing her to our tutor was like comparing Guns and Roses – Sweet Child of Mine to Redding Otis – Sitting on the Dock of the Bay. I was glad when our tutor returned but will be forever grateful for the imprint left by MJ.
As the course continued, you could see groups of common interest being formed. I would speak to a few of the people regularly. It must have been very interesting watching the dynamics flow and ebb within the group. Two of the students announced they are both happy and pregnant. Prejudices became difficult to hide.
Someone complained about my feedback – I looked at it – it seemed fair to me. I had a one to one tutorial with the tutor; it was a good moment, when certain things were explained from her point of view – stern encouragement. My second submission was rubbish – maybe I was trying to deflect the critiques – if I knew it was rubbish then what did it matter if everyone agreed. They did. The volume of the cognitive dissonance turned up to high by the time we got to the middle of the course.
Tom Rob Smith who wrote The Farm was brought in to chat, as was Nathan Filer who wrote The Shock of the Fall (It took him eleven years to write.) I read both books. Both reflected their personality’s – that was worrying. But then again, I am writing a book about an obsessive stalker who hears voices but appears sane – it is what it is.
Another tutorial – this time I was prepared and submitted something I already knew the answers to…and I did. Proof my critical thinking muscle was now toned. I got home, licked my wounds and checked Twitter for what Jonny Geller was up today – like Ovaltine for want to be writers. One tweet resonated, ‘It’s a good thing to make people want to cry.’
Just when we were all getting a bit jaded it switched gears again by bringing in Tobias Jones, writer of The Salati Case. If he were a song? Maybe Macklemore & Lewis – Can’t Hold Us. My notebook was spinning with ideas after he left. He’s probably got about three sources for any question you ask, plus another two of his own opinion. I loved him.
I was beginning to ask myself, ‘Do I fit into this world of really clever people ? Could I ever write anything that they would read?’ I already know the answer – no – but they all have each other. I want to write stories both my cleaner and my son’s history teacher would be happy to buy. To be fair – most of the people on the course had the same ambition. Commercial middle ground books that are well written.
The final fanfare was the tutorial with Anna, a Director. It went well, no big criticism, all OK, few things here and there. Continue. Ahhh. Sweet Child of Mine.
We had our last session, most of the minor upsets by harsh critiques were placed to one side, and everyone spoke of their contentment with the course. My family had a mini celebration that I wasn’t going to be trekking into London twice a week. I finished my second draft of my MS. A much improved and more honed version than I started with six months ago. Not perfect – but definitely getting there. I can see where the flaws are. I can fix them. The course has given me critical vision.
The grand finale was a drinks do where agents and writers pitched and mingled. A few of the hard core (Yes, I was there) finished up on doubles in the pub. As we hugged at the train station, one wiped a tear, ‘I’m going to miss you guys.’ Jonny Geller would have been proud.
Original version © MC Browne 2014 – 2020
Abridged version published © 2014 – 2020