I’m in week 5 of a free 8-week OU course on Starting to Write Fiction. I thought it would help me move seamlessly into the world of short story writing through learning more about the process, structure, and methods of fiction writing. And some of it has been useful, like the sections on character building. I think we move on to plotting soon, and that will be handy. But, like many other creative writing courses these days, it is obsessed by the need to keep a fucking notebook, where you note down ideas, observations, characters, favourite quotes from other authors and other random thoughts flying through the presumed vacuum of your tiny writer’s skull.
Some days days I want to shout at the screen: THAT’S NOT HOW I WRITE! AND I’M TOO FUCKING OLD TO CHANGE! But what good would that do? The next unit tells me how useful the notebook is for overcoming writers’ block. I DON’T HAVE WRITERS’ FUCKING BLOCK! It’s so presumptive that it’s beyond irritation. There are so many other ways of writing, and what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for someone else. End of rant.
I do have a notebook. I use it to note down lines I might use in poems. But these days I’m not writing poems, or not as many as I used to. But I might note down ideas for short stories, in among the shopping lists, to-do lists, user names and passwords (PLEASE DON’T STEAL MY NOTEBOOK. MY FUTURE WELL-BEING DEPENDS ON ITS CONTENTS)
But I don’t use it for the stuff mentioned above. Harm can come to people who depend on notebooks for their writing practice – I’ve seen it happen. So how do I do it differently?
I learn through the writing itself, and the subsequent re-reading, editing and revision that results. A first draft, as I know from writing poems, is never a flawless and completely realised masterpiece. It needs to be considered, reflected on, modified or rejected. I know that. I learn through reading the works of others, but not through quoting them or attempting to rewrite them. I have my own voice, and happily it’s as strong a voice in fiction as it is in poetry.
So far, my short stories have been restricted to a single milieu, the world of amateur drama, because I had a lot of experience in that world, and I have lots of memories that can be exploited to colour the stories. But these are fictions; I’ve made them up. Andy Pandy and Luby Loo didn’t really have an affair in the toy cupboard when the lights went out. But I can write about that affair, and the effect it had on poor Teddy when the cupboard door was opened in the morning. But it’s not what happened in real life.
When I write a poem I just sit down and start to write to write a first line. When I write a short story I sit down and write the first sentence. If the first bit of text interests me, suggests possibilities, I’ll take it further, and just go on and on until the draft is finished. If I have ideas for future plot development I’ll make notes at the end of the text, and then incorporate these ideas as I come to that bit of the story – thinking ahead. When the poem/story’s finished I read it aloud, to see if it works. If there are problem bits, I make slight corrections, then I put it away for a few days, print it out and go through it with a pencil, writing in amendments as I go. If it needs more drastic editing I write this in too. The thing about putting it aside is that I come back to it with fresh eyes and a different mindset.
Also in the course there have been a couple of opportunities to give and receive criticism. That’s welcome, and I’ve had a lot of experience of this through membership of the School of Poets critical group, and through giving feedback in the many workshops I’ve led. But these have mostly been with peers and near-peer poets. It’s clear that many of the OU course members are new to this kind of malarkey (I know I overuse that word these days, but it’s handy). But of course no writer has to accept criticism he or she doesn’t find helpful, and that’s true here too.
So, am I learning anything new? A few things, but not many. Is it helping my writing? Naw, no really. But I’m happy to take part. There are some really interesting people doing the course – I’ve read their postings – and the OU was always a big part of my life. I was one of the first graduates, back in the 1970’s and it changed my life for the better. As their current advert says, ‘The most important thing you’ll learn from the OU is what you’re capable of.’ And in my case, that is absolutely true.