A couple of years ago, I decided to explore the academic approach to writing. It is one of those things that has niggled at me since my schooldays. At sixteen, I opted, initially, for ‘A’ level English Literature and (a terrible admission for a writer) I hated it. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the set books – Shakespeare, Chaucer, D.H. Lawrence. Dog-eared and much read volumes from all three authors have travelled with me through several decades and house moves. What I hated was not being asked to read wonderful literature, but being told I had to analyse it, to tear it apart, to find out what made it ‘tick’. The process detracted from my enjoyment, so much so that after a month I gave up studying literature, and simply carried on reading it.
Years later, I’ve become a mostly self-taught critic. Having to constantly criticise my own writing, I find myself doing the same with the books I read on an almost unconscious level. Perhaps the ability to focus on the technical aspects of things while still retaining a sense of wonder at the magic of it all is a product of age – like not being too upset at the idea there is no Father Christmas. Anyhow, I wanted to find out whether a degree level course had anything to teach me, both as a reader and a writer, so I toddled off to the Open University and signed up for their two year diploma in literature and creative writing.
I was very dubious – I still had that nasty taste in my mouth from the ‘A’ level English days, but tried to keep an open mind and plunged in. The first, ‘introductory’ course, at first sight had nothing to teach me that I didn’t know already about the mechanics of writing – show not tell, use of adverbs etc. were fairly standard for any writing course. But as the year progressed, I realised I was being forced more and more out of my comfort zone. I had to deal with my aversion to writing poetry, analyse how top writers dealt with character and pace and explore genres I wouldn’t normally read. I ended the year with a great deal more in my writing armoury than when I started.
The second year, though, was the real eye-opener. If the first course was useful, the second was invaluable. Among other things I learned how to set out stage and screenplays, write scripts and use screen directions, and have since found how useful those techniques are, even when applied to novel writing.
It’s been an intriguing and immensely satisfying process, and I’ve come away with many new insights into the way I, and others, write. I’ve also lost some of my aversion to literary criticism, although I doubt I’ll ever get rid of my misgivings altogether. I don’t think any course can teach someone how to write, but a good course can help get the best out of a writer. I’m glad I did it, and will be drawing on the things I learned for the rest of my writing career.
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