‘I always have to know my characters in a lot of depth–what clothes they’d choose, what they were like at school, etc . . . And I know what happened before and what will happen after the part of their lives I’m dealing with.’ Alice Munro
Today’s guest post is by author Marianne Wheelaghan, co-founder of the online creative writing school, Writing Classes. She is an informative and supportive voice in the online writing community and I have enjoyed getting to know her over the past few months. I highly recommend her writing blog and her twitter feeds are full of good writing tips.
For the first half of my working life I was a croupier, a Brussels sprouts picker and a marketing manager for a company that sold warm air hand driers and soap dispensers, but most of the time I was an English teacher. Then someone I knew died in a terrible accident. I wanted to write a story about what had happened but I didn’t know how to. Being a big believer in education, I enrolled in a creative writing night class. But when I finished the course I still didn’t know how best to write my story. I asked my tutor for advice. She muttered something about “creativity not being something you can teach.”
I tried another class. Again I struggled to write my story. I asked my new tutor why writing was so difficult? She smiled kindly and said “not everyone has a creative writing gene, my dear.” I was astounded. Could there really be a creative writing gene, and I didn’t have it? I wanted to give up but the stubborn side of me refused. I carried on writing alone. At some point I saw an advert to do a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. I applied and my portfolio was accepted. I wrote and studied and learned and was encouraged to take risks. My writing flourished and I learned five very valuable things about writing:
1. There is no creative writing gene. Being successful in creative writing is more to do with an attitude than an attribute: we have to work hard, yep, it’s that thing about 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration; we must not be afraid to take risks and we must have something to say – even if, like Flannery O’Connor, we don’t necessarily know what that is at first.
“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Flannery O’Connor
2. While “being creative” is something that cannot be taught, it is something that can be encouraged and nurtured and coaxed – and as the wonderful Maya Angelou said,
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
3. A story does not arrive fully formed, like he Goddess of Athena popping out of her father Zeus’s head. A story is created by working out the different ways of telling it by rewriting and cutting and rewriting again – it is often only through the rewriting that we discover what it is we want to say and how we want say it.
4. There are writing techniques you can learn which can help you develop your writing skills.
5. All writers – beginners and experienced writers alike – are nervous about facing the blank page, but for some of us there is nothing more rewarding than creating our very own story from nothing.
When I finished my degree I was determined to share what I knew with others – setting out on the rocky road to becoming a writer requires a big leap of faith, but there are techniques and skills we can learn to help it make it less scary. I wrote a course for beginners – the kind of course I would have liked to have been able to take. It included lots of advice on writing techniques and lots of writing opportunities for beginners to take risks and make mistakes and learn by them.
Next I sought out some tech support because my new course was going to be all online. I’d studied for my masters degree online. It had meant I could join in from the comfort of my home, at a time that was convenient to me, which was usually late at night after I’d finished work and my children were in bed. There was no time wasted getting to and from classes. No worrying about talking in front of others. No having to get baby sitters. No being late or early or missing classes because the virtual classroom is always open. It was a magical world within a world. I wanted to recreate this world for the beginner writer.
After much research my techy helper found a reliable, affordable, easy-to-use conference programme. I was ready. Armed with a five year business plan and a lot of brass neck, I approached various bodies for funding. And I got some! Writingclasses.co.uk was born. I now have six wonderful, encouraging tutors and offer six courses – including one for experienced writers wanting to finish that novel, and a poetry and magazine article writing course. We have thousands of students pass through our virtual doors and they are all too distracted developing their writing skills, and working around the different ways of telling their story, to worry about whether they have a creative writing gene or not.
‘It may not look like pleasure, because the difficulties can make me morose and distracted, but that’s what it is – the pleasure of telling the story I mean to tell as wholly as I can tell it, of finding out in fact what the story is, by working around the different ways of telling it.’ Alice Munro.
Marianne left Edinburgh, her home town, when she was 17 and returned after 30 years when she founded the online writing school, www.writingclasses.co.uk. Her first novel, The Blue Suitcase, is based on her mother’s life and tells the disturbing story of a Christian girl growing up in Nazi Germany. Food of Ghosts is her debut crime thriller and features Scottish detective Louisa Townsend – feisty, fearless, vulnerable and on Tarawa, a remote coral atoll, where she has a week to find a serial killer. She is presently working on a sequel to The Blue Suitcase and a second DS Louisa Townsend novel.
Her books are also available on Amazon.