Learning to Write at Hay
Fifty people turned up in the Drill Hall for the Hay-on-Wye Writing Workshop, quite surprising when you consider that the fee was £25.00 per head for a two-hour session. Maybe billing it as a practical masterclass in the Festival Programme did the trick?
The high entrance fee also begged the question of who would turn up. The rich, perhaps? Though they didn’t look rich. Maybe they were the festival insomniacs, the starting time being 8.30 in the morning? Yes, you heard it right . . . before breakfast.
The three tutors introduced themselves as writers. We were assured that between them they had read hundreds – perhaps thousands – of manuscripts by first-time writers. A straw poll suggested that a handful of the hopeful students had been published before, most had begun a narrative but not yet managed to get to the end of it.
The day began with a short discussion among the tutors; more or less an introduction to each of them. One of the questions from the floor was about how many pages one should write for a novel?
Our subject for this session was character. As an introduction we learned that character is plot and that there is no real line between fiction and lived experience. Then we were introduced to the concept of trigger exercises.
We each jotted down six objects associated with our childhood; four smells; four tastes; and a sentence which evoked a memory. Then we eliminated three of the objects, two of the smells, and two of the tastes. And with what remained we were encouraged to take a few minutes to write some paragraphs of prose.
We then did another, similar exercise, divided ourselves into three groups and individuals were randomly chosen to read what they had written. Because we were divided into groups this meant three people reading at the same time, and in the echoing space of the drill hall, it was no easy task to concentrate on the contributions of your own group alone.
When a student read his or her contribution, the others were asked if they wanted to say something about it. The tutor leading each group then gave a brief summation of the piece. There was time for perhaps a third of the students to read part of what they had written.
In my group the tutor seemed to have forgotten that we were studying character and his remarks were invariably about making an impact with the first sentence, first paragraph, first page, of a manuscript.
I don’t think anyone learned anything; not really, apart from not being too keen to dispose of their hard-earned cash. Perhaps there is some comfort to be taken from finding yourself in the company of people who profess to know the way and insist that they can take you there.
The teaching of creative writing has now become something of an industry; and it can, no doubt, be quite a lucrative one. But the standard of teaching and the dubious value of much of what is taught does little to raise the general craft for those seeking to hone their talent. The even more recent practice of calling these sessions masterclasses seems to do little to improve their usefulness.
The session at Hay-on-Wye was no different to the usual fodder offered at various locations throughout the country; based on the erroneous principle that someone who can write can also teach; it was under-researched, offered no real insights into the creative process, over-hyped and vastly over-priced.