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Reflections of a working writer and reader



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.

8 Responses to “Learning to Write at Hay”

  1. pluto says:

    Mmmm. Disappointing for you lot, but really interesting to read about here.

    jb says: Them’s the breaks, Pluto.

  2. Lee says:

    Something I learned long ago about violin masters: there are those who can play, those who can teach, and the very rarest of all, those who can both play and teach.

    jb says: It’s a good lesson to learn, Lee. They should teach it in school.

  3. Can I just say – thank you for doing this (and writing up about it) so the rest of us don’t have to. I echo Pluto in saying that it’s interesting to read about, though obviously a bummer for you that it wasn’t up to scratch. Why am I not surprised by this, though? It continues to astonish me how little thought is given to creative process.

    jb says: I also was not surprised by this. Disappointed, yes, especially for those who paid the cash. But it is what one has come to expect.

  4. anne says:

    Definitely interesting reading for us. But why on earth would you take a class on writing, John?? Have you read your own work? You should be teaching, whether in person or online.

    jb says: Hi Anne. I was there to blog, to wander around and see what people were up to and tell you about it. I do teach from time to time and I also pass on little bits and pieces here when the spirit moves me.

  5. May says:

    In the academic world I’ve often heard something similar to what you say, that is that talented researchers are rarely good at teaching and viceversa. Of course researching is considered superior to teaching…

    I suppose I cannot be the third out of four readers to comment on the interesting description of the writing seminar you attended. But it was interesting to know how these courses are set up.

    jb says: Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher. Flannery O’Connor

  6. May says:

    I am glad that I belong to a different field. To feel within oneself to be an artist and not to be able to be recognized as such must be quite frustrating.

    jb says: But this isn’t confined to the artistic field, May. It’s about identity, what we feel ourselves to be and what others regard us as. To what extent are we recognised for what we really are and to what extent are we vilified for an assumption by others that has nothing to do with us.

  7. Andrew says:

    So how many pages should one write for a novel?

    jb says: I’d suggest one to start with . . .

  8. Jessica says:

    This post made me chuckle…thanks for being frank. I see a lot of smoke and mirrors too, in regards to writing in general, and writers trying to sell that they can teach how to write. Of course there are the basics, but there’s something un-teachable too. a few things actually. like heart, and determination and an eye, to name a few. maybe writers can give suggestions about that though, to be fair. The funny thing is, when i’ve been around writers trying to teach, they almost always SAY something to admit this. most of the audience probably doesn’t realize how serious they are, but they usually say something that gives away that they know it. anyway, thank you for your blog, since you give good, concrete answers, and exercises (which I copy and then do) …for free 🙂

    jb says: You are so right, Jessica. No one can teach someone else how to write. 99% of successful writing is contained in the balance of genius and determination, and there is no way of teaching that. Of the remaining 1%, talent takes up a tiny fraction; and the rest, something less than 1%, is craft and technique, and an experienced writer may be able to pass these skills on to a novice or aspiring writer.