To celebrate the publication of North of Nowhere, Liz Kessler has stopped off on her blog tour to tell us precisely what she thinks budding writers can and should do. She was part of the panel event at MMU in June, and I thought it’d be good to hear more of what Liz has to say on the subject. Because she has been there.
“I’ve often heard people say that you can’t teach someone to write. Write creatively, that is. I think we’d all agree that you can teach people, literally, how to write. It’s done every day in schools across the land.
But when it comes to degrees and MAs and residential weekends and night schools and all the other many ways that people attend courses on creative writing, some people argue that this you can’t teach. We’re writers or we’re not, and if we’re not then we can’t be taught how to be something that’s about our own innate creativity. (Or lack thereof.)
I think that there is perhaps a teeny tiny bit of truth in this. I don’t believe, for example, that any amount of attending art courses would ever turn me into Picasso. I regularly play ‘Draw Something’ on my iPhone and have never got beyond stick men. I have attempted to draw mermaids for fans of my Emily Windsnap books and the pictures – at best – resemble a character out of Casper the Ghost.
However, I could probably (possibly) be taught a few tricks and techniques that could enable me to develop my drawings a bit, and perhaps learn enough to be able to enjoy sitting by the sea painting the scene in front of me for an afternoon.
And if I did have some talent but had never been given the opportunity to develop this, I could be taught an awful lot more, and could possibly go quite a long way with my art. Maybe even get it to a point where I could make some money from it.
All of this is the same with writing. I have taught many writing courses where I have seen people who don’t realise they are talented develop and grow as writers. Finding their voice and their style and gaining confidence as they listen to feedback from their peers and teachers. This is an absolute joy for me, and something I love to do. And I’ve been on both sides of this situation.
It was a writing course that helped start my own writing career. I had left a teaching job to take on a more temporary and part time contract so I could focus on writing. At the same time, I enrolled on an MA in Novel Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. (Just down the road from the Witch’s own abode.) This course was instrumental in helping me learn how to become a writer. I think that I already had some skills and I certainly had a passion – but the course helped me hone all of this.
The workshops, in particular, really focused my mind and helped me to develop my craft. Knowing that you have to produce 5,000 words for an audience who (in your mind) are ready to hungrily tear it to pieces really helps you to produce the best work you can. Having to do this every other week gave me a discipline and respect for deadlines. And listening to what people (fellow students and teachers) said about my work helped me to learn how to deal with criticism. All of it helped to take me from being someone who liked writing but didn’t know exactly where I wanted to go with it or what I wanted to do with it, to someone who considered myself to be a writer first and foremost and to commit myself to writing books, honing my skills and getting published.
So I would like to thank the MMU for this opportunity, and also thank all the people who put their time, effort, hard work and considerable amount of talent and expertise into running courses like this. You guys change lives.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe that these things are for everyone. And I don’t believe that everyone ‘has a book in them,’ a phrase that some people bandy about without really thinking about it. Why are you choosing my profession as the one that anyone can do? Have you ever thought how crazy (and mildly insulting) that sounds? Why not say that everyone has a brain surgeon in them, or everyone has an Olympic marathon race in them? Because it’s nonsense, that’s why. Same applies to writing books! Not everyone can do it – but a lot of people who believe they can’t but would love to try, might just manage it, given the right support and a lot of hard work.
So for those who have an interest in writing, a passion, and, yes, an inkling of a seedling of a possibility of some sort of talent – go for it. Try it out. It might be an MA like the one I did, or a week’s residential course with someone like the Arvon Foundation (or even with me if I ever get round to setting up the St Ives-based writing holidays that I plan to one day!) Or it might even just be getting a group of friends who love writing to meet up regularly to support each other. Being part of a group like this where you are focused on the writing and getting some sort of encouragement to go forward with it is one of the best things you can do.
Oh, and if you happen to have a writing fan in your life who is aged between eight and thirteen, then check out the writing competition that Orion and the Guardian Children’s Books are running to coincide with my new book, North of Nowhere. You never know, it could be the start of their writing career.”
If I said that this has given me hope, you will – erroneously – believe I’m thinking of me. I’m not. I’m thinking ahead to the books I’ll get to read one day, because someone enrolled at MMU, or similar.