When Creative Writing Courses Go Bad: a bullshit-spotting guide

As part of our Fear & Failure series, here’s why you shouldn’t let the bullshit of ‘literariness’ get you down… 

At Writers’ HQ retreats, we talk to lots of people taking part in a variety of creative writing courses. Most of those courses are amazing, and give new writers tools and inspiration and a passion to work. But occasionally we hear about courses, or parts of courses, where the culture leaves writers feeling doomed.

A bad experience can squash a new writer’s tender ambitions. We’re here to call bullshit on that. Here are some of the myths common to bad writing cultures – whether they’re courses, groups or workshops – and some of the reasons you shouldn’t let them get you down.

People who make a big deal about loving difficult books are smarter than you

Leo from your tutorial group has a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow casually sticking out of his satchel at all times, and Kim actually enjoys Tristram Shandy more because she doesn’t understand it, you know? You were kind of OK when you said your favourite book was The Corrections, but then you mentioned that you also like Sophie Kinsella and now they talk to you like you’re a moron.

Literature snobs are utterly tiresome and in an ideal world all open-minded and honest writers would band together and ignore them. Sadly in some places, especially when encouraged by poseur authority figures, snobs can reach critical mass and form a monoculture in which it’s only OK to express admiration for obscure, challenging, or experimental writing. They’ll stamp on anyone who admits a liking for any writing other than the Terribly Highbrow variety.

This isn’t your problem, it’s theirs. They are all bullshitting, because virtually no-one only loves obscure, challenging and experimental fiction. Stay genuine. Try dropping in a few helpful facts, like: ‘Hey, did you know that A.S. Byatt loves Discworld books?’

The old-school literary canon objectively represents the Best Books Ever

The idea that the traditional literary canon is biased and doesn’t represent All Of The Best Writing Ever is pretty well established. Let’s call it the Dead White Guys Objection.

On top of that, ideas change as time goes on. The canon may represent many of the literary world’s current ideas about what makes a great book, but it’s subjective and time-specific.

Virgil was a literary colossus to writers of the sixteenth century, but good luck finding anyone outside a Classics programme who’s familiar with his work nowadays. These things are mutable.

That’s not to say the traditional canon shouldn’t be studied, just that excessive veneration is a bad sign. It often goes hand in hand with the myth that:

Writing ability is mystical and inbuilt

If the only worthwhile writing is highly stylised, experimental, written long ago, or all three, it combines to make ‘great’ writing look impossible. ‘Great’ writing comes to equate with ‘genius’: something innate, magical, destined to succeed. It seems like those old dead white guys, or those cutting-edge metafiction modernists, were just super-talented. How can you – you, ordinary writer person who likes watching Tattoo Fixers and eating Pringles – how can you hope to produce anything worthwhile?

The truth is, they all had to struggle too. They all learned from others. They all buggered things up. Look at Vanity Fair. Thackeray wrote it in instalments for a magazine, over a year and a half. It’s massive. It rambles. He loses track of names and plot points. It’s pretty clear in places that he’s not sure what the characters do next. And yet it’s a classic, because it’s an important, game-changing book.

If Thackeray had been immobilised by the need to perform genius, he’d never have written Vanity Fair. Don’t be immobilised. Create and struggle, the same way all other writers have created and struggled. Writing is work, not magic.

Genre fiction is trash

Yeah so I only read quality literature, you know? Westerns and zombie novels are just pulp nonsense. OK sure, apart from Cormac McCarthy. Sci-fi is just stupid. I grew out of it when I was a teenager [snort]. No yeah right, Margaret Atwood is good though. I’m confused now. I heard some smart lit-fic authors I like also write genre? And The Man Booker Prize longlisted Reservoir 13 and apparently that’s a crime book so is it all right for me to read crime now?  Oh my God my head’s exploding.  I DON’T HEAR YOU TELLING ME THAT COLSON WHITEHEAD WROTE A ZOMBIE NOVEL BECAUSE I’M STICKING MY FINGERS IN MY EARS AND SHOUTING LAAAAAAAA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA.

There is good writing and bad writing. End of.

If you’re on a course with a culture like this and you are writing romantic fiction, or a psychological thriller, or a fantasy novel, you are going to get seven bells kicked out of you at critique meets. It’s unjust, it’s not an accurate reflection of your work’s quality and it means nothing about your intelligence or writing ability. It’s groupthink. Don’t take it to heart. Get yourself some good betas or another writing group instead.

You need to make your voice sound literary

Leo’s wafting on about a leaf for his entire first chapter because he wants to be Proust, but here’s the thing: Leo is not Proust, and so it’s shit. Petra is writing an interior monologue like Samuel Beckett would, but sadly Petra is not Samuel Beckett and so it’s shit.

Your voice is your voice. You can nurture it or kill it.

If you would like to kill it, then strip it of everything that is original, aerate it with someone else’s ideals, force it through some unnatural stylistic hoops and nail it to the page. If you would like to nurture it, then own it. All of those other people did just that.

Proust’s voice is Proust’s. Beckett wasn’t trying to write like Shakespeare, even though Shakespeare is really good at plays. There is room for both Beckett and Shakespeare to be good. There is room for any fresh, individual voice to be good. There’s nothing wrong with trying different styles out; it’s great to experiment. It’s the difference between trying out the Thriller dance, and deciding that you will only ever dance like Michael Jackson. The latter will make you look like a tool, and will only go to show how shit you are at being Michael Jackson compared to Michael Jackson.

The good news

If you’ve had a brush with some bullshit and are feeling a bit squashed, know that the very things that make you squashable – that mean that you are the writer leaving the group, or the course, or the workshop, feeling like you’re just not good enough – are the traits that make you open to learning in the first place.

You have been listening and taking critique to heart. You believe that your writing is a skill which grows through hard work and exposure and challenge. You’re aware that your writing is not yet as good as you would like it to be, and you fear (as most writers do) that you may not be up to scratch.

All of those traits – honesty, willingness to learn and willingness to be vulnerable – are things that will help you to be the writer you want to be. In fact, owing to the Dunning-Krueger Effect, self-doubt is actually a positive indicator of writing competence. If you can hold steady and carry on writing honestly in the face of it, you’ll see huge benefits.

We all fear, and we all fear failure. Fear is a good sign. Bullshit writing cultures are built around the denial of fear, through pretension, snobbery and one-upmanship, and they breed inertia. It’s only possible to learn when you’re genuine. It’s only possible to develop your voice when it is yours. It’s only possible to write as you. Now go to it.

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