Updated: Mar 22, 2021
About once a year, someone stirs up the controversy over whether creative writing can ever really be taught. Enough has been written about this so all I’ll say is that while you can’t instil talent, you can definitely hone it and that, to paraphrase Monica from Friends, sometimes you need rules to control the magic.
Instead, in this blog, I’d like to explore something else. With more writing schools than ever before, half the novelists I know have turned their hand to teaching in some capacity. But what does it mean when a professional writer becomes a tutor? Does it change your work for the better or worse?
Teaching crept up on me. In the lull between books three and four, I was asked by a handful schools, universities and literary festivals to lead writing workshops. They were sporadic, one-off talks at first. I used my own experience of writing and being edited, and I got a taste for it.
I’ll admit that during this time I was going stir crazy. I work from home and have two little kids who can pin me to my postcode for weeks at a time. I was starting to feel stale, and one-off writing workshops were a great way to publicise my books and connect with new people at the same time. And while I make a good living from my books, it’s not like my greatest household concern is how to stop the peacocks crapping in the moat, so a little extra cash is always welcome.
Then, this time last year, I agreed to tutor the three-month course Curtis Brown Creative, and the bar was raised. I bought armfuls of how-to-write manuals. Most of them are full of padding, but a handful contained observations that chimed with my own experience, and gradually I began to articulate things I had known all along. I re-read my various editors’ notes on my own novels, even paid close attention to my reviews, and before long I had enough material to teach a long, intensive course.
I have always been an instinctive writer; plotting, writing and editing all blur into one process for me, and it felt forced to distil this into a list of instructions. Luckily, something happened at around the same time that made me get over that. I dipped a toe into the world of television drama, first in having The Poison Tree adapted for ITV, and later in turning Broadchurch into first a novel, then a series of short stories. This made me think about story and structure more formally: TV and film are collaborative, and you have to talk to each other about the work in progress. I got used to their vernacular, and soon it felt professional, rather than pseudy, to talk in terms of arcs, beats and acts.
But with an understanding of ‘the rules’ came the first drawback; inhibition. When I wrote my first three novels I had never read a single page of theory. I’d just… done it. I am now writing my fifth original novel with a level of self-consciousness that is as inhibiting as it will ultimately be useful. From Orwell’s rules of style to my own diktats, the formless truths that apply to all fiction are in black and white now, and they superimpose themselves across the screen as I type. In the end, this will make for a tighter work; but certainly in the early stages, I question my writing in a way that’s new, and not altogether comfortable. I can never hope to recreate the experience of writing The Poison Tree, which was as smooth and spontaneous as laying an egg; but lately I’ve wondered if I’ve gone too far the other way. Ask me again when I’ve finished this book.
There is no doubt that teaching a long course slows my work-in-progress down. There are fifteen students on every Curtis Brown Creative course; that’s fifteen novels to hold in my head for months on end, giving each novel the same consideration as I would my own work. The nature of the course means that extracts are often read in completely the wrong order, so it’s no mean feat to remember who’s who, who knows what, where did we leave off, and why has that character suddenly changed his name and his profession, lost a sister and gained a wife? This is made more difficult by the fact that these stories are really good, with characters so vivid they elbow my own imaginary friends to one side for a while.
In the last month of a course, I will process about 20,000 words of prose from up to ten different writers each week, so small wonder that for a while my own book stalls completely. After my last teaching session, there was grief at leaving these books behind just as they had started to take flight, and behind this a bubbling panic at the state of my own poor, neglected novel.
But sometimes a bump in the road gives you time to pause and notice what’s important. 48 hours after the course ended, I sat at my desk and began to write, almost without deciding to, a scene I’ve been struggling with since I first had the idea for this book. The words and ideas came in a way they hadn’t for over a year, and one week later, I had 25,000 new words. I’m even going to keep some of them.
It was an important reminder of something I had forgotten after a series of relentless deadlines; that the gestation period, the subconscious examining of ideas, is as important as time in front of the page. And in spending this gestation period not lolloping in front of Homes Under the Hammer but editing, analysing and discussing other people’s novels, I’d gained insights into my own work without even realising.
I no longer feel stale. Writing novels has been my job for seven years now. I sit at my desk at nine, and stay there until burnout or school pick-up, whichever comes first. It’s shameful how quickly gratitude at being permitted to write for a living turns into just another day in front of the computer. It was time to get hungry again, and ambition is contagious.
We carefully select our students at Curtis Brown Creative, and the bar is high. I’ve been lucky to work with writers who are fun as well as talented – but there is talent to keep me on my toes. Frequently I have come across beautifully crafted sentences and wish I’d got there first. And there are a few genius plot twists that are now forever barred to me because there are fifteen witnesses who will know exactly where I nicked it from.
Today a former CBC student of mine announced a two-book deal. Knowing that a novel I first saw in its rawest form (and loved even then) will be on my bookshelf this time next year makes me happier than I can say. It’s hugely exciting for me to see her make the step from talented but aspiring writer to professional novelist. Almost as exciting as when it happened to me.
At my last teaching session, someone asked a perfect question; nothing to do with plot, or word count, or how many times you can pitch to the same agent without incurring some kind of harassment order, but something just as important. ‘How do you get over the crippling self-doubt?’ I had to tell her that you don’t – you just have to accept it as part of the process. In some ways that’s the most important lesson I could teach them. That to get your book written, you need to climb back on the horse, even when it’s thrown you off three times that day, and you’ve landed on your arse in the mud, and also actually you fucking hate horses and don’t even know why you ever wanted to ride one in the first place.
It wasn’t until I was asked that question that I found I knew the answer, and as with so many things, now that I’ve said it out loud, I can apply it to my own work. The learning curve curls in more than one direction.