6 lessons from studying creative writing

2020 has been an interesting year. As in, the Firefly definition of interesting, rather than the the more fun kind. But the last couple of months, on a personal level at least, has started to look up. I commenced a 6 month Write Your Novel course with the Australian Writers’ Centre, finished a contributor chapter focussing on the creation of the US Space Force for a Military Space Ethics book, and got my result back from my Master of Letters (MLitt) dissertation – for which I am relieved to have passed, and still coming down from the disbelief that I managed a distinction.

But this isn’t about the grades – though as someone who has not always done so great at studying, I am going to be pretty ecstatic about this for a while to come – this is about what I actually learned about writing during this creative writing degree. After all, I did this to improve my understanding of writing, so I guess the big question is – did it work?

In short, yes, it if did for me. But to lead nicely into the first lesson. . .

Lesson 1: You don’t need a degree to write

Yep, I went thousands into uni debt to get a fancy piece of paper I don’t need. Or more accurately, a PDF of a fancy bit of paper. I don’t regret it for a second, but neither is it a prerequisite to anything involving writing.

For me, its a way I learn. Distance uni is a nice mix of structure and uni for me. But of the four people I went through the course start to finish with, only one had a Bachelors level qualification in creative writing. All of us were able to write though. All of us entered the Masters with at least some ability in writing and no qualifications behind us. While it worked for us to further our skills this way, it only helped us develop skills we already had, which means that the core skills were already there.

This is perhaps an obvious point that every author learns in their own ways, but its something I wanted to point out as well. Academics are as much a guarantor of success about as any other course – that is they aren’t. They are a way to learn and to practice, and that in itself is a great thing, but its not the sovereign domain of academics.

Lesson 2: All kinds of writing have something to teach

Even bad writing. I did a *lot* of bad writing over the last couple years, and even more in the years before that. Studying other forms of writing outside what I’d usually be exposed to (and reading them, and listening to interviews by authors who write them, and reading articles about them) revealed many of my weaknesses. Romance writing character relationships for example, memoir making the personal relatable, and poetry demanding a succinctness not necessarily inherent in other forms. Having my weaknesses exposed gave me an opportunity to address them and ultimately, gave me the opportunity to improve my writing.

Lesson 3: Even as a Pantser, planning has its place

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The reason I did this degree was because I’m used to formality and I know that I learn best with a little structure. No idea why. Could be my career or something. But anyway, I love learning and for me, the MLitt program was one that combined my love of writing and my love of massive debt for flimsy pieces of paper. But what I found straight up was that every semester, I had to plan everything I was going to write. I wasn’t the only one a little worried about this. Thankfully, we had a great lecturer who has done this course many times before. Her solution? Encouraging us with the methodology of using the planning requirement to support the writing, not the other way around. The plan – always the first assessment in this case – was a guide for those who needed it, a touchstone for other, or a starting point to an entirely new idea if it didn’t work out.

I ended up using all my plans, despite having the freedom and intent not to, with the exception of my dissertation. Even then though, the plan had its place – it taught me that my first idea had significant holes in it and enabled me to distill what I actually wanted to write about and bring that out into another story, one that I could write entirely off-plan and pants it to my heart’s content. Even without sticking to the plan though, I would never have gotten to this point without making it in the first place.

Lesson 4: There’s no substitute for writing

Another one that probably seems obvious. While each and every author has their own pace, at some point you have to write. I had a couple subjects where I had trouble with starting and got about half way through a semester without a decent word on the page. Sometimes the right thing to do is to think, mull it over, or let the story peculate in your mind. At some point though, you just need a terrifying 90’s warrior screaming at you:

xena mad - You should be Writing!

Lesson 5: Genre can be as much an afterthought as an intent

I’ve always loved fantasy and always wanted to write it. That’s probably not a surprise to anyone who knows me. But what I found was that it wasn’t really the area I was naturally writing in. I didn’t really have a genre for it, and even when I worked in features of the fantastic, it didn’t quite hit what I would expect from fantasy. This troubled me for a bit, but after mulling on it and discussing it with my classmates, the end result was that if I write the story I want to write, and retrofit genre along with the expectations and subversions, it can actually produce a more powerful story. There were some places this couldn’t be done. Creative non-fiction, for example, is difficult to weave into fantasy. That’s not to say its impossible, but it was beyond what I could do with my chosen subject matter. Experimental non-fiction was similar – I had enough trouble getting my head around what it was, so fitting in fantastic elements probably would have gone one step too far in pushing my capability over time equation. But where it really became apparent was the difference in my first piece – which was purely in fantasy – and my dissertation. One was me trying to tell a fantasy story, and it was alright. Nothing special, nothing terrible. The final piece though was a story I wrote and wrapped in a fantasy setting. Again, it isn’t amazing and still needs much improvement if I’m ever going to get it to an agent or publisher, but its vastly better than my first attempt. The story itself could be told (and probably has been told) a hundred different ways in a hundred different genres, and still make the same point and ask the same questions. This wasn’t so much a retrofitted fantasy, but telling the story and then worrying about genre made it better. Genre is just the cloak a story wears. Doesn’t mean you can’t write to genre, but if the story is guided by genre expectations or restricted by them, then maybe try just writing the story and putting the cloak on after.

Lesson 6: There are always more lessons

Related to the first lesson, no matter how much I thought I’d learnt from a course, every avenue of study lead to more questions, more authors, and more subgenres I’d never known and led me down lines of inquiry I would never have considered. I’m doing another course now – the Australian Writers’ Centre Write Your Novel course – which so far has been brilliant. I’m not doing it as a natural progression of partner course or anything like that, nor has the MLitt qualification given me any kind of advantage. Its just that as long as there is a willingness to be taught, there is always something more to learn, and if I’m going to keep improving my writing and one day make a living out of it (fingers crossed), then continually being open to learning more can only help me towards that goal.

~Nathan

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