One of the many benefits of enrolling on writing courses is that you get to experiment with subjects and styles that are outside of ones comfort zone. It’s a good way of trying things out in a relatively safe way. (I say “relatively safe” because once you’ve written something and distributed it, there is always the danger of its appearing in the world beyond the classroom walls.)
I can only speak for myself of course, but I think this opportunity to take risks is quite important for professional development. Even, perhaps, personal development. Trying out different writing styles and subjects is a bit like going into a shop and trying on different clothes. You can leave them behind if they don’t suit you; on the other hand, you can modify your own appearance in small ways if you discover, say, that the colour red doesn’t look grotesque on you, or that you look quite dapper in a hat. You don’t have to turn from a pinstripe suit-wearing man or woman about town into a punk rocker.
I was thinking about this today because, amongst other things, I’ve been writing and rewriting an article about the first time I was captivated by a girl. There is no way on earth that I would publish such a piece, except perhaps anonymously, and even then only if threatened with physical harm. Nevertheless, writing it has been useful, because I’ve been confronted with several questions, like:
How comfortable do I feel putting this stuff in black and white?
How would my nearest and dearest feel if she saw it? (Probably OK, because I gave a humorous talk about it a few years ago.)
How can I make this engaging?
How can I avoid the writing coming over as “syrupy” or contrived?
I’ve also been thinking about this kind of personal memoir writing from a different angle. I listened to Holly Bourne talk at the London Book Fair. Her latest book is called The Places I’ve Cried in Public (Amazon associates link). I’m not in the target audience for this book, but something Holly said when she was speaking really struck me. I can’t remember it word for word, but it was something along the lines of: girls should never be in a relationship that causes them to cry in public.
Two things struck me about that statement. First, it is axiomatic that relationships shouldn’t make someone cry at all, let alone in public. It’s nothing short of appalling that some men think it’s ok to treat women in a way that causes them to crumble in that way.
Secondly, that that is the kind of statement that a man would be unlikely to make, much less put in writing, and even less use as a basis for a whole book, even if he had had the experience of crying in public. Using a creative writing course to explore such themes is definitely, as I said earlier, a safe way to take risks.
For example, I wrote about dementia, as a creative writing course exercise. This article causes everyone who reads it to get choked up — including me! It’s a strange sort of accolade to hear “I loved that piece; it really made me cry.”
I haven’t attempted to have it published, but the process did make me realise that I can write about subjects other than computers! Indeed, it led, in a roundabout kind of way, to my having an article published about the way I was influenced by one of my teachers at school. I’d related some aspects of the story to a couple of people, and they each said I should write it up. Four years later I happened to mention it to a magazine editor who commissions work from me, and she said it would make a good story. Because of my experience of writing outside my comfort zone, I felt confident enough to do the article. The editor loved it (she said it made her cry — perhaps that is where my true talents lie after all: making people cry!) — and the result was A single comment on my school report turned my life around.
Another thing that strikes me about all this, and the reason for the title of this article, is that even if the subject you wish to write about has been covered trillions of times, if you write it then it’s your story. It’s not the same old pap as everyone else has written, or at least it need not be.
Having said that, although I will probably carry on perfecting the article about my being captivated, because it’s quite a personal challenge, I can’t see myself exposing it to public scrutiny. Not just yet, anyway!