Review of a creative nonfiction course

Writing about writing, by Terry Freedman

Writing about writing, by Terry Freedman

Having experience of something is not an unequivocally good thing. It frames your expectations, and that can make it difficult for you to fully appreciate a different model. It was for that reason I spent the first two or three sessions of the creative nonfiction course at the City Lit wondering if I'd made the correct choice.

I'd already completed a similar course a couple of years ago. In that one, the tutor didn't only set assignments to be discussed in class, but marked them too. And that was the baggage of expectations I brought along to this class,

I should say at this juncture that having your work marked is not without problems. Quite apart from the fact that it feels like being back in school, there's always the danger that the tutor will want to put his own stamp on the work. After all, he will have his own expectations as well. Indeed, in that respect, I agreed with all the tutor’s suggestions apart from one. Those I accepted were of the nature of inadvertent repetition or the occasional clumsy sentence structure. The one I dug my heels in over was a suggested change of words. Now, I spend a lot of time thinking about the correct word to use. Sometimes, I'll spend half an hour looking at how a word is defined in several dictionaries before finally deciding whether or it is apposite. (I did exactly that with the word “negligible" is the article “Negligible is not a synonym for “small”.) I am not so arrogant or self-assured as to say I always choose the right word all of the time, but I do get it right most of the time -- so there!

But enough of this background; what do I think of Paul Laffan's creative nonfiction course?

As you may have surmised, Paul does not mark the assignments. The closest he came to that was a comment to the effect that I'd exceeded the 500 word suggested limit. Instead, we discussed two or three pieces n the group each week, and only after we'd said what we thought did Paul say what he thought. This meant that our thoughts were genuinely our own, rather than (perhaps inadvertently), reflecting those of the tutor.

Our views were invited in two sections -- what we liked and points for development. Only after a discussion about a piece had taken place was its author allowed to speak. While this was a little frustrating at times, it did mean that we were prevented from giving a knee-jerk, and possibly defensive, response, which could have served to close down the discussion altogether.

Half the session was given over to readings, such as extracts from books, essays or poems, to illustrate a particular aspect of writing. For example, we looked at a chapter from Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

One might think that at a certain point in one's writing experience and career it would be better to write rather than to learn about writing. In other words, attending a course could simply be a refined displacement activity, a kind of upmarket version of tidying your desk.

However, there are at least four benefits of attending a course.

First, you may learn something new. For example, I learnt about filtering, which I hadn't come across before.

Secondly, You can experiment with different kinds of article in a no-blame environment.

Thirdly, you may be introduced to texts and authors you've not heard of or not considered before.

Finally, you may get to hear some truly fine writing from your fellow course participants.

This last one is, of course, out of the control of the tutor. Nevertheless, it's worth noting that this course ticked all four boxes.