Writing Courses: Are they Useful?

Joan O'CallaghanClose to 800 wannabe writers, all of whom had paid several hundred dollars to take the prestigious summer writing course and rub shoulders with some of the big names in Canadian letters, crowded into the auditorium at Humber College. The speaker that afternoon was the great and irreverent Mordecai Richler.

A member of the audience posed a question on the value of writing courses. Without skipping a beat, Richler told the audience he didn’t believe in them. There was a collective gasp. Why then, the questioner, persisted, was Richler teaching as a member of the faculty that week? That was easy, Richler responded. It was an opportunity to spend a week with his children who lived in Toronto.

What value is there to creative writing courses? Richler of course always flew in the face of convention. At the opening reception, he stood in front of a No Smoking sign, contentedly puffing on an odoriferous stogie.

Having experienced many writing courses, I beg to humbly differ with the late Mr. Richler. I think they can be of tremendous value. But not all writing courses are created equal. And to be successful, a writing course must have certain necessary components. For that I turn to the courses offered by Rosemary Aubert, herself an accomplished author (the Ellis Portal series, Terminal Grill, volumes of poetry, and more) and a gifted teacher. One of Rosemary’s stories will appear in our forthcoming anthology and we couldn’t be prouder!.

A good writing teacher tries to find out something about the level at which the students are functioning and plans the course accordingly. Have the students already been published? Have they completed a story or manuscript? Do they have an idea for a story but don’t know how to begin?

There should be time spent on actual teaching. This could include a lecturette on a relevant topic, again depending on the level of the participants, and/or actual writing exercises. For a group of beginners, a lecturette on how to begin a story so that it captures readers’ interest followed by examples and a writing exercise might be the subject of a class. For a more advanced class, the instructor may want to look at more subtle things like establishing tone or mood, or writing a credible sex scene without awkwardness or blushing.

The instructor should build in time for one-on-one mentoring since the participants in the course will likely be at different levels or places in their work and in need of some face-time devoted entirely to their own project.

An opportunity for participants to share their writing and receive feedback from the group is also necessary. Writers are often surprised at what readers like, don’t like, don’t understand etc. This feedback is invaluable. However there should be ground rules established by the instructor, shared with the class, and enforced. In other words, the instructor needs to establish the classroom environment as a safe space – safe to share one’s writing without being ridiculed or put down, and safe to voice criticism. I was once in a class where I offered some suggestions to an author whose work was being discussed. A classmate jumped up and told the author that her work was perfect and to disregard everything I said. The instructor did not intervene. Embarrassed, I clammed up. The classmate did apologize to me later, and the author e-mailed me to say how badly she felt about the incident because she was interested in what I had to say. However the damage was done. That class was not a safe space for speaking honestly, and for the duration of the course I kept my comments carefully neutral.

So yes, I am a believer in the value of writing courses. But do your homework first and pick one that promises to be a positive learning experience.

As for me, I am off to Loyalist College in Belleville next week with fellow Mesdames Madeleine Harris Callway and Rosemary McCracken to once again benefit from a week of intense writing and learning from our master-teacher Rosemary Aubert.

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