Keeping up with the Jameses
The common scaffold

Are you a course junkie?

Over on Help! I Need a Publisher, Nicola Morgan has a characteristically sensible post about if and when it's sense to invest money in your writing. One thing, especially, that she says isn't said often enough: "I would spend far more time practising what I'd been taught than I'd spent on receiving the teaching". I've had my say about the pros and cons of writing courses in general here, but I'd suggest that what Nicola's getting at is something I touched on in that post: the possibility that you are, or could become, a writing course junkie.

I'm not talking about people who do writing courses because they love writing and want to get their work heard, but honestly admit that it takes a course to make them do any. I love photography but the day job sucks up my time not just for taking photographs but also for getting them seen. So every year or so I do a photography course, and love every minute of it, and I'm a better writer for the way that a camera makes me really look at things, and feel them... and that's as far as I go. No, I'm talking about people who are working to get published, and never seem to stop doing courses, classes and so on. There are how-to-write-book junkies too, of course and editorial report junkies, and what they all have in common, it seems to me, is that they're using the course/book/report not as a temporary, bright light shed on their own work to develop their instinct and technique, their craft and art, but as a substitute for the long haul on their own work. It's not as cart-before-horse as the wannabe writers who put all their energy into selling their work and none into writing it, but it can still get out of hand. If you keep doing writing courses, could it be that you're avoiding something? Something that a course offers you in a more palatable form than the struggle to find in yourself? Because doing a course

  • may be much easier than the amorphous business of trying to make your writing better on your own: however un-prescriptive it is, there's always a whiff of listed-goals-and-outcomes about a course
  • may structure your work on your writing - plot one week, character the next - instead of the beginning-muddle-and-end that you're drowning in at home
  • may make it easier to claim space for your writing from family or work and/or silence your own Inner Protestant, who tells you that it's all just self-indulgence
  • may shore up your own judgement in your writing, or even replace it all together with that of your tutor and fellows
  • may be a clearer, public marker of progress in your writing (more sophisticated courses, better fellow students), than trusting your own sense of how your writing measures up to other peoples
  • may boost your confidence by showing you that there are worse writers than you in the world, and equally there are tutors who think you're good
  • offer you what I've called conditional validation

Any of these may be a perfectly good reason for doing a course. And yes, there are things that only someone else reading your work can give you: the outside eye, the reaction of someone who doesn't know what you're trying to say. But a course can never do the writing for you. It takes time after the course and lots of writing for all these new things to become part of your writerly practice and instincts. And in any creative practice as individual as writing, in the end you do need to learn to rely on yourself: to have your own discipline, confidence, ways of working, judgement and sense of your work's value. What worries me is when I see writers who seek all these essential things from a course instead of looking for them in their own writing life and self, at home, every day, alone.

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