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Can literary excellence be bought?

Ask Shelley

When Tight Wilma’s dilemma lands in my ASK SHELLEY tray, I’m in a quandary. Does she know I have an interest in this area? Am I the best person to respond to her plea without prejudice?

Here’s what she writes:

Dear Shelley, I’m a new writer and wondering how best to get ahead. Alone and struggling a bit, I’ve been researching the various courses, masterclasses, mentoring schemes and writing degrees on offer (some for vast sums of money) and want to know your thoughts. I know you’re ‘in the business’, so to speak, and have read comments online that creative writing can’t be taught. Is that so? Why do you think I should I spend my hard-earned cash on a course when I could buy a how-to book – or just soldier on and learn from my mistakes? – Tight Wilma

Poor lonely Wilma. I feel for you, I really do – and I wish I could guarantee that buying a course or two would solve your problems. When you say, ‘ … get ahead’, I wonder what you mean. Literary excellence? Publication? Fame? There’s no stopping those goal-posts as they slide out of reach once you’ve started playing the I’m-a-writer game. And I may be shooting myself in the foot here, but I do think that the creative writing business (the teaching end, that is) can be fraught with more false promises and tantalising before-and-after tales than your local cosmetic clinic.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. When I undertake to mentor a new writer, we draw up a very clear contract in order to manage expectations. Here’s what I undertake to provide:

1. To be the best possible reader, in that I care deeply about the writing and have no agenda about the writer; and

2. As this ideal reader, to apply and explain all that I’ve learnt and discovered through long years of practice about the techniques of fiction. Characterisation, structure, narrative voice, setting – all the elements employed by writers to induce suspension of disbelief. And, yes, these tools can be taught in the same way that artists learn to control their paints and brushes, and musicians their instruments. It is challenging and sometimes disheartening, but the skills can be learnt.

So that’s the good news, Wilma. If you find the right tutor/mentor, someone who finds you interesting (that’s important) and has solid techniques to impart, then I’d say you’re almost halfway there.

It’s the other half that’s uncertain. The uncertainty, the loneliness (despite having a mentor and even despite being part of a writing group with like-minded and congenial fellows), the worry that you’re wasting your time. All the doubts that plague us, at whatever level. Alleviation from this state cannot, sad to say, be bought. But then the choice to write, to launch yourself on this rocky path is ours. Yours too, Wilma. Own it.

As for a ‘how-to book’ being a replacement for a real living someone who’ll stand by you on your personal quest? Hmm. As a wise old saw once said to me, ‘One can’t learn to ride a bike through a correspondence course.’