Only one course and a final writing project stand between me and my certificate in creative writing from the University of Toronto. Seems like a no-brainer; finish the requirements and add the program to my list of achievements. Except the cost is $1,349, and I’ve already met my goal of becoming published. The question, then, is do I abandon the certificate even though it’s well within my grasp, or do I follow the advice I routinely give my children, and finish what I started? If cost wasn’t an issue, I’d already be signed up; I love classes of any kind, being with other curious and dedicated writers, venturing outside my little, lonely writing room. But I’m not sure I can justify spending more money on creative writing classes for myself, especially with one daughter in university and another due to begin in a year and a half.
In his piece in The New Yorker, “Show or Tell: Should creative writing be taught?” Louis Menand looks at the experiences of accomplished authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver, and Richard Ford, who attended writing programs, to calculate the value of these courses.
“The workshop is a process, an unscripted performance space, a regime for forcing people to do two things that are fundamentally contrary to human nature: actually write stuff (as opposed to planning to write stuff very, very soon), and then sit there while strangers tear it apart,” writes Menand.
I recall my first creative writing class, and how we had to write a couple of paragraphs, then read them to the class to be critiqued. Though I’d been a journalist for years, and knew the value of editing, I was terrified of opening my personal writing up to criticism. I worried that my words wouldn’t be interesting, that people wouldn’t want to read stories I made up in my head. Any criticism would feel more like a personal assault than critiques of my newspaper and magazine articles.
The teacher, author Elizabeth Ruth, gave us the ground rules for providing feedback: start with something positive, and don’t focus on grammar or punctuation, but on character, the setting, and the dialogue. Does it ring true? Do you want more?
I don’t remember what I wrote, but I do remember that by the end of the eight-week session, I was comfortable giving and receiving criticism, my scenes were more vivid and authentic, my dialogue believable, and my characters were better defined.
Menand goes on to explain that the most revered writing program in the world, The University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which has had sixteen Pulitzer Prize winners come through its doors, refuses to take credit for its alumni successes. Menand quotes the Workshop’s website, which claims that their writers are high-calibre before they arrive, that writing cannot be taught, and that they merely encourage talented people.
After a number of courses with the University of Toronto, I see that there is some truth to what The University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop says. There are no strict pre-requisites for the certificate program I’m in, and over the past two years I’ve encountered writers at all levels, from people who don’t speak English very well, to people who refuse to accept criticism of any kind, to people who are skilled and disciplined. I also see that among the graduates of this program, are authors like Marina Nemat (Prisoner of Tehran) who wrote her first manuscript before taking a course. This was also the case for me; I had written many drafts of Rachel’s Secret prior to enrolling in this program, and was already looking for a publisher when I took my first class. However, I did begin two of my other manuscripts during various classes, and received invaluable feedback from fellow students and teachers which helped me see flaws in my style. And in critiquing other peoples’ writing, I learned more about creating authentic dialogue, character development, and consistent narrative voice.
In the end, Menand concludes that “in spite of all the reasons that they shouldn’t, workshops work…I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me the importance of making things, not just reading things. You care about things you make, and that makes it easier to care about things that other people make.”
For me, I did learn about the craft of creative writing through my courses; I’d been a journalist for so long that I needed to break out of my concise, non-fiction style, and open up into a more visual, reflective voice. I learned from all of the people I met in classes, and have become even more observant about the world around me, and realize the simplest things can be the most meaningful.
I understand that it’s impossible to calculate the financial value of writing courses. You don’t need a Masters’ degree in creative writing in order to get published, or any piece of paper to prove you can write. The proof is between the covers of a book, the pages that are printed by a publisher who endorses your ability and talent. Still, I’m grateful for all the constructive criticism I received during my writing classes, and happily admit that I’m a better writer because of this program. Over the last three years, I’ve discovered that writing is a never-ending journey and the more I write, the more critical I am of my own work. In order to keep moving forward, to keep improving, I must continue seeking input from others.
My class begins April 24.
—Shelly Sanders is the author of Rachel’s Secret, published by Second Story Press (Orca Books in the U.S.) She has received a grant to work on the sequel and is currently booking school visits for Rachel’s Secret.