Creative writing courses – do they help?

The subtitle of this post is “do they help?” rather than “do they work?”. The latter subtitle suggests a process that will, by itself, reliably churn out successful creative writers. I haven’t seen one, and I’m not going to argue that they exist or are possible. But, as a consumer of creative writing education over the past six years, I’m going to argue that it can help immensely.
The topic is timely in Australia, because the new fee regimes for TAFE education mean that enrolling in a course is likely to cost a lot more than it once did, especially for mid-life changers like me who already have qualifications. What do you get for your money?”
Well, if you are one of those mid-life changers, or indeed anyone with skills in a job or hobby, ask yourself: what does it take for someone new to my area to become proficient? I suggest that the answer is going to include instruction, practice and feedback. And these in turn require discipline – to study, to put in the hard yards and to accept criticism.
A good creative writing course will give you all of these. There are other ways to get them, of course. You can read, practice alone or in a group, find a mentor, submit work for publication and take note of the feedback.The creative writing course is just one means to that end. But for many of us, it’s the most convenient,and the assessment system imposes a discipline. Sure, it’d be nice not to need the discipline to be impose externally, but most of us do.
On the downside, it’s back to school, with its fixed hours, rules for interaction, public criticism and those assessments. For some of us that’s going to be a turn-off. Many men, in particular, of my age, had experiences at school that they may not want to revisit. Personally, I didn’t enjoy most of my schooling, but my recent studies have felt like a second chance.
Do I need to say that enrolling in a course and earning the qualification won’t guarantee publication or production? Writing fiction is a tough game – think tennis, golf and acting. We don’t expect everyone who studies these disciplines to achieve their dreams, or even making a living from them. And that’s when we start talking about talent, previous experience, and the amount of work you’re prepared to do. IN my observation, the last of these is one least often blamed for failure but the most common reason. You can pass a course with WAY less than the 10,000 hours experience widely quoted as the benchmark for proficiency in a field. I’m not criticizing here – many of us struggle to find time for our writing in a life that includes family, friends, leisure – and a full-time job.
But enrolling in a course is a start…
At a personal level, my Professional Screenwriting and Professional Writing and Editing studies at RMIT in Melbourne have connected me with like-minded people who have become valued collaborators and good friends, and with the production and publishing industries. They’ve made me do things I wouldn’t have done if I’d designed my own learning program – and that stretching has been to my benefit. And my fellow students have given me examples of what to do and what not to.
Recently I’ve had some success with my novel, The Rosie Project and the associated screenplay. But if I had not, I would still have regarded my investment in creative writing as one of the best I’ve made.

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