What My Degree Taught Me About Writing Fiction

When I was a student of Creative Writing at the University of Winchester, there was one seminar in particular that stood out to me. It was the final semester before graduation, and we were all packed into this airy room on the top floor of an old stone building that reminded me of Hogwarts. I realized when I was there that it was the first room I remembered being in when I arrived at Winchester as a freshman in 2011. I hadn’t been in it since, and I guess the cyclical feeling it gave me got me thinking about my degree as a whole. I had mixed feelings about the whole experience. I knew I wasn’t one of those people that celebrated it as the best time of their lives, probably going out for drinks with the professors, and forever remembering “Winchy-Winch” as their home away from home. No. I was a quiet face that no one would remember. But I was sure about one thing: the degree had made me a better writer. Even though I don’t think you need a degree in Creative Writing in order to write fiction, doing one certainly improves your technique and introduces you to a lot of ideas.

I thought about this during the seminar- what I had learned and what the whole thing was worth. My conclusion was that the true value of the program was in the way it brought together a lot of interesting- but imperfect- ideas. There are no secrets to Creative Writing. There’s no formula that, once cracked, explains everything. Professors, guest speakers, and peers contribute their experiences and what works for them. But every writer is different, and no one nugget holds universally true. The best usage of the degree, in my opinion, was in taking what everyone had to say and forming your own conclusion. I think one thing that new writers underestimate is the worth of their own opinion. A Creative Writing degree is not a passive process, and I don’t think the budding writer will become successful if he or she only ever tries to follow the mantra of others. If you want to write, you need to be confident, and you need to back your own ideas.

The two most famous tips handed down by professors and novelists are “Show, don’t tell” and “Get rid of those adverbs and adjectives”. They are useful guidelines, but if you look in any book, you will find passages that don’t adhere to them at all. A lot of good writing comes from pure instinct, when you stop thinking and just let your fingers type freely. If your noun has a flowery adjective or adverb attached to it that you feel is critical to the rhythm of the sentence, feel free to keep it. One such instance of it won’t kill your manuscript. If you look at some of the top authors today- I’m talking the Liane Moriartys, the Cormac McCarthys, the Rupi Kaurs- then you’ll find plenty of sentences that tell instead of show, and include nouns laced with adverbs. And these folks are the best in the business.

During my time at university I got conflicting advice from different professors. I also came to realize that editors don’t necessarily think the way writers do. One time we had a class where a professional editor from a publishing house came in to speak to us, and her perspective on what makes a good story was completely different to that of our professor. My professor disliked my story about a high school basketball player from rural Wisconsin, saying I was trying to be something I’m not, writing about an experience not my own. However the editor liked my story, and even said that it was perfectly fine that I was writing it in American English. The story later got published as a winning entry of a competition. And that’s what brings me to the heart of this post, and my realization during that seminar in my third year.

One of our professors was discussing the value of “write what you know” and told us about a novel she wrote. I think it was a love story or something like that. Anyway, she said she originally set the novel in Paris, but was advised to change it to London, and the story became better for it because she was more familiar with the latter. I’m not doubting the wisdom for that decision as it relates to that story. But I do think the mantra of “write what you know” can be misleading and limiting for new writers. Every story is different and every story approaches the concept of place in a different way. To me, a novel set in Paris has a completely different tone to one set in London. One of my favorite short stories is the American fairy tale “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving. It’s a classic tale of a guy taking a massive nap in the Catskill Mountains. However, at the time of writing, Irving had never actually visited the Catskills. As a writer, you are entitled to go beyond your personal experience, if that’s where the narrative is taking you. You just have to get it right. If you look at George R. R. Martin’s background, he ought to be writing stories about dockworkers getting into fistfights with corrupt union bosses, saying “I coulda been somebody”. Instead he takes what he needs from the history of a country halfway across the Earth and creates a world based on that history that feels vivid and believable. People often take issue with someone trying to write about cultures not their own, or men writing stories about women. But if you can write well, then nothing is denied you. Philip Pullman wrote a badass novel from the perspective of a young girl, and Lois Lowry wrote an equally badass novel from the perspective of a young boy. If you want to write about Bhutan, but you live in Escanaba, MI, then go book a flight! Learn from the place- get a hold of its pulse, listen to the people, and add your own unique perspective. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or cannot write about. So many powerful, mesmerizing books and films have been made about the Holocaust from people that didn’t live through it; what those creators did is be respectful of its history and listen to those that were there.

The mantra that always resonated the most with me is as follows: write what you want to learn about. The key to finishing a novel is being passionate about your subject. So write the kind of book you would want to read.

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4 thoughts on “What My Degree Taught Me About Writing Fiction”

  1. Definitely agree with you. As a CW Grad myself, much of the advice was conflicting. What I found valuable was peer feedback, and lectures from visiting writers and editors. My tutor for example, was a radical nature poet, so her style, and subsequently her advice, was quite unique.

    Liked by 1 person

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