I have this feeling that writing is one of the most difficult things for amateurs. The problem is this: few amateur writers are interesting to read. Despite years of writing, most amateur writers remain boring, cliched, inept. (If you are an amateur writer, I’m not talking about you.) Yet you take music, painting or even more obviously pottery, crafts, woodwork, and an amateur can usually produce things that others can enjoy. (Or if I knew anything about music would the jam sessions of amateurs be horrid to my ears? Possibly.)
One of the problems might be the type of people who are attracted to writing. Is there a disproportionate number of amateur writers who are self centred and have emotional problems? (I’m possibly guilty on two counts.) Not that emotional problems necessarily make for bad writing, but I think good writing nearly always comes out of strong empathy. And self-centred wallowing – which makes up too much amateur writing – is boring.
At the university level, I think the output of undergraduate creative writing classes would tend to be abysmal if it could be compared to that of fine art and music undergraduate classes. My friend commented that this is because you need to audition for fine art and music whereas the university can make a lot of money out of the slackers or talentless who want to take creative writing.
It comes down to the sad thought that whereas someone who devotes themselves to learning the piano can probably entertain family and friends as well as enjoy the act of playing, someone who devotes themselves to writing will probably not entertain many people at all with the story they print out and hand around. Especially if it’s the start of another fantasy saga.
I was in a writing workshop recently and I noticed something concerning. If you’ve ever been in a writing workshop, you’ll notice such restrained politeness in discussing other people’s work. The knives are rarely out; there is rarely too much honesty. I always thought I wanted people to be more honest, but maybe that’s not too good either. Because in this workshop we were actually critiquing the work of an amateur writer who wasn’t in the room and who no-one knew. And I was shocked at how vicious everyone was with it. I thought it had some good points, but no-one picked up on these at all; perhaps because they knew the co-ordinator had held it up as a piece with problems.
I would hate to think the restrained politeness is a mask for viciousness. I think I prefer generous honesty whether the person’s there or not. It makes me fear that underneath everyone is jealously tearing down each other’s work while being polite about it; I hope that’s not the case. (But then you’ve probably witnessed me rip into a few published works on this blog; should the rules change or am I a hypocrite?)
I was thinking the same thing.
I have attended one workshop in the past that was so good, because there was an “audition” process. Only 10 people got in and everyone took it v. seriously. The way a musician would take music seriously. At community level, some people are better off getting some therapy.
The best way to run a workshop is to have a group of people who take writing seriously, and have a convener who knows a bit about group dynamics.
Also what worked was that before we got into other people’s work, we did a line by line edit of established writers. So we knew it was about the work. not the person.
We weren’t all friends at the end, but we all respected each other.
Good post Nathan. I’m not sure I agree that writing is fundamentally different to painting or whatever in terms of what amateurs can produce though. Imagine a painting that someone’s mum has done that people tend to like, but an art critic would instantly dismiss as trite. I think this is the same thing with writing, but writers like yourself have more of a critical ability than the average reader.
I liked the bit about the ‘slackers and talentless’ that take creative writing. Got to laugh at that. In my experience at uni, it was more people who had a really high opinion of themselves and their work. Just overblown egos.
The ‘overly polite’ problem is a serious one though. No one can improve without valid feedback. There is an art to delivering it diplomatically though.
Don’t know if I mentioned to you that The Kingdom of Four Rivers has been published at last. Next step, 2010 Vogel…
I think you are right! i started writing just two years back, i’m very weak with words though i manage to convey my feelings…