Author and creative writing tutor, Carol Fenlon on academic and community-based creative writing courses.

You have taken both an MA and PhD in Creative Writing – what has been the benefit of this academic route for you?
Both MA and PhD had very different benefits for me. Starting out on the MA was a new beginning after a serious road accident put paid to my nursing career. It helped me to gain self-confidence both personally and as a writer after several years being confined to a wheelchair and in and out of hospital. Before the accident I had done a short WEA course in basic creative writing and had begun to have a little success in publishing short stories and poetry. The MA widened my reading, and my understanding of the process of creative writing. I began to learn about poetics as well as theories of writing and language; It helped me to understand the deep structures involved in writing and communication, the personal journey of creating a piece of writing and the interactive process between writer and reader. It gave me the benefit of mentoring by skilful published authors, introduced me to a variety of genres and introduced me to a wider writing community, attending conferences and readings and meeting writers and agents at various events and conferences. The MA may have meant that my writing was taken more seriously than it otherwise might have been and I did get an agent at the end of the course, based on recommendation from my tutor to a new agent seeking clients but I don’t think the MA will guarantee you anything. It will help you develop an original talent if you have it but if not it tends to produce writers who write a certain kind of writing, a uniformity if you like. You need to find your own voice, the MA will help you do that but it won’t do it for you. I got my MA in 1997 and I think since then the courses have changed greatly and are more oriented towards marketing and genre which is probably a good thing.
The PhD is a huge leap further. As it is not a taught course it develops self-reliance, self-confidence and launches the student on the search for his/her own voice. At first it is terrifying as I had only the vaguest idea of what I was doing and even though I had the best supervisors in the world, they could not tell me what to do, but could only guide and support me. The skills I learned were sustained self-directed research, the ability to play with language and with thought to achieve a personal poetics that produces originality. Original contribution to literature is one criterion of a successful PhD and I developed a system of reliance on journaling and contemplation that has stood me in good stead for further projects. I also developed that long term commitment that is able to give years if necessary to the production of a book. At the end of my second year the novel I was writing for the thesis won the Impress Novel Prize and was subsequently published by Impress books.

Other benefits of the PhD were learning teaching skills, writing and presenting conference papers and public speaking, constructing workshops and writing courses. Perhaps one of the best benefits was the creation of a lasting relationship with the creative writing department of my university, but also the building of lasting friendships and joining a wider network of authors. However, the PhD takes over your life, it is years of obsessive slog and many drop out along the way.

Not everyone wants to, or can go down an academic route. They may feel it isn’t the right time but may be interested in attending a writing retreat or holiday. You have been both participant and tutor or such ‘holidays’. What first inspired you to attend?

I first attended Writers’Holiday in Caerleon around 1997. My interest lay in meeting other writers and learning some marketable writing skills. At this time I was interested in writing stories for women’s magazines and writing popular genres such as crime and romance as well as poetry.

What was the benefit of these holidays?
The courses on offer were very different from the academic MA course I had begun. They gave me different perspectives on a variety of genres. I began to dabble in non-fiction articles and had several published. I have since on occasion reverted to non- fiction article writing as a source of income with some success, when necessary although I am primarily a fiction writer.
Over the years at Writers’ Holiday I have made many lasting friendships both as a delegate and as a tutor. I have been on other residential university writing courses and many day writing courses but a writers’ holiday is just that: a place where a writer can go alone and enjoy the company of other writers, take courses or not as one pleases and have time for personal study/writing. Sadly the Caerleon campus is now closed and Writers’ Holiday which moved to the Fishguard Bay Hotel is no longer running in the summer but is now a winter weekend still offering excellent value writing courses in a congenial atmosphere.
I find writing retreats are very expensive, okay if you want tuition but if you just want somewhere to write in peace it is often more valuable to book a cheap hotel for a week. I often book a week at Pontins when it is quiet, very cheap usually only £50 for five days and no one bothers you. Of course the value of a writing retreat is that there is usually the company of other writers to stop you obsessing too much on your own. Our writers’ group hosts a writing retreat every November for around £100 each we have a room each in beautiful pine lodges, work all day and meet up in the evenings to eat (and drink) and compare notes. Also there are many different kinds of writing courses and retreats. You may need to shop around to find what suits you and not be put off if the first one you try doesn’t work for you.

A time away to spend on writing sounds very positive!

Yes, a change of scene makes you more likely to spend time in contemplation and allow your originality to come through. And left alone you can focus.

I know you run a very successful community-based writing group. Not all writing groups work as well as they could. What do you think are the ingredients of a good group?

• Fairness and inclusivity. Being tolerant of each other’s eccentricities (what writer isn’t eccentric?) and finding room for everybody on an equal basis, be they published author, self-published, hobby writer or aspiring to publish.
• Having basic rules: comments should be useful and constructive. Everyone’s work should be respected and everyone should have equal chance to read in a feel-safe environment.
Do you have any tips for groups to be more productive and recruit more members?

• Don’t be exclusive. Welcome everyone, everyone has some kind of talent. Be supportive and constructive. Involve members in organising the group. Encourage them to take part in running workshops, helping out with events etc, if they are willing.
• Have a varied programme. Include speakers if you can afford them, in house workshops and themed writing nights. Factor in social events such as meals out or house parties.
• Cut your coat according to your cloth. Set subscriptions at what members can afford and/or explore grant funding. Similarly organise events as you can afford them.
• Always allow sufficient meetings for reading work back and getting feedback. We have two meetings a month, one for reading our work, the other for a theme, workshop or speaker.
• Maintain a good presence on social media and keep it regularly updated. Send details of events to local press. Keep a group scrapbook and acceptance book to show what the group achieves.
• Try to arrange opportunities for the group to read at local events, libraries etc. and if possible fund production of anthologies of work which will allow the members to see their work in print. Our group has now published four anthologies of which the first three have sold out.
• A good committee works wonders.

I first met you on a ten-week community-based writing course, which I found very beneficial at the time, and encouraged me to do more formal academic studies. Such community provision is constantly under threat, yet for me, and no doubt many others, it opened up a whole new world for relatively little cost. What do you feel the situation is like on the ground regarding the diversification of routes to learning and practising creative writing techniques?

Council run and funded courses may be on the wane but there are more and more privately organised day and residential courses, from beginners’ creative writing to specialised workshops. Some of these are very expensive, others are competitively priced, some even free. Again you need to shop around and see what suits your pocket. There are also lots of online groups offering support and constructive critique. Again you need to evaluate these as you may find yourself spending more time reading and critiquing other peoples’ work which eats into your own writing time. Also online presence is not quite the same as physical networking. A good writers’ group is invaluable for learning from each other and from guest workshops. Local libraries also sometimes offer taster courses free of charge. Keep an eye and an ear to the ground to find out what goes on.

Do you have a writing exercise the readers of this blog can undertake in their lunch hour or coffee break?

• Look out of the window. Without describing the scene note down your first reactions to it. Is it lively, depressing, peaceful, threatening or enticing, formal or friendly?
• If this were a person, what would he/she be like? Happy-go-lucky, placid, frightened or frightening, wealthy or poverty stricken, vain or selfless? Write a few words to outline their character.
• Can you see this person yet? If so, write a physical description
• Why does this person display the characteristics you see? Fill in some family background and past history. How has their nature and experience shaped them as they are? What are their hopes and fears? Do they have a secret?
• What are they doing now? What will happen next?
• Add some serendipity. Let your mind play, wander the unexpected. What if?
• Write the story.

Carol Fenlon is the author of one novel, Consider the Lilies, two short story collections, Triple Death and Plotlands and a local history book, Skelmersdale, the Making of a New Town. She has also widely published short stories, poems and non-fiction articles in small press anthologies and mainstream magazines. Her second novel Mere is to be published by Thunderpoint Publishing in May 2018.


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