My readers may know by now that I am a Guardian newspaper reader. So it is no surprise that the first writing workshop I tried out was one of the Guardian Masterclasses. They offer not only fiction writing but also memoir, journalism, photography and more. There are several levels of writing classes, including weekend classes and those offered in partnership with the University of East Anglia. (Hmm, University of East Anglia rings a bell. Ah yes, that’s where the Canadian who won the BBC short story competition was studying. Who was he?) Given that in most of the weekend workshops your work is not considered, I opted for the workshop that offered the expertise of several writers. At $485.00, was it good value for the money?
I went not only to check it out for Canadian Writers Abroad but also because it has been too long since I wrote fiction. For a time, I abandoned fiction writing because (a) it was too hard when I was chronically tired from coughing, (b) I had no time to spare when working full-time at an office, and (c) — here is the real reason — I was afraid to commit to the novel that a short story character was claiming. Her name is Martha. I have tried to cram her into a short story, I have tried to change her name into something more sexy, I have tried to get her out of Kenya. And that purse of hers, it is so unfashionable. Instead, while I was at a Christmas bazaar at a formal herb garden in Chelsea, she walked past me, black purse on her arm, hand-knit sweater on her back. Blithely unaware of my stare.
The workshop began with an introductory discussion with Hanif Kureishi, who changed his keynote speech into a question and answer period that nevertheless managed to make most of the participants feel discouraged. Personally, I found it encouraging to be told that writing is hard, that it takes longer than you think, and not to give up your day job because no writer can make a living at it any more. Besides, when he asked for volunteers to say why we had come, I put up my hand and told very many strangers that I was there because of Martha, and he said that Martha trying to escape a short story was a good thing.
Then the large group broke up into five smaller groups, where our first tutor, Meg Rosoff, immediately told us to disregard what Kureishi had said. It was like bad cop good cop. Rosoff talked about voice – not point of view or the character’s voice, but finding our voice, our unique writer’s voice. The “through” voice, she called it, from the German word durchlassigheit. Without this voice, our work would be, well, the very same “mediocre” fiction that Kureishi had complained of having to read.
Over two days, there were workshops with Andrew Miller (on characterization), whose most recent novel Pure won the 2011 Costa Novel Award (that would be like Bridgehead giving the Giller prize) and Louise Doughty (on narrative structure), who wrote A Novel in a Year. She used her difficulties with her sixth novel, Whatever You Love, as an example. The workshops that were more hands‑on, with exercises and class interaction, were with Jill Dawson (on atmosphere), whose latest and seventh novel is Lucky Bunny, and Romesh Gunesekera (on dialogue), whose recently released Prisoner of Paradise received a favourable review in the Guardian the same weekend as the Masterclass.
At the end of the day on Sunday there was a panel with an agent and a publisher. They talked realistically of the downward profitability of publishing. Walter Donohue discussed the pros and cons of e-publishing: because e‑books sell at a lower cost, the publisher earns less, but the writer earns a greater percentage of this lesser amount; there are some advantages such as enriched e‑books, so that art books that were too expensive to print with coloured plates can now be released digitally, for example. Clare Conville talked about agencies overworked by an ever increasing number of writers compared to the small number an agency can handle. Their down note brought the two days full circle to its discouraging opening.
I had fun at “Creative Weekend: The Art of Fiction.” I was able to sit around for two whole days of a weekend listening to British accents uninterrupted. I was able to listen to people talk about something I like doing more than I like doing most things. Although I was there because I had become fearful of doing the very thing that made me happy, I participated fearlessly. For two days, I was another person, someone alert and energized, someone who could say intelligent things to a room full of strangers and not feel embarrassed. I had fun because in this one room of the Guardian building, I was someone who could do writing exercises with ease, someone who could write fiction on the spur of the moment. I was the clever school kid who was praised. I needed that and I loved it.