Over the years I have done my fair share of writing courses and I often wonder if they have made any difference to my writing outcomes. Have they really been a worthwhile investment towards improving my writerly craft? When balancing out the ledger sheet of pros and cons, I am confronted with copious squiggles of red. For many of the seminars and workshops were simply therapy sessions in disguise, a way to work on the broken self rather than the broken sentence.
The first one I did was in London, run by a husband (an author) and wife team. It involved lots of visualisations, and standing up and shouting out newly-acquired names like I am Borghilda – Warrior Woman, and I am Braveheart The Lion (this particular one shouted out by the token male in our group who looked like he would be blown away at any moment by a small gust of wind). There was a fair bit of crying, a lot of oversharing and a sense that it would have been better to have spent the time doing the London Hop On Hop Off bus trip instead. At the end of the weekend, we all lined up to buy one of the author’s many fiction books, while he sat at a desk and signed each one with personalised, pithy words of encouragement. When I read mine, I was disappointed for it said: Bindy, you are an old soul. I would have been happier with: Bindy, you are the physical embodiment of the tortured spirit of Sylvia Plath.
Other writing workshops back in Perth weren’t much better. Some involved drawing pictures of archetypal journeys (boats with stick figure heroes), or doing guided meditations to release psychic blockages. A one-on-one session with a book doula had me closing my eyes and slowly walking one step at a time across the room as I mapped out my future book’s journey. If this sounds ridiculous, it’s because it was.
The more useful courses were the ones grounded in practical advice about the nuts and bolts of being a writer. From one I learnt that writers make no money (it cost me thirty dollars to hear that). A course on social media revealed to me that I wasn’t doing any social media at all–something I’m still not great at, though like an anti-vaxxer, I have kept my social media presence healthier by riding on the back of others’ twitter accounts. Courses specifically targeting plot structure, characterisation and point of view, were the most invaluable, especially when being taught by successful and much-admired authors—the classroom, a protective hothouse bubble, while I tried to absorb all the facilitator’s talent and wisdom like a needy sapling.
But I realise now that these courses can become an addiction, a distraction from the actual business of writing. And fixing your damaged self isn’t necessarily a good thing, for isn’t the most powerful writing coming from a real place of brokenness? Like a novice tightrope walker, there comes a time when you need to remove the safety net and get up on the high wire, and just write! Yes, you can fall off at any point and somersault to your death, but the great thing about fiction is that you get a second chance to come back from the dead, and even better if you get to channel the spirit of a dear departed poet.
Bindy Pritchard is a Perth-based writer, whose short fiction appears in various anthologies and literary journals such as Westerly, Kill Your Darlings and Review of Australian Fiction. Bindy has a Graduate Diploma in Creative Writing from Curtin University. Fabulous Lives is her debut short story collection.