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Writing Class

More about Writing Class


    Books need classifications – genres, if you prefer – to enable prospective readers to decide if they are likely to be of interest. Or so publishers and agents believe. I describe this one as a self-indulgence, which won't help you a great deal, for it a genre I have invented. Yet the description is apt. It has been self-indulgence for me to write, and it will be self-indulgence for you to read, much less buy.
    Why does this matter? Because my title may have led you to believe that this is some kind of "How To" book, which it is not. There are many of these on the market, of variable value. Nevertheless, it is not impossible that would-be writers will find Writing Class useful, for it is an account of my own experience of becoming a writer, such as it has been, and if you have read either of my two books of medical reminiscence you will know that I value the personal and the actual far more than the general and the statistical to get to the heart of things. That is not to say any individual account can be relied upon to convey the whole truth. Of course it can't; bias is built-in. But it can do something no survey, or carefully tailored all-things-to-all-persons manual is able to do, which is bring a subject to life. Note, I say “can”. You must be the judge of my success. However, here I can adduce what was for me at least, convincing evidence.
    Many years ago I bought a second-hand copy of a book entitled Pen To Paper, written by Pamela Frankau, a novelist long since forgotten, I suspect, as most novelists are in the end, unless television programmers grow desperate, and it did exactly that for a notion I was hardly aware I cherished, namely, that one day I would write, not just medical papers and books, but novels. May I say at once I think you are likely to have a job finding a copy, though who knows what ABE books, Amazon, or eBay may be able to accomplish.
    Pen To Paper was nothing more than Pamela Frankau's experience of the business of fictional creation, which she thought might interest – well, who? Other novelists? Her fans? I don't know, and I'm not sure she cared. Perhaps she was simply going through a fallow period, and wanted to scratch the itch to write – the mark of the committed writer, or you could say, the mark of Cain he or she bears. For example, Elizabeth Jane Howard, who has just published a new novel at 83, considers the urge ineradicable, and John Mortimer was in the middle of a new Rumpole when he died. Frankau certainly provided no advice on technique. But whatever she intended I was able to get a frank glimpse into the way one particular writer worked, not one, I may say, whose novels I had read, which if nothing else made me think how I might start myself. In fairness I should add I did read one or two of her novels as a consequence, and enjoyed them.
    If I can repeat that awakening for you; or if alternatively I can provide you with a decent portion of Schadenfreude because you have succeeded where I have not; or because you have done no better and are pleased to have company; or because you sensibly decided not to try in the first place and are relieved to learn you would have wasted your time, I shall be content. As you see, my ambitions for this book are modest.
    So there is the obvious misapprehension in my title dealt with. Nevertheless, I did indeed attend an Adult Education writing class for two terms in one academic year, and for a few weeks only in another, and I shall explain about how the experience helped me and how it didn't. That said, the words Writing Class are capable of bearing alternative meanings, and I shall explore those too. I am thinking of the question of class in writing, meaning its quality, and how I tried to improve my own. And again, of the issue of class among writers, being the contrast between the many who get nowhere and the few who "succeed" (rather than their background or education) and how much of this is luck. Finally, there is the importance of classes of writing, in the sense of what is attractive to agents, publishers and editors. All of this, I repeat, will be based on my own, inevitably slanted experience.
     One further caveat. For obvious reasons I use this book as a platform for my own work (except where I quote comments made to me by others). Most of it will be pieces I wrote as class exercises, justifying their inclusion in this account of a apprentice’s progress. Some are linked to my efforts to find a place for myself in the world of writing. Others are pieces I have been unable, or unwilling to place elsewhere. One I re-publish in search of a wider audience. Well, what else would you expect in a book with such a self-indulgent description as "A Self-Indulgence"? However, there is method in my muddle, if inevitably self-seeking. Those of my exercises which were not short stories were essays or press pieces. I cannot see myself writing enough in either of these categories to justify a whole book, so I might as well lump them, as everyone usually does for similar reasons with their poetry, into a heterogeneous collection. If it works for that, why shouldn’t it work for other forms of writing?
    And whatever merits or otherwise my writing has, I might as well admit something else blindingly obvious, that despite receiving spasmodic praise, it has also been the subject in its time of not a little criticism from the professionals in the publishing world, and their hangers-on, whatever that is worth. Therefore it has not been thought commercial, whatever that is worth. So be warned; I cannot, and do not, present myself as a success – and you can add the rider for yourself. I shall discuss these three touchstones of supposed merit in due course. Thus, if you are indeed partial to a bit of Schadenfreude (and which of us is not?) you may find much solace in what follows, but I cannot vouch even for that dubious pleasure, since there is nothing more lowering than a comparison, however transiently enjoyable, which fails to provide any lasting personal comfort. And for the majority of you it won’t.
    In short, you may conclude at this early stage that Writing Class is a book not worth your further attention. If so, even in that inconsiderable way I shall have done you a service. Unless you have actually bought it, when all I can suggest is that you give it to someone else – another early retiree, say, who harbours vague, but as yet unrealised, literary yearnings. It may spare you both future embarrassment.