I’ve been a writer for a long time now, and I’d almost forgotten what it felt like to be just starting out. I don’t mean writing snatches of dialogue in an old school exercise book, or embarking on the annual never-to-be completed novel on the first day of the long summer holidays. I mean starting out, as in going to an actual writing class with other ‘beginners’, most of whom, like me, had been secretly writing away for years and years. We all had dozens of abandoned poems and unfinished stories hidden away in lofts or garages or rusty old filing cabinets. Some of us even bore the scars of rejection, the letters from editors or agents that proved we simply weren’t good enough. Which was probably what had driven us to sign up to that ‘creative writing for beginners’ course in the first place.
I’m trying to recall that feeling now, of being at the same time a beginner and an old hand, as I prepare for my first day as the teacher of another class of ‘beginner’ writers. I remember, now, that feeling of trepidation before I shared my work with others for the first time. I also remember the realisation that, although there were lots of things about the craft or writing that I already ‘knew’ because I’d read all about them in ‘how-to’ books, I had somehow never really succeeded in applying them to my own writing. For me, then, the classes provided a bridge over that gap between theory and practice, and they did it through the setting of writing exercises.
Whenever I read a book on creative writing I would read the text, nod to myself and skip the exercises at the end of each section. There was no point actually doing the exercises, I told myself. I already understood the concept perfectly. That may have been so, but what I had failed to understand was that the exercises are designed to reinforce that understanding by putting it into practice. Not doing them was like reading about Jonny Wilkinson’s kicking technique and thinking that alone would equip me to score the winning drop goal in a Rugby World Cup Final.
In other words, reading about how to be a better writer won’t make you a better writer. It’s only writing that does that.