Thursday, 7 March 2013

How to Learn to Write?

There is a great deal of scepticism in Germany about creative writing schools and courses. Two universities offer highly respected degree courses, but older writers and critics are often very rude about their graduates. I suspect they're envious. There are of course plenty of the "release your inner novel"-type correspondence courses that advertise on the back pages of magazines, although I know nothing about them whatsoever.

But what I'm noticing now is a number of shorter courses taught by bigger-name writers and professionals. There's the Schreibschule am Meer where a friend of mine teaches crime writing. They also offer a week combining sailing and writing, not something I'd want to do at the same time. Oddly they don't offer translation courses even though Paulina Schulz, who runs the school, is an experienced translator. Perhaps fewer people are interested in joining the glamorous world of translation.

And now publishers are setting up their own courses. I think it probably started with Ullstein Open House, a one-day extravaganza of their top-selling writers talking about/teaching about their work for a smallish fee. Now there's the Bastei-Lübbe Academy, complete with the tagline "This is where your story starts..." They seem to be offering courses lasting several days on all sorts of subjects, taught by writers and editors of historical fiction, paranormal love stories, thrillers, fantasy, TV scripts, and all manner of other genre stuff. Deutschlandradio has an interview with one of the authors involved, Mario Giordano, asking that rather tired question of whether writing can be taught but also some other more interesting things.

Would you like my two cents? I think one of the reasons why creative writing courses aren't as widespread in Germany as in the English-speaking world is that authors here have other ways of making a living than teaching. To wit: public funding via grants, and high reading fees. Having begun to lead translation workshops myself, I know that this kind of teaching is hard work. I get a huge amount out of it for my own work and I enjoy it a great deal but it's tiring. It requires preparation and your full attention for several days at a time. Whereas reading aloud from the same book - very possibly the same passage - and then answering possibly vacuous questions a number of times over in different places is arguably less strenuous. Having said that, I suspect there's some demand for these types of courses. Whether they're any good I can't possibly judge - but it makes sense to me to take a course with someone who's published several erotic novels, for instance, if you want to go in that direction yourself. And yes, of course you can teach creative writing. But it's probably just like teaching mathematics - there are some students (and some teachers) who are going to end up doing better than others.

All this is kind of building up to me telling you about a course in London, Peirene Press's Masterclass on the art of the novella. Meike Ziervogel's rapidly expanding European novella empire is now branching out into teaching creative writing. You have to read three of their excellent novellas, including FC Delius's outstanding Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, and then spend the weekend doing the workshop with tutor Shelley Weiner. I love the way there's no apologising for the fact that these books are translated - they're positive examples of good writing, full stop. Now I wonder whether one of the translators might be involved in future masterclasses...


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