Monday, October 19, 2009

Creating a writing community

I just returned last night from a weekend in Kingcombe, Dorset, with students and tutors from Bath Spa University's creative writing and writing for young people MA courses. The weekend was near perfect. I think I saw more cows and sheep than people. We were surrounded by forest, rolling hills and farmland, our B&B right outside a fishing lake that sparkled in the sunlight. And there was plenty of sunlight; for once there were blue skies all weekend. We were thirty minutes from the coast. We sat around the fireplace for readings every night. And late at night, walking back to the B&B, I could see whole galaxies of stars (of course, I didn't even think to bring a camera!).

But the purpose of the weekend was not solely an opportunity for Anne to relish the countryside. The idea was for the students and tutors to get to know each other, feel more comfortable with each other, and to begin to build a community so we might better critique and support each other as writers. And it worked. As several of my new friends have said to me, we already feel like a family.

So far Bath Spa has been near perfect in cultivating this community, and I've been thinking about what they've done right, what elements are important to forming a writing family.

  • Sacrifice
For me, one of the most meaningful things I've realized about my classmates in the past two weeks is the amount of sacrifices they have all made to take this MA course. Phil and I spent a lot of time discussing whether or not I'd leave my job, how we'd pay for the course, whether this kind of commitment would be worth it for my writing. What a unifying thing to discover all of my classmates have struggled with similar questions, and also different, much bigger sacrifices of family time, money, career, etc. No one on the MA is taking it lightly because they have had to give up so much in order to be here.

  • Required sharing
For any given class a student is required to share work every other week. Part of the reason I was so swamped last week, besides being sick, was that I had to share work for both my classes. For some students this honesty and openness with their art is incredibly hard. But already, in only two weeks of classes, I have learned from my classmates' amazing writing and storytelling, and learned about my classmates as writers so I'll be better able to support them in their future work.
  • Honesty about self
The first day of my workshop course our tutor, the amazing Julia Green, asked us to introduce ourselves. She suggested we be completely honest about who we are and our plans and hopes for the MA. Perhaps that seems obvious to you, but for me it was quite revolutionary. How often am I totally honest with strangers about how much I read? How much I love writing? How passionately I dream of making a career out of it? I fear non-writers thinking I'm a nerd or a bookworm or wasting my time. But by starting off the course being only myself, there are no subterfuges to overcome and I can begin in total honesty.
  • Honesty with critiques
This is really important to me, and one of the major reasons I signed up for the course. If people are not honest about their thoughts about my writing, their confusions, their struggles--how can my writing improve? And if it doesn't improve--what's the point of a whole course in writing?
  • Start with something good
That being said, Julia has asked us to always start our critiques with something good. I've heard the advice before, but it bears repeating. There is always something good and as writers we need to know what it is, the ways our writing is working. We also need that support.
  • Support
Richard Kerridge, a tutor for the creative writing MA, asked us to "look supportive" on Saturday night for the student readings. It was a funny line, but of course so true and essential too. Reading your own work in front of people takes courage. With my teaching background, I'm used to standing in front of others and making a fool of myself, but of course for some people, reading aloud is one of the scariest things they have ever done. We should listen. We should clap. We should tell them they did a great job. We should look supportive.
  • Time
I just spent almost three full days with my classmates. We lived together, ate together, read, wrote, studied, walked, laughed, shared. Forming a writing community takes time, and I'm so glad we were able to begin this course with this experience.

In other news, since my last post, I have written one full picture book and started a second. I've enjoyed them as much as expected, but I'm not confident they're any good. After a fabulous class with Julia this weekend, I have done some further thinking on my new novel idea and am quite enthusiastic about it. My problem is quickly becoming too many works in progress, not too few. But of course that's a good problem to have! I'm still hacking and wheezing, but perhaps the end is in sight? Or another trip to the doctor...

Best wishes for your writing and your writing communities!


  1. Great post Anne - glad you sound better

  2. Thanks, Keren!
    So nice to be back to regular life now--I hope!

  3. It is interesting reading about your MA because I'm getting my MFA in writing for children and young adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

    Good luck with your program. It sounds great!
    Just so you know--Vermont College offers post-grad semesters, so if there is someone in particular you want to work with (There are Newbery honor and Nat. book Award honor faculty on the staff) you could come and work one on one with who you choose for a semester. (Or do a picture book semester post grad--which is intense and amazing.)

    Does your university offer any post grad or writing conference options?

  4. Hi Sarah, thanks for your comments. I actually was accepted by Vermont College ages ago, but it wasn't the right time for me and I passed on it. Who knows what might have been? That is good to know that they offer post grad semesters-I bet that would be fabulous. Do you make periodic trips to Vermont for your classes?

    I'm not sure that Bath Spa does offer any of those sorts of options. However, Julia Green and Steve Voake both teach at Arvon, which is where many of the other students first learned about the program.

    Good luck with your program and writing, too!

  5. I go for 11 days twice a year in January and July. The low residency approach is perfect for me because I'm also an ex-pat.

    Both the post-graduate writer's conference or a post-grad semester look interesting to me. (First I need to graduate.) They'd be a great way for you to meet and network with VCFA writers.

    Are you going to SCBWI Bologna in March? The one day conference is one day before the Bologna book fair. The speakers (authors, editors, and agents) lined up are great.

  6. Oh, 11 days isn't bad at all. That does sound perfect. And I bet those 11 days are really intense (and fun!).

    Wasn't planning on Bologna, but maybe I should... guess I'll see what my spring is looking like and who all will be there. It looked great last year and I was envious of everyone there.

  7. Ohhh, you weren't kidding about the line-up! Just had a look and lots of great names!


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