Utopiary

Utopiary is a word I coined a few years back to describe the kind of leaf-perfect tree-moulding that goes on in some gardens. In fact you can usually measure the wealth of a household by the amount of topiary because most of us are too busy just trying to get the hedge trimmed and the lawn cut (while also respecting no-mow May) to be remotely interested in sculpting our trees. Anyway, I don’t like topiary very much; I think trees and bushes should find their own shape rather than having one imposed on them.

None of which is what I was going to write about today. I’m in a real short story phase right now and I’ve started another one which tells the story of a stoning from the point of view of a man waiting to take part in one. I was shocked to discover that this barbaric practice is still legal in fifteen countries of the world, even if it doesn’t always take place. Sometimes there is no legal process whatsoever; the poor woman (it’s usually a woman) is simply sentenced to death for some alleged crime and in Pakistan since adultery is hard to prove the courts are able to ‘use their instincts’. In a deeply misogynistic society you can just imagine how that’s going to play out.

The story was inspired by an article in the latest Granta magazine which plopped onto my doormat this morning and was eagerly snatched up. Wimbledon being over, we’re back to doing the digital detox thing from Friday night to Saturday dinnertime, so I really needed something new to read. The theme of the issue is Interiors and it begins with A Series of Rooms Occupied by Ghislaine Maxwell who, in the absence of Jeffrey Epstein, is waiting in a detention centre to be tried for the crime of supplying young women to be raped by him and other men. I’m not saying we should go easy on Ghislaine if she’s guilty of these crimes, but growing up with a father like Maxwell can’t have been a picnic, and according to this article the place where she’s detained, the Metropolitan Detention Centre in Brooklyn, is ‘the largest and most dysfunctional’ in the US. I’m not saying our prisons are exemplary but they seem so much worse in the States.

Anyway, I’ve sent off a couple more stories this week, keeping the momentum going, and another one or two will be ready in the next couple of weeks. I’m finding that the momentum is more important than the results, in a way. I’m going to sit in the sun now – for once we have a hot sunny day here. Yay!

Kirk out

Enabler or Gatekeeper? Choosing a Good Writing Course

Sometimes it seems that people who run writing courses are more like bouncers than ushers, taking your money and keeping you out of the club whilst claiming to ‘show you the way in’*. Some courses seem to promise much but leave you with little more than an overwhelming impression of how hard it all is.

(*this reminds me of an idea I once had. I used to suffer a lot from spam emails so I devised a special place in hell for spammers where every day someone comes along claiming to show them the way out of hell. They are compelled to believe these people but every one of them is a scammer.)

I don’t entirely blame them; it’s hard to make money from writing alone and you gotta do something. On the other hand if all you’re doing is taking people’s money and telling them how impossible it is to get where you are, that’s called ‘pulling the ladder up behind you’ and you’re doing them a disservice.

I do run the odd poetry workshop in which I try to help people release their creativity; however I don’t offer workshops oriented at success. This is for two reasons – 1, not having been ‘successful’ to any great degree myself, why would anyone take me seriously? and 2, it’s not what I’m good at (see point 1). What I’d like to do is offer more workshops on releasing and exploring creativity. But do people want that? I have a horrible suspicion that I’d give them my best stuff and then a voice would pipe up saying plaintively ‘this is all very well, but can you tell us how to get published?’ Such is the society we live in.

So here’s my advice when choosing writing courses:

1.Look for as many free courses as you can find. Free doesn’t necessarily mean worthless and you may pick up some valuable stuff as well as making contacts.

2. If you’re being asked to shell out money, check out the profile of the person organising it. If they’re offering a route to success but haven’t achieved much themselves, does that add up?

3. Does the course seem to offer a lot? Might it be offering too much? Check out user reviews from previous courses.

4. Is this what you really need right now? Call me arrogant but in terms of finding my voice I’ve always thought I was my own best teacher. There’s no substitute for reading as widely as possible and just writing as much as you can. No amount of courses can compensate for the lack of a writing habit. Equally, if you’re not at the publishing stage yet you don’t need a course on how to get an agent.

If you’re unsure what’s out there I recommend signing up to writers’ groups and websites. The Insecure Writers Support Group has a presence on Facebook and Writers Write gives daily writing prompts as well as running courses. You can also subscribe to the email lists of publishers and magazines without having to buy anything (I subscribe to the newsletters of Room magazine, the Royal Society of Literature – which produces the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook – and other local literary fora.) These will tell you of upcoming competitions and submission opportunities. And if you’re a woman there’s no better magazine to subscribe to than Mslexia: as well as offering opportunities within the magazine there are comprehensive listings in the back. I’m also subscribed to Granta magazine, if it ever arrives…but that’s more for reading than submitting to.

It’s amazing what you can get for free, but whatever course you go on there’s no substitute for a good writing habit.

Now, apropos of which, here’s my upcoming course on ‘Developing a Good Writing Habit.’

LOL. Though actually I could totally do that…

Kirk out