Unthank School of Writing Blog

20 Aug 2017

Between Workshops

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Stephen Carver reflects on his most recent Workshop.

My latest online workshop cycle finished last month. It’ll start again in September, so for August I’m not teaching. This is a long break for me and already I miss it. You know how it is with writer’s groups; you’re not just working each week, you’re catching up with friends – friends who get you, all united by the common goal of finishing a book. I usually try to post something when a course finishes, and after Zoe’s generous praise I decided to add a few words of my own in praise of the group – the gang, my students and my friends – just to give anyone thinking about joining us an idea of the sheer range of projects we work on.

This was a full workshop. There were ten students, which is pretty much our maximum before starting a new group. You don’t really want more people than this because of the reading involved. (Each week, half of the group submit 2,000 words of a work-in-progress which the rest of us read and comment on.) This was my second workshop of the year, and there was a perfect split between new and returning students. Five had carried straight on from the last workshop – two of them being veterans of several of our other courses and mentoring services – and five were joining us for the first time. I might be wrong on the numbers, but I think three or four members had published previously, from mainstream through independent to academic, while workshop projects ranged from just starting to quite complete manuscripts under revision. The warmth and synergy were wonderful, with returning students taking the lead in first week submissions, after which the group cohered very quickly, the way they always do, with writers at various stages in their creative journeys supporting and motivating each other. It was also lovely to watch a lot of firm friendships forming, and we’re now all still chattering away on social media.

The projects were, as ever, fascinating, which is one of the reasons I love this job. (I have a lot more freedom as a teacher now than I ever did in a university.) Obviously, I can’t go into detail, but I would like to give an idea of the creative diversity. Two of our returning students were working on extremely powerful life-writing projects, the subjects of which are downright humbling: one is the creative non-fiction ‘bio novel’ of a child refugee from India, the other is a memoir based around the author’s father, who was a Holocaust survivor who left behind unpublished poems and a fragment of autobiography. There was also an epic historical novel set during the Great War inspired by family history; three literary novels dealing with different aspects of trauma and redemption (one of them drawing on real life experience); a thriller set in Italy, the second in an on-going series of detective novels; a meticulously researched historical biography of an Austro-Hungarian royal; a collection of short stories based around the same character, an enigmatic legal ‘fixer’; and a complex love story applying and subverting the form of the telenovela (again, against the backdrop of war, in this case the breakup of Yugoslavia), and which was shortlisted for the National Novel Writing Prize while the workshop was running. (The competition started with the submission of a work-in-progress, more being required if you got through the different heats. The manuscript novel that made the shortlist, therefore, was actually written in our workshop.) OK, it didn’t win, but this was still a hell of an achievement, and I have no doubt it will see print somewhere in the next year. It’s also worth noting that since this workshop ended, the refugee memoir has been redrafted and edited, and is now pretty much ready to go public, as is the family saga, so watch this space for details.

It was an absolute joy watching these books come together, and every one of them – from the early stage ideas to the almost full first drafts – is now closer to completion, the authors more confident and in control of the material, than they were when they started. One of our students described the place she’d got to beautifully, and has graciously allowed me to reproduce her comments here:

‘These few months have been very special for me because I used this course to start this novel of mine and I am finding the experience of writing it so amazing and unlike any writing I have ever done before. I am totally engrossed in the creation of it, I spend all day thinking of the next scene and can’t wait to sit at my laptop and produce the daily 1,000 words and when I am doing that I’m happier than I have been for years. It’s almost a spiritual experience. So I need to thank you all for getting me started; I’m now in the flow and I know I’m going to go on with the daily 1,000 words until I get to the end because I couldn’t bear not to.’ – Betty Haslar.

I remember this feeling from my last project, and it’s wonderful. (To be honest, it’s taken me a while to get back there myself with the next one.) This is when the words are just flowing and you can’t wait to get back to your manuscript to see what happens next. Writing is not always like this, but once you get into this zone you know you’re going to finish the book. You’re not forcing yourself to do it; you’ve got your swerve on and you’re loving it. This is what the likes of us live for. Forget publishing and all that. It’s more like playing a musical instrument well for the sheer joy of making the music.

And you know what, we do it really well. Us, the Unthank family, the tutors and the students. I think the ‘X Factor’ here is the diversity of projects, and the focus on learning by doing. We all love to read, but this isn’t English Literature by other means – the way so many academic ‘creative writing’ courses are – this is practical storytelling: any genre, any subject, any style.

I can’t wait to find out about the new projects coming in September…

 

There are a few places left in Stephen Carver’s Online Fiction Workshop for mid-September and one left on Ashley Stokes’ Workshop starting September 3rd. To enrol, click here.