Autodidact

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It’s not something I’m proud of, especially; it’s not as if one method is better than any other. But when it comes to writing I am more or less entirely self-taught.

This is both true and not true: I must confess, for example, that both of my parents are writers and so from the very start I had access to beta-readers who could teach me about things like dangling modifiers, not leaving too much space between a question and an answer, and the unmangling of metaphors.

But in terms of education I am a nobody. English was never my favourite subject in school and I didn’t learn much from it. My highest writing qualification is a GCSE grade B, which is nothing compared to those highfalutin’ MAs and MFAs I see floating around.

I guess I have a tiny inferiority complex about this. I often fantasise about doing a course in fiction writing, especially those in either De Montfort University so I can learn from my friend Rod Duncan (buy his books, they’re great) or at the UEA, with its world-renowned MA in creative writing.

But what would I learn from such a course? That’s what no-one has ever actually explained to me. What could be taught that I haven’t already picked up for myself on my misadventure of a life?

Autodidact cartoon

I should say that I’ve read extensively on the art of fiction. I do enjoy a good writing guide. I’m not sure how much I learnt from any of them, though. They tend to pass through as white noise, with only the odd phrase or two entering my consciousness. I guess that, whilst they don’t change how I write, they at least serve to make me aware of what I’m doing and perhaps influence how I treat voice, or structure, or some such. Just a little, you understand.

But truly most of what I’ve learnt has come courtesy of writing groups and beta readers. Being critiqued has been, for me, the best way to improve and to grow as a writer. Taking criticism seriously, with the respect it deserves, is important and a key driver to my own personal development. I was shown what I was not good at and I did my very best to get better at it.

That and reading, of course. Not reading to improve, nor of reading dry text books, but simply reading for fun. Books for adults and for children, classics and potboilers. Just reading because I love to read. That’s the other half of the equation. Reading and writing both together.

Would I have been a better writer if I’d got an expensive education to go with it? Maybe. If anyone out there has an MA in creative writing I’d love to hear from you. What did it give you? Was it worth it?

Let me finish by listing a few books on the subject that have helped me become the writer I am today. You can judge for yourself whether that’s a recommendation or not:

  • Chuck Wendig: 250 Things You Should Know About Writing
  • Will Storr: The Science of Storytelling
  • Laurie R. King & Michelle Spring: Crime and Thriller Writing
  • Christopher Vogler: The Writer’s Journey
  • Rib Davies: Writing Dialogue for Scripts
  • Robert McKee: Story
  • Terry Eagleton: How to Read Literature

Cheery bye.

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You cannot be serious!

There’s nothing quite like a good argument. And no time like Christmas to have one; for when else will you be in close proximity to such familiar faces? Faces which, no matter how much you love them, will doubtless provoke great disagreements and upset and – what’s more – you know exactly how to press their buttons and they, in turn, know how to press yours.

 

I love a good argument. Or perhaps I really mean a debate, because actual personal disagreements can be painful and difficult. But the sort of jocular rows had in my family over Christmas are a joy, complete with mock outbursts of temper, theatrical yelling and never once an agreement being reached. You have to know one another to achieve this level of performance; it’s a rare day when you can encounter a stranger in a pub and reach this level of high farce.

 

It always surprises me that people don’t know how to argue. As Monty Python said back in the seventies, mere contradiction does not an argument make. Nor does the repeated assertion of a point without addressing a counterpoint – or, indeed, allowing a counterpoint to be made. That’s simply bullying and is frequently employed (for comic purposes, I’m sure) by Jeremy Clarkson. The worst culprits of all are politicians, who really should know better. They’ve got so good at evasion and misdirection that you’re often left wondering what the bloody point of it all was in the first place.

 

A good argument is essentially a logical construction and is best carried out in a pub, or at least with some form of intoxicating beverage on hand. I’m not a fan of debating societies or the like: too formal, too annoying, not giving you the room to interrupt with a timely ‘bollocks’. Yes, there is room for comedy abuse in a good argument, but one should always allow the opponent(s) to finish their point if it’s something they feel strongly about. Indeed, a good argument essentially follows the rules of good conversation: plenty of interruptions, the odd bit of talking over one another, but with everybody given a chance to speak. Actually, one of the most useful tricks in the art of arguing is to pause and restate the opponent’s point of view. ‘So what you’re really saying is…’ before demolishing them in a relentless cloud of logic.

 

I suppose that the real achievement of an argument is not so much to persuade someone, but to make them understand your point of view. It’s remarkable how we can all go through life assured that we’re understanding, intelligent and considerate of others, without really knowing why people hold differing opinions. A good argument can make you see things from other people’s point of view, and it’s remarkable how, on many occasions, both parties will come away thinking ‘I’d never considered it like that’, and though you may never come entirely to terms, you’ll have a little more understanding and, on some peripheral point at least, achieve rapprochement.

 

Arguing, I’d argue, is an essential life-skill, especially in these days of opinion-lead media and political chicanery. Seeing how people manipulate words, how they use logos, pathos and ethos to shape opinion – have these skills ever been more useful? This is, perhaps, the only occasion where the words ‘I’, ‘agree with’ and ‘Boris Johnson’ can appear in the same sentence: I think it’s worth teaching a little rhetoric (for this is what it’s all about, when you get right down to it) in schools to help prepare children for the adult world.

 

That’s what I think, anyway. Feel free to disagree.