Today is my first day back at my desk, and even though it feels as if summer only began last week autumn is certainly in the air. This is my favourite time of year. There’s something about the slant of morning light in September that makes me think about fresh notebooks and starting back to school. Maybe I’m just a perennial student at heart. Last September I felt a particular pang of envy, and, as I was taking a short break from reading manuscripts anyway, on a whim one Friday night as the new series of Graham Norton was coming on (no, not more Hollywood hard-sell), I signed up for a creative writing course ‘that approaches writing with the rigour of academia and also as a contemplative practice’. I needed a refresher, and wanted some inspiration, and this felt like a perfect fit.
That course was called Story Is A State Of Mind, which is run by Canadian writer Sarah Selecky, author of the story collection The Cake Is For The Party. The course is online and self-paced, which suited me just fine (I’m also something of a hermit at heart). I started the next day, the Saturday, and organised it into a mini retreat of three weeks, three days for each of the seven units.
Those units have the following titles:
* What Starts A Story?
* Plot and Drift
Each unit includes a lecture, readings and reading debriefs, shorter exercises of writing practice, and a longer writing assignment. These materials come in the form of thoughtful audio podcasts (usually between ten and twenty minutes long), alongside print notes in PDF format transcribing the audio. There are also four video lectures, as well as links to other recordings and videos of writers talking about writing; I found the one with Ira Glass particularly incisive. The podcasts occasionally use breezy transition music that succeeds in being ever so energising in setting the tone for the work you have to do. Jaunty jingles clearly rouse me.
Sarah Selecky is in herself the great inspiration within this course. A lot of thought has clearly gone into making everything work in print as well as in podcasts and video, and Sarah brings a warm and inviting presence that is also grounded in a practical grasp of what it takes to write purposefully and effectively. She offers various tips, which range from obvious reminders, such as carrying a notebook with you at all times, to more personal observations on freeing the imagination. The idea of writing as ‘the kind of knowledge that feels like it is coming out of your body’ really makes sense to me, and I love the idea of letting your writing orbit around you in the same way you hold respect for a person you love:
A dear friend or love is always something of a mystery. The beauty of a deep relationship is that you can orbit around each other for years, always learning new things about each other, always trying to understand each other.
My advice: treat your writing with the same kind of respect.
There are many excellent writing prompts too. One of my favourites is a really good twist on the popular ‘I Remember’ exercise.
I gained many fresh insights. I particularly liked the idea of drift as it relates to plot within your drafting:
The art happens when you go off track.
I also brought away a sense of how I need to pay more attention to dialogue in my own writing. Nothing beats good dialogue for bringing life to a story, does it?
Aspects of craft are introduced artfully and easily, and the course gets the balance just right in explaining important concepts and techniques without constraining your creativity. One of the first exercises gets us to understand (and practise) the difference between showing and telling in a straightforward, intuitive way. There are plenty of fun activities for creating characters, and the first-rate lesson on dialogue contains many thoughtful recommendations on, e.g., the importance of subtext. Point of view is explained with clarity. Many introductory courses get schoolma’amy, or bogged down in jargon that belongs in an English literature classroom. Or they are simply boring. This course, however, feels more like a studio in an art school. It possesses a lightness, and energy, and the emphasis is certainly on fostering ways to write spontaneously and easily.
Everything is extremely well organised, and well designed. The choice of readings as explanations and departure points is particularly strong, and includes work by writers such as Karen Joy Fowler, George Saunders, and Tobias Wolff, as well as a number of writers who were new to me. A number of them are Canadian; Canada seems to produce so many noteworthy writers whose work I enjoy, and this added a further freshness of perspective for me. In addition, an interactive style diagnosis quiz in the section on influence presents recommendations for inspirations in further reading based on your own preferences. Apparently I am a Fearless Creative who might enjoy Lorrie Moore or Mary Gaitskill; this is true!
The focus is, on the whole, on the craft of fiction that is most relevant to writing short stories, but would-be novelists should not be deterred – characterisation and dialogue and attention to detail are things any writer needs to practise and grow, and we have to walk across a room before we can run and go the distance of a marathon. And, too, short stories are a joy in themselves. I’ve had a summer reading many good books, and I dare to say that the ones I enjoyed most were books of short stories. No second best.
Best of all, this course gets you to do lots of writing (LOTS), and to finish a short story. I almost filled a notebook with writing – about 140 handwritten pages in three weeks (which, even though it also includes some notes, is significant creative output for me).
Since I took this course in 2015 it has been renamed the Story Course, and Story Is A State Of Mind is now used as the name of the larger online school it belongs to. Other classes include the Story Intensive (a teacher-guided and interactive version of the Story Course, with classmates and fixed deadlines) and the Story Intensive (a critique course with organised feedback for a story from each member of the class). The Story Course currently costs US$250, and you can enrol and start at any time, and take however long you need to complete it.
I can’t recommend Sarah Selecky’s Story Course highly enough. I’m already a believer in and practitioner of contemplative approaches in writing and learning, and I truly enjoyed everything it gave me. If you want an inspiring entry point into creative writing that also offers a grounding in fundamental techniques, this class ranks among the best. An inspiring Friday-night whim!