Friday, 4 April 2014

First class drop out

Last week I briefly mentioned a writing course I signed up for and subsequently dropped out of. I feel like telling you about that today.

When I was about twenty-three years old, I was living alone in a small house on the beach with one dog, one cat and a hoard of books ... I also had a dream to be a writer.


The only problem was that I had absolutely no idea how to become a writer. These were the days when you didn't have a computer in your home, so I used to sit on my couch with a note pad and pencil and try to draft some kind of story.

I knew nothing of structure, plot or character development, and without the benefit of Mr Google, I didn't know how to find someone to teach me.

One Sunday, while lying in the sun on my banana-lounge - well, that's what we did in those days - I was reading the paper and came across an ad for a twelve month writing course by correspondence. It was fairly pricey - I think it was something like $700 which seemed a lot to me, but the course included reading material, a monthly writing activity, and students were assigned a tutor to assess their work.

I decided this sounded perfect. I'd been saving up for something - probably a replacement car (I always seemed to be forking out money for the one I had) but I considered this a worthy investment in my future, so I wrote out a cheque and signed up for the course.

As advertised, my books and my course material arrived, and I was assigned my tutor - some bloke with academic credentials and a suitably nerdy photo.

One of the course requirements was that my assignments must be typed so a further investment was made in the form of a brand new, whizz-bang, electronic typewriter. I was all set.

The first couple of months went well. I read my notes, completed my assignments, sent them off for assessment and my tutor's comments indicated that I seemed to show promise.

Yes - the first couple of months. Then it went downhill.

I think I was up to month three and my assignment was to write a short story using an event in history as my starting point. I didn't think about my topic for long - I had the perfect story, a factual one that my grandma had recounted. My Grandma Olive, had been in her early twenties during World War II. She was living in Leeds,Yorkshire, in a time when women undertook jobs that had traditionally been carried out by men.

During the war, Leeds, due to its industrial activities and also its proximity to the Sheffield Steel works, was a major target of the German bombers. Much of Leeds was reduced to rubble as a result of the Blitz.

My grandma, worked as an ambulance driver, navigating bombed-out streets, climbing on foot through the ruined remains of peoples' homes and places of work, searching the wreckage for survivors, helping to rescue them and transport them to hospitals.

The story I wrote for my assignment, was Grandma's true story. Although I wrote it as a fictional piece, I explained in my notes that all my details and descriptions were accurate and faithfully recorded as told to me by Grandma Olive. I considered this my piece de resistance - my finest work!

I posted it off to my tutor and could barely contain myself for the next three weeks while I awaited my assessment results.

The day finally arrived when I got home from work and there it was sticking out of my letter box, waiting for me. I dashed inside the house, dropped my bag on the floor and tore open the envelope.


My tutor said that I had written a ridiculous piece of nonsense that not only showed my inability to follow instructions, but demonstrated my limited wartime knowledge. The scenario, of a woman driving an ambulance around a bombed-out city, was so far-fetched as to be considered fantasy and my character was entirely unbelievable. He went on to suggest that if I wanted to continue this course, I should try to be honest and only write about things I understood.

I was devastated.

My first thought was to contact my tutor and explain myself, but since I had no phone number I would have to write a letter. I ran through a number of drafts in my head, and came up with nothing that I could use, after all he was my tutor and it was he who didn't know what he was talking about! But how could I tell him he was an idiot and that I was no liar, and then hope to continue the course as though nothing had passed between us?

In the end there was only one thing I could do about it: I sat on the couch and cried.

After that, I couldn't bring myself to continue the course. I looked over the instructions for my next month's assignment, but this man now thought I was a fool - and a liar - and I was completely shattered.

So I did nothing. I dropped out. I'd paid for a twelve month course and ended up completing only three.

At first I was angry and I blamed my tutor, but once my anger subsided, I starting blaming myself - I decided that if I were a better writer he wouldn't have doubted the authenticity of my story. It was clearly my own fault. I was a crap writer!

It would be fifteen years before I had the confidence to consider writing again.

That was nearly twenty-five years ago now, but I still remember how this man's ignorance and arrogance destroyed my passion. Since then I have come across similar situations with other teachers, but I've learned to have confidence in myself and, perhaps, with a new level of maturity, I can see that these people are only human - even if they are stupid ... whoops, I shouldn't say that!

In any case, I don't let them get to me.

So, the moral of my story today is if you want to write, or if you are a writer wishing to improve your skills, look for a reputable study program.

We are lucky because we live in an age where everything we need to know is but a keystroke away. So get on line and do your research.

Places to look:
  • local colleges and schools
  • community centres
  • online universities
  • writing societies
Do your homework. Read reviews by other people, look up study forums and learn from other peoples' experiences.

There's a wealth of knowledge out there and good teachers are everywhere, and most importantly - let no one burst your bubble!

Happy writing!

"I didn't do it, Mum ... honest!"

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