Can You Really Teach Me how to Write? 

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You can’t teach a person how to write; they either have it, or they don’t.

It’s a statement you often hear bandied about by those possessive over their field, wanting to maintain a certain elitism.

But it’s not true.

Today, there are writing schools out there that bring together people from all walks of life but with a common goal: to improve their writing skills.

As an aspiring writer, you may have considered whether it’s worth investing in attending a writing course. Maybe it’s something that’s been in the back of your mind for years; or maybe you’ve only recently discovered a love for writing, and want to learn some skills but can’t see the wood for the trees. It’s possible that a tailored writing course may benefit you if you’re feeling lost in the vast forest of the internet when it comes to improving how you write your stories.

Ashley Stokes, Unthank

Ashley Stokes,
Teacher & Editor at Unthank

Ashley Stokes, a teacher at The Unthank School of Writing in Norwich, UK, has had a swathe of short stories published throughout his career. His first novel, Touching the Starfish, was published in 2010 and was followed by a collection of short stories, The Syllabus of Errors, in 2013.

He’s taught at the University of East Anglia, Norwich Art School, and online for the Open University. He’s designed an Advanced Diploma in Creative Writing, and taught Script and Screenwriting, Popular Fiction, and general prose classes. Ashley is also an editor at Unthank Books, a publishing house started up in 2010 with the ethos of wanting to “develop new authors, not just discover them” – a concept very close to Mash’s heart.

Ashley shot the breeze with us at Mash Stories about teaching and learning creative writing, and about his own short stories.

Cheryl Whittaker: Currently, you teach evening classes at The Unthank School of Writing. What types of people do you see attending the Unthank School?

Ashley Stokes: Evening class students tend to be older and can have more to write about than undergraduates at university. They may be less au fait with literary theory and criticism but may be more creative in some ways. It’s possible that undergrads often aim at more critically informed highbrow fiction and evening class students often aim to produce a commercially viable genre novel. You can’t really generalize, though.

Cheryl: How has your teaching adapted to Unthank students?

Ashley: With the Unthank School, I’ve tried to unlearn lots of things I found unhelpful as a university lecturer, and stripped the theory, self-appraisal and genre hierarchies from the Workshops.

I’d kind of experienced an approach which said, “here’s this thing called poetry; it’s better than prose. Here’s this thing called literary fiction; it’s better than genre fiction. Here’s a clutch of writers you must absorb and emulate; if you don’t, we don’t like you. We won’t let you come to our parties.” I was bored of this and wanted to emphasize eclecticism and learning from all sorts of styles and genres. I don’t want to dismiss anything and I’ve always wanted to know how all forms of expression and storytelling ‘work’.

In Introductory classes, I’ve allowed students to develop by writing whole stories rather than through isolated exercises, and then editing them as we add more structural ideas to the course. Having a storyline shows you what to include and exclude. It’s much easier when you have one. This serves to emphasize the writing-is-rewriting idea.

I’ve also found it useful to let the students talk about their stories-in-progress and teach technique from the questions they may have. I’m keen to point out that there’s no one way to write and there are many types of story.

Part of the process, one of the often unstated purposes of doing a creative writing course, is to find out what type of writer you are and what way of working works best for you.

For example, do you write best by going on a big splurge or by building a story meticulously sentence by sentence?. We focus on what each writer wants to achieve, and shape our feedback to the drafting stage the student has reached.

The classes are incredibly lively and enjoyable. The range of styles and the quality of the material continually amazes me. It’s also become notable that the majority of the students who come into contact with the Unthank School stay on with us, so we are beginning to create a microclimate of our own.

Cheryl: What benefits does a writing school offer people, as compared to the more traditional routes of learning?

Ashley: I’ve met students from other courses around the country who’ve said that they’ve only signed up to a course or ‘academy’ for the networking opportunities. This is depressing. A writing school should, to my mind, demystify the practice of writing (and networking) but also be upfront about the areas where a tutor can help (say, with editing).

Writing is lonely and frequently without reward, so offering a friendly and supportive environment is key. Close reading and editing is crucial but should not be used to bury the writer in the thicket before he or she has cultivated the crop. Moreover, we should always be assessing work in progress on its own terms, not on personal taste or preference.

“A good creative writing tutor or editor should be able to improve any story, not just ones that resemble his or her own.”

Really, it’s about the atmosphere you conjure: hopefully one that makes talking about writing and reading cool and exciting again.

Cheryl: Have you noticed any changes in teaching, learning, and networking over the years?

Ashley: There are more creative writing courses available now. I think there were only four MAs when I was looking for one in 1996. One thing I have noticed is that now, unlike when I started, undergraduates all seem to come from the same social background and speak with a very similar voice, producing the same sort of light, winsome work.

I’ve been to a few readings recently where a guy in a blazer gets up and starts ‘performance poeting’ a rap about how middle class he is, or a girl gets up and ‘performance poets’ a poem about how much of a feminist she is. I wouldn’t say tail-eating like this is a good thing at all.

Cheryl: Has your own approach to writing short stories changed since you first started out?

Ashley: It certainly has. For a start, I write a lot more of them than I used to. Before, I used to write a few between novels, as calling cards, really. After “Touching the Starfish”, I wrote three in this vein, couldn’t settle into a novel, wrote three more until I realized I perhaps had a collection in me. This was the jumping-off point for “The Syllabus of Errors”. This carried on and I’ve recently written a second collection.

I’ve probably learned to throw my voice around a lot more from short story writing than I ever did in novels. I think this is because the short form allows you to experiment without taking a massive risk with your time. I’d never written any historical fiction before I wrote “Marmara” in “The Syllabus of Errors”. I wouldn’t have been confident writing a whole novel set in a different time period but I hope that I would be able to now. I also shift always through several types of story – comic, historical, contemporary, experimental – but I’m not sure you can do that with novels so easily, where your readers can expect certain signatures or styles to recur. My short stories can be quite long, though: up to 15,000 words, so I ought to be concentrating on growing my ideas into short novels, really.

Cheryl: At Unthank Books you are editor of an ongoing short story anthology series called Unthology, the sixth collection of which is about to be released. You’re now receiving something like 3 submissions a day, for a twice-yearly anthology of around 15 stories. When selecting those pieces that will go to print, what are you looking for?

Ashley: We’ve always had an ethos that favours breadth and diversity, and we’re more than happy to stretch the concept of the short story to encompass longer and more substantial fictions, away from the very short, poem-like ‘exquisite’ story that’s common at the moment. Really, when looking at a single story, we’re thinking about how the voice plays with us and how unusual the premise of the story is. Then, we begin to fit the stories into a pattern or running order that gives each Unthology its own rhythm and music. As ever in writing fiction, write what only you could write.

Cheryl: Are you seeing a change now in how short stories are being written?

Ashley: There’s been a huge emphasis on the very short. Really, I wish more people would read short stories, as they’re little miracles when shaped by sensitive fingers.

Ashley has just finished a new collection of long and short stories called “This is How You Disappear”, and is also working up a new novel called “The North Surrey Gigantopithecus”. “Unthology 6” hits the shops in January 2015. And there’s a whole raft of Unthank School classes starting in Norwich and online from January, so if you’ve been thinking about taking the plunge, this could be a good place to start.

Cheryl: A huge thank you to Ashley Stokes for taking the time to tell us about his teaching experiences and his work. Visit ashleystokes.net for more information about him and his writings.


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Our Chief Editor, Cheryl, has been with MASH since day one. Her poetry has appeared in Riot Angel magazine, and one of her short stories was published in This Is It. Cheryl’s creative streak also reaches to art, craft and photography, and her favourite way to combine all these passions is in art journaling and mixed media. You can view Cheryl’s work by visiting her website: www.cswhittaker.com

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