Monday, July 15, 2019

Being Schooled in Writing

Question: Were you formally trained as a writer? i.e., an MFA or college curriculum? Can you teach writing? Does it matter if you went to school for it?

Brenda Chapman here.
Like many writers, I've made a career of reading from a very young age. The reason I open with this is because I believe that reading widely is an education that every author can access, no matter income or formal schooling.

When it came time for me to go to university, I chose a field that seemed to be the only things I was really proficient at - reading and writing - and so entered the English literature program at Lakehead University. While I took courses in Renaissance drama, American literature and the like, my interest in poetry rose to the surface. I studied British and Canadian poetry mainly, and particularly enjoyed the earlier Canadian poets and T.S. Eliot. In third year, I took a creative writing course, taught by an American poet. The course lasted the entire year and focused on poetry and short story writing. I loved every minute of it. In fact, I loved that course more than any of the other literature courses, which probably was a sign of where my true interests lay.

After getting my B.A., I still didn't know what career I should choose, or even what was available for someone with a B.A. in English lit. I'd worked a lot with kids in summer camps and teachers' college seemed like a logical next step, so off I went to Queen's faculty of education in Kingston, Ontario. This led to my work at an alternative school in Ottawa with the focus on special education, a field I worked in for almost fifteen years. During this time, I took courses toward my Honours English degree, ending up one credit short, only because I began working full-time in the government and started writing books. I keep meaning to get back for that one credit, but haven't gotten around to checking out what I need to enroll.

During my teaching years, I tutored some high school students in grammar and so I had to relearn a lot of the concepts from my school years. I spent a lot of time pouring over grammar books and figuring out how to teach the lessons. This came in useful in my government writing and editing jobs, where I continued to expand my knowledge. A solid grounding in grammar is key to good writing, and I'd advise all beginning writers to crack open the grammar books.

My one regret is that way back when I was in high school and looking at options for university, I was not aware of the creative writing degree. In hindsight, this would have been my first choice. 

I've taught writing workshops, mainly to children, and I'll be teaching a workshop for new adult writers on point of view in August. The teaching degree combined with my years in education give me some degree of comfort in tackling these assignments. This said, I'm not interested in teaching at a college or university, either part- or full-time. The odd workshop suits me fine.

Looking back, my writing education is a mix of formal schooling and learning by doing and reading. However, no matter what challenge I've taken on, I've never strayed far from that first passion for the written word!


Twitter: brendaAchapman

Facebook: BrendaChapmanAuthor


Dietrich Kalteis said...

Well said, Brenda. I thought it was important to pour over the grammar texts before I started writing novels as well. And now I often break a lot of those rules for the sake of style and flow.

Brenda Chapman said...

Thanks Dietrich! Yes, important to know the rules before you break them :-)

Dana King said...

I had no formal training as a writer and went to school during a period when the prevailing wisdom was that we didn't need to be taught all the rules of grammar anymore. (They called it "linguistics.") I was painfully aware of how much I didn't know and had trouble making sense of even Strunk and White because I didn't know the terms like "subjunctive" or "future perfect," and plenty of others.

That's why I wrote mt first few novels in first person. I figured any grammatical issues would be attributed to the character and not to me. I've since learned a little grammar--not too many of the terms, though--and have learned to trust my gut about what sounds right by paying attention when I read things that require proper grammar. (Non-fiction, for example.) As Dieter said, above, though, when faced with a choice between grammar and flow, flow always wins.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for telling us your experience, Dana. I agree that we can absorb a lot of grammar through reading without actually needing to know what items are called. Luckily, we also have editors to help finesse the grammar in our work.

Brenda Chapman said...

BTW - Anonymous is me Brenda - hit the wrong key!