In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
I’m often asked if I think the beginning writer of fiction can benefit from writing classes or seminars. The people who ask are, all too often, looking for a magic bullet or a secret ingredient or possibly Dumbo’s magic feather, none of which can be found in classrooms or at writing retreats, no matter how enticing the brochures may be. As for myself, I’m doubtful about writing classes, but not entirely against them.
Unlike Stephen King, I’m a little more positive about writing classes and seminars.
I should be, obviously, since I spent five years in graduate school, took dozens of writing classes, and have been to many writing seminars at conferences throughout the years. There is absolutely something to be said about the benefits to these things.
For me, I always walk away from a good writing class or seminar super inspired to write to my heart’s content. If I’m ever in a funk, all I need is an hour or two listening to people talk about writing or engage in a conversation about a great book or short story with some colleagues in an intimate environment.
Writing is a very lonely job. Sometimes it’s nice to sit with a group of people and talk about writing. Share each other’s work. Give feedback. Talk about character development, conflict, backstory, pacing, etc. Finding other people who have your interests is always a benefit to your creative life.
It’s nice to know when you’re in year three, year four, year five, of writing every day that there are other crazies just like you in the world!
However, writing classes and seminars are definitely not magic bullets, so you need to be careful.
If you’re struggling as a writer, one really awesome writing seminar isn’t going to make you successful. A class you attend in the fall on Mondays and Wednesdays isn’t necessarily going to make you sell your book either. There’s no guarantee with anything in writing. and you can’t look at classes and seminars as ways to ensure everything works out.
I’ve been to writing seminars where I see people all around me jotting down every single word the speaker says, and I’m always left wondering if they ever work this hard at home when they’re by themselves and have a blank page on the laptop in front of them.
The big truth about writing classes and seminars is this: they don’t in any way replace good old fashioned practice, practice, practice. You can talk about writing until the end of time, but doing so is never going to make you improve as a writer.
You get better by actually writing. If the class you’re in requires you to produce two or three short stories (or novel excerpts), that’s always helpful because you’re essentially forced to produce.
But when it comes to seminars, typically you pay a lot of money to sit in a room for a day or two and listen to people talk about writing. Again, one of these here and there can be inspiring for writers, almost necessary. But they also don’t replace the need for you to write.
So make sure your writing takes center stage, while classes and seminars remain in the background.
Stephen King says that he’s doubtful about writing classes and seminars, and I understand where he’s coming from. Classes and seminars can actually take time away from your writing, which, in the end, is more useful in your career, and — cough — free.
Don’t let classes and seminars replace your writing. Instead let them be supplements to your vast creative life. Take a creative writing class to meet some new friends and get fresh pairs of eyeballs on your current work. Go to a seminar once a year if it gives you a jolt of inspiration. There’s no harm in that at all.
But be careful you don’t ever immerse yourself in these settings to the point where talking about writing takes over, and the actual writing becomes lost in the shuffle.
The best thing you can do each and every day? Sit your ass down and write.
And eventually you’ll get to the place you want to be!