Helen Cadbury is one of the nicest writers in the business at the moment in my opinion. I love her wit and can’t wait to host her at Noir at the Bar NE in February.
Helen is here today to talk to us about writers who teach which is a topic that is of particular interest to me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Helen.
Writers who Teach
by Helen Cadbury
It is not a given that just because a person knows how to do a thing, that they can necessarily teach it. There are some extremely talented writers who are also brilliant and inspiring teachers, I have been lucky enough to be taught by at least two: the poet, Carole Bromley, and the novelist, Lesley Glaister. But there are also a set of esteemed authors and poets who are not great teachers, some of them are even terrible teachers, jealous perhaps of those coming after them, or simply lacking the enthusiasm or skills to enable others. There is also another set of writers who teach while at the very beginning of their careers, emerging writers whose enthusiasm is infectious to their students.
So why do writers teach? Many writers I know claim to be introverts, so being in a group setting like a classroom or workshop space might seem like masochism. Is it for the money? Well that certainly helps. With average author earnings well below the Living Wage, and even beneath the annual full-time minimum wage, there are only a tiny minority of authors, and virtually no poets, who solely earn their living from selling their writing. But a word of caution: teaching creative writing is not a get rich quick scheme. It’s hard work and inevitably takes far longer than the hourly rate offered for a session of delivery. I estimate my preparation time to be 1.5 to 2 times the length of a one-off taught session. If it’s a course, then there will also be marking. Quoting the real cost of session to a perspective client can put them off, so sometimes we undersell ourselves, in order to get the work, regretting it later when we are committed to a group of learners, a long journey, and a novel at home waiting to be finished.
There are easier ways of creating the income you need to sustain a writing career, but there is something that teaching gives a writer, which working a day job doesn’t, and that is the creative process of writing itself. When setting an exercise on structure, for example, the writer is also reflecting on their own use of structure. When teaching a class on character, new characters emerge for your own work. The character of Barry ‘Burger’ King, a detective in my debut, ‘To Catch a Rabbit‘, was created during an exercise in a class I was teaching at HMP Askham Grange. My learners added some very helpful characteristics to his sketch, as we all fed back on each other’s creations. I don’t always join in with the exercises, but when I do, it’s to show that I’m not asking my learners to do something I wouldn’t do myself. When I don’t, it enables me to pause a little, in that golden silence when they are writing, and be even more alert in listening to the work they read out.
I trained as a secondary school drama teacher, and I’ve also worked for many years as a trainer in the Youth Arts sector, so for me, bringing the skills and techniques of creative education to groups of writers – whether they be young people ambitious to be published, mature writers exploring their life stories, those writing for their own therapeutic release, or any combination of the above – gives me a sense of completeness in bringing the different parts of my life experience together. It also takes me away from my own work, makes me think, and brings me back to my writing desk refreshed.