Last week, I taught the first-ever SF & Fantasy writing course at Denman College. It was great fun. The students were really keen and hard-working, determined to make the best of the time they had. The full days at Denman are fairly long – from 9.30 in the morning till 9.15 at night. So, you have to try to get the balance right, between pushing on for a result and taking the time to sit back and reflect, share some laughs and, of course, do some writing.

For me, the secret of teaching as such, is that I must be as keen as the students. Yes, I need to have plenty of stuff prepared but the vital ingredient is that I have to enjoy myself, too. I don’t believe creative teaching works if the teacher has the attitude that they are imparting wisdom, essentially, to the students who just absorb it.

Recently, there was an article in a widely read journal by an author who teaches creative writing. She talked about making sure you don’t run out of material; listed some tricks for overcoming nerves. But what she didn’t talk about was enjoying herself. She made it sound like a necessary chore that a writer has to take on at some stage in their career, and how to get through it relatively unscathed. I’ve met others like her.

Part of the problem, I think, is that writers sometimes get hired to teach on the basis that they’ve had books published, not because they want to teach. They worry about how they will get on, so they concentrate on putting together careful but somewhat rigid sets of exercises and mini-lectures. And yes, new writers need to know about structure and plot and point of view and show not tell. But more than that, they need to see that the teacher is still being creative himself.

And this is the bit that’s hard to talk about but which is essential above how much knowledge of the craft you possess or even how many books you’ve sold. It’s about giving yourself over honestly to the process that you’re sharing with the students. Not sharing in the same way that they’re involved – after all, you are responsible for the course – but certainly the same in terms of putting in your heart and soul and the very best of your attention.

If you can do this, then the students will sense the best kind of encouragement to succeed. You can’t make them be better writers, but you can show by example that improving at anything is always a matter of first setting up a safe, creative environment, then second, jumping in to it without reservation.

This doesn’t mean that every moment of your course will be bursting with creative energy – that’s impossible – but it does ensure that whenever a student has a breakthrough moment of understanding or insight, what they will meet is genuine and fully-felt encouragement, rather than a kind of muted and possibly not fully cognitive acknowledgement.

At one point on our course, I was trying to explain about how magic, in terms of creating moments, characters, scenes that are more than the sum of their parts, that truly excite the reader, is a bit like palm-reading. I confessed that I used to be a professional palm-reader but that I didn’t tell fortunes; I concentrated on reading character. The first ingredient of that is plain curiosity, to always be fascinated by what makes people tick. Then you need lots of practice at reading palms – not necessarily after studying books written by palm-readers (in fact, I’d advise against this, unless you want your creative curiosity to get side-tracked by spurious future-prediction or even cold reading); you could do it like I did, by setting yourself up as a palm-reader in a public place then just jumping in.

When you’ve read hundreds of palms a strange thing happens: your instinct begins to take over, so that it kind of soars above all that practice and connects to revealing aspects of, in this case, other people that you couldn’t really work out logically. At one point, I told them, I stopped looking at people’s palms – but that had unsettled my clients, so I’d gone back to using the hand as a prop.

Writing, I said – and I admit the analogy was a little rough, but at least I was working it out live, so to speak – is similar. You need to be constantly writing but also curious about what you write, what your writing reveals about the truth of yourself and others. And all the time, you’re training your instinct so that eventually, a time will come when it’s able to make an informed leap across the mundane/magic divide and return with a phrase or a piece of dialogue or a twist in the plot that is truly, unpredictably, creative.

I think I said it looks a bit like this:


This, I believe, is how you don’t cheat your students; you don’t usher them through a course that you are just trying to survive. Instead, you’re sharing in the creative process.

And at the end of our Denman course I think we all felt the same kind of creative pleasure at having got somewhere different to where we started from. Okay, I was lucky that the people who came were so open to the process – it isn’t always like that – but the point is that if you’re teaching, you need to make sure you are playing your part right from the start, in working hard to be open and ready. In some ways, there’s no worse sin for a teacher than that they aren’t able to help when a student is making a creative breakthrough or that they don’t even notice it.



Apparently, most of us suffer from superiority complex. We think we know more than we do. We think we’re cleverer than we are. We think we think better than we do. Really clever people don’t actually think like this. They know they don’t know everything, and don’t think they’re particularly clever.

Which is odd. It means that in most conversations, business meetings and interviews, the people doing the most talking – the most emphatic talking anyway- are those who aren’t actually that bright. Who’d have thought?

Does this mean that writers who do the most writing aren’t the brightest writers? Does it mean that the characters doing the most talking in your stories aren’t the most interesting?

Can you write if you don’t have a superiority complex?

Do writers write because they’re tired of spending hours listening to other people going on about a great Two-for-One they got in Tesco the other day, wondering why they aren’t doing any of the talking despite having much better stories to tell?

One time, researching an article I was talking to a guy who gives guidance to people who’ve been in religious cults. We had a conversation in which he talked quite a lot about how he and his wife had joined a cult but when he’d left, she’d stayed and they’d broken up. Hmmm, I thought, resisting the urge to offer him a bit of therapy. He also spoke with that all-knowing superiority complex kind of voice and did most of the talking but I wasn’t getting much stuff for the article and politely said goodbye. About two weeks later, he phoned me because, he said, he had an interesting story for me. It wasn’t of course and I started to think about other stuff while he rambled on.

At one point, he said, “I’ve been reading a really fascinating book lately,” and I said, “‘The Road Less Travelled by Scott Peck’.” He said, “That’s right,” and carried on with his story.

Now, we had at no time previously discussed books or the kind of literature he might like. So I was interested in how I could possibly know what he was reading right then. I thought about intuition, or cognitive synchronicity, or plain old extrapolation, but nothing quite fit. While I was thinking all this, he carried on apparently oblivious to what I’d done, as if it was just the kind of thing that passed as normal outside of religious cults.

So, locked up tight inside his superiority complex he’d missed a bit of, well, if not magic exactly, at least something that actually might have been worth talking about.

Here’s the thing: critics tend to also adopt the superiority complex when discussing books they admire. Does this mean they tend to miss the magic moments in those books? (Assuming, of course, they contain any?) Or is it more the case that because they aren’t capable of seeing the magic, they automatically opt for books that don’t contain any?

This would explain, to me at least, the utter predictability of many so-called classics of literature. Virginia Woolf, for example, was the market leader in writing from a superiority complex, producing prose utterly devoid of magic but perhaps appealing to those with the same kind of complex.

This is the danger of paying too much attention to what your teachers tell you in school, especially so-called good schools. Writer, teacher, pupil, critic, the approved system of what constitutes art – it’s all a club that the intelligent but gullible are encouraged to join. Inside, they’ll feel the reassurance of others of kind, all knowing exactly why what is considered good literature is the best. But in order to join, you have to put on the club costume which is a kind of tastefully grey superhero costume, obscured by a tweed jacket, with ‘SC’ in gold across the heart.

I think this is saying that if you want to be a really good writer, one who produces the odd bit of magic in amongst memorable, as opposed to well constructed, characters and stories that live-along instead of follow-along, then you have to lead with your not-knowing anything about anything and keep your knowing a lot firmly in the back seat, offering its views only when asked.

In other words, make your superiority complex your slave not your project manager. Superiority is a cult: it offers surety and the agreement of others but it completely excludes, destroys if possible, any hint of non-cult behaviour that you might actually need if your stories are going to court magic.

I suspect my ex-cult guy joined it in the first place because he was looking for magic. But the odds were against him, given the hierarchical nature of most cults and their obsessive need for members to feel superior to non-members. He left but his wife didn’t. It seems as if he then constructed a new cult for himself: being a cult therapist, which I guess is another kind of superiority affair.

In summary, then, I think I’m saying it’s wise to try not to develop a superiority complex, as a writer, that can make you miss the magic. Some commercial writers, for example, can get caught in the superiority complex of relentlessly pursuing their 5000 words per day targets, then bragging about it or, worse, encouraging new writers to join their club. Literary writers can develop a superiority complex that’s based on almost the opposite approach: writing next to nothing but re-writing it endlessly anyway, under the belief that quality lies in less.