Most of us enjoyed writing at school but lost confidence in our teens when what was once a pleasurable pastime turned into a stressful academic chore. Courses in creative writing can often provide a stimulus to rebuild that early enjoyment in writing, with positive spin-offs for both workplace and personal creativity. But how do you attend a writing workshop when, like Tracey Martin, you are based in a country like The Gambia where there are no such opportunities?
Tracey, 42, came to Africa from Thailand, where she worked as a teacher and development manager. Now she is a Director of Voluntary Services Overseas and has settled in The Gambia with her Thai husband and their two children. Keen to join a writing workshop but with none available locally, she thought of setting one up herself – until she discovered the trAce Online Writing School. Based at Nottingham Trent University in England but offering 100 per cent online courses on the web, the School is ideal for people like Tracey. She enjoyed the mix of nationalities in her Online Workshop, where one tutor logged on from Bucketty, a small bush community in Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, Australia, and another from the suburbs of Nottingham, England: ‘I felt online I would be exposed to many more different types and attitudes to writing than if I was in a local group,’ she says, and learning with trAce has certainly opened her eyes to the possibilities: ‘It has motivated me to continue writing – I now know I can get things published on the web and get feedback from all over the world. It has made me want to learn more about the Internet and how it can help writers.’
Uma Girish, 39, a freelance writer with eight years’ experience and based in Chennai, India, had the same response. She had heard about trAce via the British Council and was keen to try an online writing course to re-energise her professional work: ‘I felt I might enjoy the comfort of working from home, reading work from other cultures and backgrounds, and for the first time in my life, be tutored by a foreigner!’
Uma took pleasure in the international variety of a group where the tutor, Marjorie Luesebrink, was based in Newport Beach, California and her fellow students logged on from various parts of the world: ‘I believe I brought a unique cultural perspective to the group, coming from India, as the others did to me. The course opened the window to a much larger world, in terms of ideas, writing styles, contexts and so forth. But there were barriers too. My fellow writers' references didn't always make sense to me (as I'm sure mine didn't to them) especially when they wrote about old-world traditions or used names to suggest a place or a certain kind of atmosphere. But that prompted an exchange because I asked for clarifications and they always obliged.’
There are clearly many benefits for students. But how do the tutors see it? Canadian novelist Kate Pullinger, now based in London, has been teaching writing for many years and finds that online teaching offers extra benefits. She says, ‘The online environment is an ideal place to teach writing, largely because of the objectivity it affords, and the greater access students gain to course materials and on-going discussions; these features go a long way to making up for the downside of teaching online, which is that you don't meet your students face-to-face.’ Kate teaches Short Fiction at trAce and also manages a number of one-to-one tutorials involving a personalised negotiated contract between tutor and student. Occasionally she hosts the Writers’ Workshop, a permanent drop-in workshop which provides a relaxed atmosphere where students can keep going between courses, or simply arrange their workshop time to suit their lifestyles.
Australian writer Sharon Rundle has also taught in the Writers’ Workshop, where it is a bonus to have tutors dropping in from different time-zones during the day. Sharon is highly committed to teaching online but acknowledges it can involve a steep learning curve at the start, for both tutors and students. She told me, ‘It's possible to create a dynamic and stimulating online environment for a productive exchange of ideas and learning. It does take a lot of work and perseverance in the beginning to achieve this but once it takes on its own momentum it can be a very rewarding medium. Of course, then there's the challenge of keeping up with all the postings!’ Sharon also teaches Developing Your Narrative Voice and this summer will be co-teaching a new course with trAce School Manager, Helen Whitehead. Called Season of Inspiration, it aims to provide inspiration for writing that will see you through the coming winter (or summer, depending on your hemisphere!).
Helen not only teaches at trAce but also manages the School and is herself a hypertext author. She has a thorough practical understanding of the pros and cons of teaching via the net: ‘Running online courses is very rewarding because not only is it inclusive for people who couldn't take a course any other way, like shift workers, those who have small children or people with a disability, but the international dimension means that all the participants benefit hugely from the variety of cultural perspectives among students and tutors. The negative is that the technology is still unreliable: as an online school we need to be familiar with a good deal of the possible technologies students may use and to be prepared to offer help quickly, knowledgeably and in a friendly way.’
The technology is of course key to the process. Some trAce courses are designed for beginners, and there is a great deal of help and support available for those who may be struggling with their very first computer, but more advanced courses are also available. Cambridge-based Peter Howard teaches Animated Poetry in Flash and requires prospective students to be able to design a basic web-page and/or write basic HTML. ‘Positive aspects of teaching creative writing online include the fact that it is possible to allow students to work at their own pace, the ability to log on to the course at convenient times for oneself (this applies both to students and tutors), and the fact that it is easily possible to give individual attention to students. Less good aspects are the fact that if students don't respond, it can be extremely difficult to encourage them to do so, and there is a danger that students will concentrate exclusively on their own work, thus missing out on valuable student-student dialogue.’
In 2004 the British Council has piloted Transcripts, a private poetry workshop for British Council staff and nominees. Students have found it enlightening and rewarding. ‘The course is a great learning experience,’ says one. ‘You can take your time, reflect on the assignments and give them in whenever its convenient.’ Meanwhile, the tutor Jane Draycott is delighted by her students: ‘Quite apart from the hard work that's been going on writing and rewriting,’ she says, ‘there is an extraordinary amount of goodwill working between the poets, with participants from quite diverse backgrounds responding to the assignments and to each other's work with real imaginative energy. Over the weeks they have come to share in each other's very different interior worlds at quite a profound level.’
Sue Thomas is Artistic Director of trAce. Her most recent book is Hello World: travels in virtuality (Raw Nerve, 2004). Part travelogue, part memoir, it draws on her online travels as well as her physical journeys in the USA, Australia and England. www.travelsinvirtuality.com The trAce Online Writing School is at www.tracewritingschool.com