3 Lessons I learned from Studying Creative Writing with Oxford Summer Courses

Date of Publication: 30 May 2017

In July 2016, Avantika Singhal arrived in Oxford to undertake a Creative Writing academic course. At Oxford Summer Courses we model our teaching on the tutorial system used at Oxford University. This means that the teaching is about your ideas and is your opportunity to discuss them and dissect them with your peers and tutor. We asked Avantika to tell us about her experience of the course, and for her 3 main lessons learned…

Avantika Singhal, 2016 Oxford Summer Courses student

When I was in 9th grade, Enid Blyton and her tales found a permanent residence in the warmth of my heart. After that, I started spending a fair share of my day in getting lost in the maze of fictional characters and nefarious situations she would create. The mystery of one disappearing cat, the suspense that it brought in and the conclusion-everything meant more than just an imaginary story or a way to pass the hours.

An undying love and admiration for writing and reading grew within me and before I knew it, I was sifting through works of Thomas Hardy, Jules Verne and Bram Stoker both greedily and dutifully by the time I had reached 12th grade.

Naturally, when a literary-motivated person like me saw the opportunity to study Creative Writing with Oxford Summer Courses at Christ Church College, Oxford University, I was ecstatic (translation: I squealed VERY loudly with delight) to have this opportunity.

Now, every and any experience can be didactic. From a lecture in the classroom, or a speech by an activist or to words of a passing stranger. But there is value to be had from some more than others. Obviously, I had to share what I learned from this Creative Writing Course.

  1. PLOT HOLES ARE INTIMIDATING AND CAN HOLD YOU BACK

While crafting a story and creating interesting characters is a laudatory act, what really proves as a bump in the road is identifying and scrutinizing plot holes. If unidentified, they can prove detrimental to a story that could have otherwise been immaculate. Imagine if J.K Rowling had forgotten about one of the seven Horcruxes? No one would be impressed by that and the readers would have given her a stink eye for it.

When our exceptionally brilliant tutor, gave us our main assignment for the course, she told us to fabricate ANYTHING that could be of 5,000 words or less. However, she would always quickly and reassuringly add, “Quality matters more than quantity.”

So, I diligently started writing a story about a mentally ill Cinderella (Yes, I know. A tad bit too creative). But when I was amid my story, I launched a new, crooked character and forced him to conflict with Cinderella. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to introduce him and mention how and where they had met and under what circumstances…

LESSON: Plot holes are extant and you may not be able to iron out each one on first time of asking, but pay attention to every aspect of your story in order to avoid major issues.

  1. GIVING AND RECEIVING CRITICISM

There’s a grave difference between literary criticism and needless flak. I learned this the hard way. In my class, I was accompanied by four more students who were equally impassioned by writing. So, when we enthusiastically exchanged stories and skimmed over which new world the other person had created, our tutor asked us to review our friend’s work and voice what we had liked and what we did not.

Despite being slightly mousy and a reticent person, I took to the task. Praising my friends out loud felt emboldening and invigorating. However, this bliss was short-lived because I, of course, was also required to state bluntly and resolutely what changes I would have liked in their story or poem.

At first, my criticism only stretched to “Hmm, maybe this could be expanded a little more” or “The character could come to the surface more by showing one or two of their traits more clearly”. While these comments were adequate, they were not enough. I realized I was running out of subjective rectifications and when that happened, I would resort to saying only positive things.

LESSON: Acknowledge the good and the bad. Doing this means you are identifying an issue in a manuscript and you’re giving the writer the chance to remedy it.

  1. SYNONYMS

As a writer, I can gladly acquiesce to the fact that when I read a text and spot a difficult word that I had never come across before, I transform into a kid waking up to an early Christmas. It’s tantamount to literary treasure because now, I can absorb this word as part of my own vocabulary and grow as a wordsmith.

Well, in my “Cinderella” story, I constantly tried to use big and archaic words to express things. Incidentally, when I tried to describe water as “stagnant”, I was told quite calmly by my tutor that if I had used the word “tranquil”, it would have been more powerful, more apt and vivid.

LESSON: The elementary purpose of a word is to communicate; therefore, it is vital to choose the right word for the right moment to maximize its effect.

IN CONCLUSION

Mistakes must be made so that we can learn from them. Writing creatively is a journey of development, and the environment fostered at Christ Church College, a college celebrated for its literary significance, is inspiring. This was my journey of becoming a more knowledgeable, practical, critical writer in Oxford.

You can join Avantika on her writing journey via her blog, Facebook, Twitter and on Instagram.

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