I write non-fiction all of the time. it’s the most consistent part of academia – backgrounds, methods, analysis, it’s the one thing I know I could do every day and never get to the end of. Academic writing is a specific type of non-fiction designed to convey information, packing in details though remaining concise. What I do much less frequently is creative non-fiction. That is, using storytelling techniques to communicate factually accurate things.
Earlier this year, I had an idea for a non-fiction book. I’m not going to say any more than that – maybe one day I’ll write it, maybe I won’t – for now I’m mulling the idea over in my head to see if it’s got legs. Anyway, after having that idea I decided I’d like to learn how to write creative non-fiction. I searched online for local training courses, regular classes that I could attend to learn the basics, and I struggled to find anything around the Aberdeen area. Most options were online, and most were cost-prohibitively expensive. I pushed the idea to the back of my mind, and a few days later whilst watching one of Jen Campbell’s YouTube videos, she mentioned that she was starting a new online writing workshop for creative non-fiction. I signed up straight away; it was only £50 and though I didn’t think that something so short (and distant) could teach me a huge amount, I figured that it would at least get my head into the right space to get started.
I completed the writing workshop whilst I was on my Fellowship travels in Singapore and Hong Kong, and I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to talk about it here.
Jen Campbell has written a number of (fantastic) non-fiction books about books and booksellers, she’s also written poetry, short stories and children’s books, and she’s currently working on her first novel. Jen runs these workshops for a small group of people a few times a year, and you don’t need to have any formal writing experience or training to take part.
Since this workshop is online, you can take part wherever you are in the world. There is a text-only Skype session scheduled for feedback, but if the time isn’t suitable then you are able to get feedback on your work via email instead.
The workshop includes two tasks. The first involves looking at some examples of creative non-fiction and analysing them to work out why they are (or are not) successful, the second is a bigger beast; writing your own piece of creative non-fiction of up to 2,000 words.
The first task was necessary and interesting, but it was the second task that really got me thinking. The instructions Jen gives state, ‘You might want to write about a personal experience, you might want to write an informal essay, or a piece of memoir. Do whatever you like.’ I’d never had this much freedom to write non-fiction before, and it scared me (I’m not sure why, only Jen and the other workshop participants would see my writing. It wasn’t as if the stakes were particularly high – we were all there to learn). Regardless, it took me a few days of bouncing ideas around in my head to settle on something to write about, and then I did it. I sat down at my laptop and wrote, and honestly, it felt like a form of therapy. I wrote something very personal that I doubt I’ll ever share, and I loved it. It was a rough first draft and I knew it could be significantly improved, but for the first time in months I genuinely enjoyed the process of writing.
I sent both of my completed tasks to Jen before I had time to doubt myself, and a week later I got feedback. I’ve watched Jen’s YouTube channel for a few years and I’ve read lots of her books so I know that she is good at what she does, but for something so quick (and reasonably priced), I was expecting surface level feedback at best. Instead, I logged into the Skype chat (the one good thing about my experience with jet-lag) and she explained fundamental techniques, gave in-depth, well thought through feedback, suggested edits to my text, and the promise of a second round of feedback on a future draft. There were only 3 of us on the Skype chat and it was useful to hear both Jen’s feedback for the other workshop participant, and the other participant’s feedback on my piece.
I fully intended to edit that piece of writing within a week of the Skype chat; I felt passionate about learning this new skill and I was looking forward to revising my work (seriously, when does anyone think that?). Perhaps obviously, I didn’t have the time. My Fellowship travels were in full swing, and I got caught up with writing what felt like a million other things.
Now, I’m at one of Rowena Murray’s writing retreats, and as usual, I’ve managed to get way more work done than I thought I would (if either of my PhD supervisors are reading this – I’ve finished a new draft of the qualitative paper!), so I’m using one of the last sessions to edit my piece and write this blog post.
On reflection, I’m glad that I took a forced step back from creative non-fiction as it feels like Jen’s advice has sunk in over the last few months. Now I’m excited to make time to write, whether it’s as a sort of therapeutic outlet, or to continue banging on about science and science communication in a (hopefully) more engaging way.
If you’d like to try one of Jen Campbell’s online writing workshops for yourself, take a look at her website for dates. There are currently no dates for group workshops, but she also doing individual workshops throughout the year.
Yes, absolutely. I’m actually thinking of signing up for another one of Jen’s workshops later in the year – something further out of my comfort zone; perhaps this is the year that I start writing poetry!
I also wanted to mention Jen’s podcast – BOOKS WITH JEN. If you’re at all interested in reading, writing, books, authors and/or cups of tea, you’ll like this. All of the episodes are spoiler-free too, which means it’s one of my favourite sources to find out about books before going out to buy them.