Writing Masterclass with Max Dunbar

A L Kennedy has an article on writing workshops that, while interesting, is maybe a little negative.

But then I think of That Masterclass – that suppurating two days spent in the company of a man whom I, on sight, wanted to stab in the face with a screwdriver… In That Masterclass, I and my fellows huddled in chairs, trying to believe we wanted to make notes, as our Master unzipped and released a tepid stream of narcissistic rage, misogyny, self-aggrandising gibberish and SHOUTING. By lunchtime on the first day we all loathed him. By lunchtime on the second day I was desperately trying to withdraw to my Happy Place, but was being refused entry on the grounds that anyone lovely I could think of, any beautiful location or delightful event, would be irretrievably sullied by contact with an apparently endless succession of rants, humiliating exercises and sad little glimpses into a world of horrible disappointments and fear. Ever done something new while strangers observed? Well, try doing it with a real live sociopath bellowing wet comments against your neck.

I think workshops can be the best possible environment to improve your writing – as long as everyone follows a certain etiquette. Here I present some ground rules for prospective creative writing students and workshop participants.

1: Remember, you don’t have to read fiction to write it – in fact you don’t have to have any interest in fiction other than in being paid to produce it. Do not read anything outside your set texts – it will only be a distraction from your own work.

2: A writing workshop isn’t just about writing. You can treat it as group therapy. Feel free to discuss, at length, any aspect of your personal and professional life, including but not limited to your job, relationships, home, golf handicap, whatever – as long as it’s about you, it will be fascinating to those around you. 

3: Quantity beats quality, in both art and life. If you’re workshopping a piece, make it at least twice the recommended word count. When speaking, even when you’re making a relevant point (why?) try to be as long-winded as possible. Never use one word when ten will do.

4: We have all the time in the world. It’s important to drag the session out as long as possible – remember that no one has a life beyond the workshop room, anywhere else to be or anything better to do than listen to you talk.

5: As the course goes on you can make things interesting by dividing the group into factions, playing them off against each other and starting random vendettas and bullying campaigns. This character building exercise is guaranteed to turn a class of pleasant, easy-going people into twitching, broken paranoiacs within half a semester.

6: How to take criticism – don’t! Contradict, cry, hurl abuse, throw chairs, make personal attacks, storm out. It worked for Alice Hoffman, Alain de Botton and, er, Belinda Webb – it can work for you! Above all, never change anything about your fiction based on something someone has said in a workshop. Once you’ve done that first draft, consider it set in stone.

7: How to give criticism – well, you shouldn’t pay that much attention to other people’s stuff, but take the time to learn a few stock phrases that can be used to critique anything on any subject. Useful words to know: metanarrative, verticality, Rabelasian, postmodernism, jejune – and don’t worry, you don’t have to find out what they mean! If you really want to get noticed, throw in an accusation of misogyny or racism.

8: On the other hand, if someone claims to find traces of racism or misogyny in your own work, you can turn the tables by accusing them of being ‘preachy’ or ‘politically correct’.

9: It’s all about contacts, and nothing to do with talent. The workshop or course is not about improving your own writing, it’s about grubbing around for ‘back doors’ into publication rather than undergoing the boring process of getting your fiction to a publishable standard, researching the market and submitting your work.

10: Above all, remember – it’s not about your fiction, it is all about you.


Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.’

(Inspiration: Jenn and Jane)


3 Responses to “Writing Masterclass with Max Dunbar”

  1. nicholasroyle Says:

    Very funny, Max. Had me going there for a while.

  2. phil clarke Says:

    Never been on a writing course, nor a violin-playing course – both equally bonkers and pointless… except maybe in the hands of a true master like Malcolm Bradbury – who somehow managed to overcome (and write about) the usual inevitable syndrome you so brilliantly describe, and which from somewhere I have the experience to imagine.

    How did I find your site? I’d need the teen-memory essential for solving the rubix cube to backtrack to… oh yeah, I was searching a guy called Horacio Quiroga… weird how one thing leads to another so unpredictably; a fact which makes life live.

  3. Tim Chambers Says:

    “They don’t stifle enough of them.”

    Ho ho, well said.

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