Christina Patterson: A Week in Books

Click to follow

TS Eliot did it after a day at the bank. Wallace Stevens did it after a day at the office. So did Chaucer and so did Wordsworth. Chatterton didn't, but then he topped himself in the garret he also wrote in.

Traditionally, there have been two models for being a writer. The first is one of daily assignations with the muse after a hard day at work. The second is abject poverty. There is a third, of course. In this model, you get garlanded with praise, showered with awards, fêted, flattered and filthy rich. In this model, your unassuming and slightly hard-going first novel gets made into a glitzy epic starring Nicole Kidman, and the advance for your second novel beats all records. How happy it is when art and money are conjoined in perfect harmony! Happy indeed, but about as common, I'm afraid, as a politician's apology or a lunar eclipse.

Anyone who wants a more realistic assessment of the financial prospects for the average writer would do well to contact the Royal Literary Fund or the Society of Authors - organisations which help writers in distress. These are not, as I discovered when doing some advisory work a couple of years ago, dreamers who've chucked in the day job in pursuit of some wild bohemian fantasy. No, these are solid, mid-list writers published by reputable houses, who can't feed their children on what their publishers pay.

It is, however, the third model which continues to capture the public imagination - this model, too, which presumably fuels the inexorable rise of the Creative Writing MA. Clearly, writing is a craft that takes time and effort. Like any other craft, it benefits from the input of experts. Good courses - the University of East Anglia, Lancaster, Goldsmiths, Liverpool John Hopkins and Sheffield Hallam spring to mind - will offer excellent teaching and one-to-one support. But only a tiny proportion of students undertaking such courses actually make it as writers - and MAs don't come cheap.

Creative Writing is a whole new economy. It makes big money at low cost for universities. In a peculiarly self-perpetuating cycle, it offers not just employment, but a whole new career structure for writers - one safely beyond the vagaries of publication and the market. Given the economic realities of publishing, this is probably just as well, but it often does so by raising expectations that can't be matched.

For the aspiring writer desperate for help, there are some cheaper options. The Literary Consultancy, which last month celebrated its 10th birthday, continues to offer an editorial assessment service and has just launched an online mentoring scheme with Sara Maitland. Writers who have benefited from its services include Prue Leith (in her guise as novelist) and septuagenarian novelist, Charles Chadwyck.

There's also the Arvon Foundation, which for nearly 40 years has offered writers the opportunity to grab a week of peace, quiet and expert tuition away from the hurly-burly and the e-mail. Mark Haddon, Pat Barker and Esther Freud are among those who acknowledge their debt to Arvon. And then, of course, there are the Arts Council bursaries, the regional mentoring schemes, the evening classes, the writing holidays and the workshops. There is, in fact, no end of support for the writer seeking support - if you're prepared to pay for it. Do it by all means, and enjoy it, but if you want a mortgage, a car or a holiday, then keep it as a hobby.

Boyd Tonkin is away