Tony Rees, a retired civil servant, recently attended a four-day biography course at the Arvon Foundation in Yorkshire. Along with two tutors and 15 other students, he covered such basics as dealing with research, handling sensitive issues, and finding a writing voice. "It was very intense," he admits, "I didn't understand why it was only four days until I went. I slept only a few hours a night; there was so much adrenaline going, and I was so busy writing."
So what exactly did he get out of it? "Basically, it gave me a kick up the arse to get going," he says, "It undid a block and gave me the confidence to start on the biography I've been planning for a while."
Unfortunately, creative writing courses tend to conjure up dire images of sad literary wannabes led by those who've already failed to make a real living out of writing. Tony Rees's fellow students, however, included a number of published biographers, novelists and journalists. And there is no disputing the quality of Arvon's tutors; this year its students will receive pearls of creative wisdom from such well-known names as Roger McGough, Hermione Lee, Alison Lurie, Rachel Cusk and Simon Nye.
Sue Teddern, who writes comedy for television and radio, recently taught a course on sitcom writing for Arvon. Ten years ago, as an established journalist, she attended similar courses on television and comedy-writing herself.
"I arrived thinking I wanted to write comedy, and left really motivated and determined, taking myself a lot more seriously. The tutors swept away a lot of myths from it all, and a couple of lessons, such as not writing in stereotypes, have stuck with me for life."
But Teddern finds that different people come to her courses - which cover areas such as character, structure, and the practicalities of submitting work - for different reasons. One or two just like the idea of writing, others are new to comedy and want to find out if they have got what it takes, and perhaps three or four will be deadly serious and have real drive. "Some will come away thinking it's not for them; a few will discover this is what they are born to do."
So does she think people can really be taught to write? You can certainly acquire some tried-and-tested tips, she believes: "I've picked up good ones from workshops myself. You can teach people techniques such as how to map out an episode or structure a typical sitcom, but what you can't give them is that spark that makes stuff special, the magic that makes it all work."
Those lucky enough to have the spark may find that a writing course gives them the impetus to seek publication. Martin Booth, biographer and author of 11 novels, recalls the novelist Lisa St Aubin de Teran turning up to one of his courses with the manuscript for Keepers of the House. "I remember looking at it and thinking that it was absolutely fantastic," he says, "In fact, I helped her to get an agent."
Inevitably, however, others arrive with quite unrealistic expectations of their own talent and chances of success. Students can range from the gruesome to the fabulous, says Booth; as in any teaching situation you can end up with class 1A or 7D.
"Some think a course is like medical school, and they will get an internship when they finish. But you don't necessarily stand a better chance of becoming a published writer; there are too many variables involved."
Not least of which is talent, and Booth has had, on occasions, to break painful news.
"You have to be honest with people," he insists. "If you go to the doctor, you want to be told the truth. I'm also there as a consultant: if you've got a severe illness, I'll tell you so and offer you the treatment that may cure you. But if the disease is too far gone, you deserve to know."
Becoming the next Tolstoy
l The Arvon Foundation (01409 231338) runs courses in Devon, Yorkshire and Scotland. Cost: pounds 290 for four/five days. Forthcoming subjects: novels, poetry, short fiction, starting to write, and writing for television. Grants are available.
l The Old Rectory, Fittleworth, West Sussex (01798 865306) Cost: pounds 114 to pounds 385 per course. Forthcoming subjects: short stories, freelance writing, travel writing and biographies.
l Missenden Abbey, Bucks (01494 890295/6) Cost: pounds 50-pounds 140 per weekend. Forthcoming subjects: writing for television, poetry, imaginative fiction, magazine articles, historical fiction.
l Belstead House, Ipswich, Suffolk (01473 686321) Cost: pounds 95 residential, pounds 75 non-residential. Forthcoming subject: memoir writing.