Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Creative Writing: Reflections of a Survivor

'Q' (Rip Torn) in Wonder Boys

              In Curtis Hanson’s 2000 film Wonder Boys, based on a novel by Michael Chabon, the successful author Quentin Morewood (known as ‘Q’, and played by Rip Torn), opens his keynote speech to a literary festival by announcing, portentously, “ I am… a Writer.” There is a brief pause, followed by thunderous applause from the assembled members of the university Creative Writing faculty hosting the event. As the ovation dies down, it is replaced by isolated shrieks of laughter  emanating from James Leer (Tobey Maguire), a gifted student, misfit and fantasist, who plainly has no time for the solemnity and self-regard of the occasion – and has also been smoking marijuana.  It’s a great comic moment, puncturing Q’s pomposity and calling into question the solemn presence of everybody there. We’re never quite sure if James is impressed by, or even aware of, his own talent – which has already been comprehensively rubbished by his studious peers – or whether it is all part of the continuum of deceit and self-concealment by which he keeps everyone around him at bay. But there can be no doubt that he holds the institution of which he is a member in little regard, and this only serves to emphasise the uncertainties simultaneously assailing his tutor, Professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), who was appointed to his post on the strength of a single well-received novel and now cannot finish his second.  James obviously can write, but won’t – or can’t – play the game. Prof Tripp plays the game – he is both coach and referee into the bargain – but seems to have forgotten how to write spontaneously.  And here we have, in one brilliant little vignette, the whole paradox of Creative Writing education.

                I‘m thinking of this because for some reason a number of my Facebook friends have, in the last couple of days, posted various press and blog articles giving advice to writers and other artists on how to ‘up’ their performance,  concentrate on the job in hand, augment their creativity, and otherwise improve themselves and their production.  Coupled with this has been publicity surrounding the recent 40th anniversary of the first UK Creative Writing degree course at the University of East Anglia (alumni: Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, et al.) The question this raises with  me is one I’ve often heard articulated before: does any of it work ? Indeed, given the huge disparity in personality between practitioners of the literary arts, the impenetrability of the commercial market for their output, and the unpredictability of artistic trends, can  it work ?

"Bleeding obvious !"

                I suppose a lot depends on what it is you’re trying to achieve. Much of the standard advice concerns the development of writing habits – treating what you do as though it were a day job, writing even when you don’t feel like it, accepting that writing practice complies with the old formula ‘1% inspiration, 99% perspiration’, and so on. But this strikes me as what Basil Fawlty might have described as the ‘school of the bleeding obvious’ – useful only to those with a vague idea that they might want to become a writer, as though this were some kind of supplementary accomplishment like learning to swim or cultivating gardenias. I’d guess that most of those who take any notice at all of this kind of article, or who might consider enrolling on a Creative Writing course, have already been doing these things for years and have either worked out all the basics on their own or learnt them through independent research.  For the rest, a very great deal of the other hints and tips regularly dispensed are contradictory and/or mutually exclusive – the most obvious example, familiar to all practising writers, being the incompatibility between screenwriter Robert McKee’s brilliantly-constructed comprehensive theory of storytelling and his confrère  William Goldman’s pithy dictum: “No-one knows anything.”  The journalist Robert McCrum was widely ridiculed just before Christmas when he filled his Observer column with  “Fifty things I've learned about the literary life”, apparently because he was simply reproducing a set of self-cancelling clichés about writing.  But as far as I could tell,  this was precisely the point he was trying to make.

Robert McCrum's Life in Books
                OK, declaration of interest time. I am a writer (note lower-case ‘w’, and no pregnant pause) – or at least, I was. Not a serial success like Q, nor a talented maverick like James Leer, nor even a one-hit wonder with a great future behind him (as they say) like Grady Tripp. I was a hoverer round the fringes of the UK poetry scene,  recipient of  fairly regular little-magazine publication, a couple of minor residencies, commissions for reviews and essays on poetry, and author of a single short collection bought out by a small press. My three continuously-rewritten and -submitted novel manuscripts remain unpublished.  I have also purported to be a Creative Writing tutor,  this last earning me far more money, and probably a bigger audience, in one year than all the rest had managed in the previous ten. As I commented when the first series of Chris Douglas and Andrew Nickolds’s Radio 4 series went out, Ed Reardon – c’est moi !

The thing about the CW gig, which I walked into almost entirely on my own say-so, was that I had absolutely no idea how to proceed in a way that would make any sense to my students. Leaving aside the fact that my track-record was in poetry and they were principally prose-fiction writers, their main concern was how to make their work publishable and attract the requisite attention of agents and publishing-houses, something I was in absolutely no position to tell them other than by repeating what others had, ineffectually, told me.  I was quite honest about this, as my own occasional tutors and quasi-mentors had been with me. I might be able to help you write better, I said, but beyond that nothing is guaranteed. Nothing can be guaranteed. Unsurprisingly, this was not what most of them wanted to hear : one class dwindled from 35 participants at the beginning of term to 3 at the end. Yet even in areas where I believed I had some expertise – conciseness of style, handling of imagery, effective use of dialogue – I had read too many too-diverse books to expect any more than the most provisional impact. Presented with a latterday Henry James, for example, I would have savaged his prolixity. John Le Carré would have been commended for plot, advised to tone down some of his characters, and generally recommended to make his style less leaden. God alone knows what I would have made of JK Rowling.

I ought to stress that I have never had anything to do with university-level CW courses. These are probably quite different from the kind of weekly evening-class sessions that I oversaw, and certainly attract higher-calibre authors as teaching staff.  Also, I’m sure they will have changed from the early days at UEA, where, as Ian McEwan recalled in a recent radio interview, students benefited chiefly from being encouraged to read a great deal (another example, I would suggest, of the blindingly ‘bleeding obvious’) and tutorials with the late Malcolm Bradbury sometimes consisted simply in being told one was on the right track and should carry on along it. I mean absolutely no disrespect to anybody who either teaches or has studied on any CW course at any level – and  I number several friends among both groups – but I do wonder if they aren’t setting themselves an impossible task, given the ever-mutating nature of art and literature, and the fact that nobody, but nobody, claims to be able to predict what ‘the Market’ will pick up, now or in the future.

Of course, as McEwan also pointed out in the same interview, the great advantage of his time at university was the opportunity to spend a substantial period legitimately concentrating on writing, reading, discussing work with other writers, and developing ideas, free from the necessities of paid labour and the multifarious other calls on one’s time which necessarily circumscribe the lives of most people, the great majority of practising writers among them. Ultimately, however, he will have had to reach the same accommodation as the rest of us with the practicalities of everyday existence. Whatever he or anybody else may have chanced to learn through the teaching or experience of others, such knowledge or ability remains under constant review, and is only any good so long as the individual is able to keep acquiring insights for him- or herself, maintaining self-confidence, and convincing those on whom publication depends that the work is worth the investment. Perhaps the grounding of a CW course can help in this, although it seems to me that there are so many variables involved that any success in this connection is likely to be more by luck – combined with native talent and blind tenacity – than by any judgment on the part of the course designers.

Of all the arts, I’d argue, writing is the most thankless. Even an indifferent painter or sculptor will end up with a picture or object that can be displayed, albeit in their own living-room. A composer will have a piece of music that can be played, by its author if by no-one else. A choreographer doesn’t even exist as such without someone willing to dance his or her steps. A writer, on the other hand, can spend years creating, refining, editing, and rewriting a book, but have only a heap of manuscript paper in a drawer to show for all that solitary effort if no-one is willing to publish it. With all the encouragement in the world, this is something no CW course, or handy list of writing hints and tips, or do’s and don’ts from people supposedly in the know, is ever likely to be able to remedy.  Nobody has a right to publication, and many literary agents are admirably clear in their submission guidelines as to what they will consider accepting  – even though they will themselves sometimes break their own rules if they come across something genuinely surprising.  The whole process is inherently unpredictable, and this isn’t helped by the lack of feedback accompanying most rejected submissions. The best anyone can hope to derive from the kind of advice generally available, be it in the form of structured academic courses or ad hoc lists, is a kind of temporary bulwark against the next disappointment, or the superstitious gambler’s hope that next time, next time it will be different.

(That looks suspiciously like my study floor... PS)