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Chapter 1 Introducing creative writing If youwish to be brief, first prune away those devices that contribute to an elaborate style; let the entire theme be confined within narrow limits. Do not be concerned about verbs; rather, write down with the pen of the mind only the nouns...follow,asitwere,thetechnique of the metalworker. Transfer the iron of the material, refined in the fire of the understanding, to the anvil of the study. Let the hammer of the intellect make it pliable; let repeated blows of the hammer fashion from the unformed mass the most suitable words. Let the bellows of the mind afterwards fuse those words, adding others to accompany them, fusing nouns with verbs, and verbs with nouns, to express the whole theme. The glory of a brief work consists in this: it says nothing either more or less than is fitting. geoffrey de vinsauf , Poetria Nova or The New Poetics (c. 1210) An open space Think of an empty page as open space. It possesses no dimension; human time makes no claim. Everything is possible, at this point endlessly possible. Anything can grow in it. Anybody, real or imaginary, can travel there, stay put, or move on. There is no constraint, except the honesty of the writer and the scope of imagination – qualities with whichweare born and characteristics that we can develop. Writers are born and made. We could shape a whole world into that space, or even fit several worlds, their latitudes and longitudes, the parallel universes. Equally, we could place very few words there, but just enough of them to show a presence of the life of language. If we can think of the page as an open space, even as a space in which to play, we will understand that it is also Space itself. By choosing to act, by writing on that page, we are creating another version of time; we are playing out a new version of existence, of life even. We are creating an entirely fresh piece of space-time, and another version of your self. 12 Creative writing The iceberg Space-time is a four-dimensional space used to represent the Universe in the theory of relativity, with three dimensions corresponding to ordinary space and the fourth as time. I mean the same when thinking about creative writing. Writing a poem, a story or a piece of creative nonfiction, is to catalyse the creation of a four-dimensional fabric that is the result when space and time become one. Every event in the universe can be located in the four-dimensional plane of space and time. Writing can create personal universes in which this system of events within space-time operates for the reader; the reader is its co-creator. Writing and reading are collaborative acts in the making and performance of space-time. Readers participate; they become, partly, writers. They will take part, consciously and unconsciously, in a literary creation, and live their life in that moment and at that speed – while they are reading. You make the words; they make the pictures. The reader lives their reading-time in a kind of psychological fifth dimension, where the book takes them, where the reader places themselves. A novel or poem is the visible part of an iceberg. As Ernest Hemingway put it, the knowledge a writer brings to the creation of that novel or poem is the unrevealed submerged section of that same iceberg. This book dives under that iceberg. The writer weaves a certain degree of sparseness into their final text. If matters are left unexplained, untold, or the language of a poem is elliptically economical without becoming opaque, then inquiring readers will lean towards that world. Readers fill in the gaps for themselves, in essence, writing themselves into that small universe, creating that fifth dimension, and their experience of that dimension. The reader is active, as a hearer and a witness. Moreover, if they are reading aloud to others, that piece of space-time will attract and alter several lives simultaneously. Some readers may be affected for the rest of their lives, loving that space so much they return to that work repeatedly, and even act out their own lives differently, in their own worlds, once they have put down the book. A well-drawn character in fiction or poetry, say, may find their actions and language imitated by readers simply because of the creative radiation of that fictional self, and the accuracy of the writing. Think about the force and precision behind the creation of fictional or dramatic characters we admire or cherish. New worlds Stories, like dreams, have a way of taking care of people, by preparing them, teaching them. I argue that, although there is an inherent simplicity to this, itIntroducing creative writing 3 is not simple as a practice. With dreams come responsibilities, and the created worlds of a book require a vocation of trust between the writer and reader. It is that vocation, how we create ourselves as writers – never forgetting that we are also readers – that is the subject of the final part of this chapter. We will none of us become a good writer unless we become a great reader, of more matter than just books. We must also learn to become shapers of language and, in that way, shapers of the small, new worlds that take the form of poems or novels, each of them a piece of fresh space-time, remembering itself. Hemingway, writing of the practice of fiction, states: Youhave the sheet of blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer than things can be true...totakewhatisnot palpable and make it completely palpable that it can become a part of the experience of the person who reads it. (Phillips, 1984: 16) Writing can change people, for writing creates new worlds and possible universes, parallel to an actual. At best, creative writing offers examples of life, nothing less. To some, writing remains an artifice, a game even, and it is – as most things are, as all of us are – something made or played upon. However, when nurture builds carefully on nature, then life is not only made well, it can be shaped well and given form. Why we write Writing is so absorbing and involving that it can make you feel more alive – concentrated yet euphoric. The process focuses at the same time as it distracts; the routine of its absorptions is addictive. It can also recreate in you something youmay have lost without noticing or glimpse when you are reading a rewarding book: your sense for wonder. Certainly, the process of writing is often more rewarding than the outcome, although, when you capture something luminous, that sense of discovery and wonder swims through the words and leaps in the page. There is a pleasure in precision; in solving and resolving the riddles of your syntax and voice; and in the choices of what to lose and what to allow. However, while creative writing is no panacea, some writers find its practice therapeutic; and some teachers of writing believe that writing is a powerful aid to various types of therapy, from the treatment of depression to social reha- bilitation. More accurately, writing may contribute towards self-development and self-awareness (see Hunt, 2000;Sampson, 2004). Writing wakes you up – it forces you beyond your intelligence and quotidian attention – and anything that makes you think and perceive more clearly and expansively may assist4 Creative writing youwith finding perspectives on yourself and others. Research has shown that we are never happier than when we are working towards some objective, and the spaces we work, and within which we work, are open enough to provoke surprise in ourselves. What I must add is that writers invest a lot of time in getting the opposite results – storm-blind language, stillborn literature – in order to travel through darker space towards pleasure. Most days, this feels more like anti-therapy than art-therapy. Writers must journey into an abyss in themselves to make truth through fiction and form. Such journeys can be unforgiving rather than consoling. They can even lead to a sense of worthlessness and loss of direction. But, as the poet Richard Hugo advises writing students, ‘isn’t it better to use your inability to accept yourself to creative advantage? Feelings of worthlessness can give birth to the toughest and most welcome critic within’ (1979: 70). Good writers exercise a sharpened discrimination; very little of what they write will get past this acuity. If – and this is the Mount Everest of ifs – you ever impress yourself as a writer, you are probably suffering a kind of artistic altitude sickness. Don’t get me wrong: you may be right, but the feeling will pass as you descend to other work.Toughness and dissatisfaction over your own work is itself rewarding, but only with practice. It can also seem ruthless, not therapeutic. If writing is not subject to these tests and taut self-tests, then you cheat your devil of his pay. You cheat your writing, in fact. It is possibly more therapeutic to allow writing to become both a form of pleasure and a form of work, rather than an outlet exclusively for emotions and epiphanies. A balance Having created a life, the first duty of the writer is to give it away. So long as what we have written is well made, this is a huge gift. Generosity is one of the pleasures of invention, and a principle of human love: honest of itself, it must be given, or given away freely. Now, look at that blank page again. Hold in the mind for a moment that this is both a private and a public space. The first to know this space is you, the writer, and the next person to know that space is yourself, the reader; a balance of perception and self-perception. To move from ‘this’ to ‘that’ requires a process which is both creative and which requires work, work that is sometimes euphoric and easy, and sometimes difficult, jagged. Sometimes you will write for weeks as though your mind itself is running and even flying, independent of your ability and knowledge. It will seem like the mind has mountains, that it can contain the world. Sometimes you will write as though you are stumbling through a dark forest; your thought is sheer `Introducing creative writing 5 plod. ` Sometimes you will be completely helpless, as though language’s light had never existed in you or for you. There are feasts and famines. Any new writer who fears that flow and ebb, who takes no pleasure or pain in it, who is incapable of studying their own flaws or the flaws of their writing too nearly, must try to find their own balance. Marianne Moore wrote in her poem ‘Picking and Choosing’ (1968: 45): Literature is a phase of life. If one is afraid of it, the situation is irremediable; if one approaches it familiarly, what one says is worthless. But, for all that commitment or familiarity, creative writing is not a mystery. One of the purposes of the academic discipline of creative writing is to demystify itself without falsifying its intricacy. Creative writing can be opened and learned, like any craft, like any game of importance. ‘You become a good writer just as youbecome a good carpenter: by planing down your sentences’ – Anatole France. Asawriter, especially of fiction, you are obsessed by character. However, your own character has to be shaped and planed. Writing is rewriting, and the character of the writer is rewritten by the activity of writing and rewriting. If youare interested in the energies of language, rather than ‘being a writer’, then you stand a very good chance of becoming a writer. The character of the reader, your character – you as a writer – are central to that journey. Yet you do not need to write creatively if your ambition is to be a great reader. It is essential that you become a great reader if your purpose is to become a good writer. There is only dual citizenship on this continent. I hope you have already begun the journey. If so, then everything is possible, at this point endlessly possible. Think of that open space as an empty page. Writing Game THE WORD HOARD Go to a shelf of books of fiction or poetry. Take one book at random. Close your eyes while opening that book and place your finger somewhere in it. Your finger will have landed on a word or words. Write the word down, as well as the three words preceding it and the three words following it in the text. You now have a seven-word phrase. Write this phrase in your notebook and, once you have written it, keep writing for five minutes. There are only two rules to this game: you must not stop writing; and you must not think. Try to write as fast as you can. You are not producing a work of art. After five minutes, you should have covered quite a lot of pages. Now read what you have written Read it forwards,6 Creative writing then read through it, word for word, backwards. Underline one phrase that strikes you as possessing any one of the following qualities: it has energy; it surprises you; it has never been written before in your language. The phrase must make a kind of sense; it must possess its own inner sense at the very least. That is, it must not be completely opaque in meaning. It might be a whole sentence, or it might be the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next. Now, write a short story or poem in which this phrase occurs without it seeming in any way out of place. You might wish to place the phrase into the mouth of a speaker in the poem or story, for example. AIM: When we strive to be original, we tend to get tongue-tied, for we have been long taught that originality is no longer possible. As we shall see in Chapter Four, this ‘free-writing’ exercise is effective for warming up for writing, but it is also effective at creating unusual phrases, ones that possess a surprising amount of personal linguistic energy. You are trying to capture ideas and sentences that you would not ordinarily come up with consciously. You should try to do this exercise every day, not only to keep your writing mind limber, but also to create a hoard of original and unusual phrases from which you can draw when you are writing. ‘Word hoard’ is a ‘kenning’ (a Norse poetic device; see Chapter Eight), meaning ‘a supply of words’, such as a book, or vocabulary itself. Learning to write A continent Energy is eternal delight. There are as many energetic views on how to teach writing as there are university writing programmes, writing workshops, writing theorists, teachers of writing, books about writing – and writers. This variety is a cause for that delight, or it should be. Different exponents shade the discipline of creative writing according to their practice and aesthetics. Some use workshops, and some do not. Textbooks vary in the weight given to this or that topic, unlike, say, textbooks of biochemistry; and some writer-teachers never use textbooks relying on primary texts only. The fact is that most writers develop haphazardly – we hit things fresh what- ever level we reach, and work through problems in countless directions. There are no absolute solutions. What a writer is experimenting with is language. The fastest-evolving species of this world is language. Given that speed of evo- lution, there is no wrong or right about the pedagogy of writing – no frozen framework. It is more a case of what works for a time and what does not. As language lives by evolving, so writers survive in its open space for their time, often influencing the successful mutations as well as bringing about (as well as preventing) extinctions. There are many literary theories of writing, but those theories are not within my remit. However, the quality of thingsIntroducing creative writing 7 being so various can be confusing for a new writer searching for models, or one searching for some philosophy of practice they can lean against, or into, while they develop. Since creative writing is such an open space, whom do you believe? Youwill do well to start with yourself – by refining your own ability in order to be able to trust your own judgement. Literature is a continent that contains many countries, languages, and countless contradictions; it is large, it contains multitudes. Its citizenship used to consist of its writers. Now there is a dual citizenship: writer-as-reader, reader-as-writer. Whenever you encounter contraries and inconsistencies between the citizens of that continent, bear in mind that the opposite of contention can be collusion, and even a closing down or culling of fresh thoughts. There are many belief systems, and that creates some leeway for the evolution of ideas for writers. All these viewpoints about teaching writing are all right so long as they work within their time, and so long as they are not disingenuous (creating promises they cannot keep) or dogmatic (creating premises you, the new writer, cannot keep). This book attempts to concentrate some of that collective and contending energy, although it is by no means a synthesis of ancient and modern thought on the how and why of the art form. Although it touches some of these spheres, it can only glance off them and at them. First, two questions to be asked as we cross into that continent. Can creative writing be taught? Can creative writing be learned? They are really the same question, but you will often hear it posed ‘as a challenge rather than a genuine enquiry; a challenge which threatens to damn the foundational premise of Cre- ative Writing by daring the addressee to answer in the affirmative’ (Dawson, 2005: 6). The novelist David Lodge concluded, ‘Even the most sophisticated lit- erary criticism only scratches the surface of the mysterious process of creativity; and so, by the same token, does even the best course in creative writing’ (1997: 178). Lodge quotes Henry James’s essay The Art of Fiction: The painter is able to teach the rudiments of his practice and it is possible, from the study of good work (granted the aptitude), both to learn how to paint and how to write. Yet it remains true... that the literary artist would be obliged to say to his pupil much more than any other, ‘Ah well, you must do it as you can’ If there are exact sciences, there are also exact arts, and the grammar of painting is much more definite that it makes a difference. (1997: 173) So: you must do it as you can. Writing is not painting, neither is it a systematised knowledge. It is not empirical science; teaching and learning writing is not like teaching and learning medicine.8 Creative writing Here are some cards; here is my table. I think creative writing can be taught most effectively when its students have some talent and vocation for it. If a teacher can shape the talent and steer that vocation, and the students enjoy the shaping and steering, then I think creative writing should be taught as a craft. The whole point of teaching creative writing, however, is that students must learn to make and guide themselves, for writing is mostly a solitary pursuit, even when written collaboratively using electronic media. I also believe creative writing could be taught within other disciplines, as an option alongside science and social science, if students of those disciplines have some desire to try it, and can take the practice of creative writing for what it is: a possible second string, or a second chance at something from which they gain pleasure. It does not have to contribute to the pursuit of their profession, so long as the pleasure principle is foremost. It might contribute at some point through creative nonfiction. The role of popular science in raising the public’s awareness of science and technology is a delightful benefit we consider in Chapter Ten. Imagination’s talent The pleasure of creativity illuminates aspects of knowledge that we regard as non-literary, especially if we begin to accept the arguments of cognitive science: that ‘the literary mind is the fundamental mind’, not a separate kind of mind. Alongside many other neuroscientists, Mark Turner contends, ‘Story is a basic principle of mind’, and ‘the parable is the root of the human mind – of thinking, knowing, acting, creating, and plausibly of speaking’ (1996: 1). Writing is an extreme act of attention and memory; it pleads with your brain cells to make new connections. As neuroscientists put it, neurons that fire together wire together, and inspiration could be more natural to and more nurtured in awriterbecause they simply read the world (and the world of literature) a little closer when they were children. Your brain interacts with itself: hearing words, seeing words, speaking words and generating verbs.These functions occur in widely spaced sections of the brain. Creative writing ‘commands’ these different departments of self to start cooperating, and they will, by stretching out synapses over relatively huge neural distances, wiring up. What else are they going to connect with along the way? What monsters or angels might be imagined into being? This is how writers are made,how the nanotechnology of your imagination is intricately (and provisionally) constructed. We are capable of developing complementary senses – sight with sound, taste with touch, time with hearing – or all senses simultaneously transmittedIntroducing creative writing 9 through the medium of one line of poetry, or one paragraph of description. This is how your imagination talks to itself, talks across itself even, and becomes ever more versatile. Writing rewires our brains – from our tongue to our eye to our hands. It encourages synaesthesia: one sense triggers an image or a sensation in another. When we stop paying attention to the world, we do ourselves great harm. It is like a slow suicide of thought with the senses. The imaginative gains of synaptic complication are always provisional. We are neurologically changed by our experience of writing as much as we are by reading. For a writer, metaphor is an art of attention-seeking, of asking you to perceive some thing afresh. Creative writing is the art of defamiliarisation: an act of stripping familiarity from the world about us, allowing us to see what custom has blinded us to. It is no less than an act of revivification. Metaphor has power and permutation, almost like a magic force. Metaphor is ‘a transfer of meaning in which one thing is explained by being changed either into another thing or into an emotion or idea’ (Kinzie, 1999: 435). As Shelley wrote of poetry, it ‘lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as they were not familiar’. In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson contend that ‘Metaphorical thought is normal and ubiquitous in our mental life, both conscious and unconscious. The same mechanisms of metaphorical thought used throughout poetry are present in our most common concepts: time, events, causation, emotion, ethics, and business, to name but a few’ (1980: 244). Scientific, philosophical and artistic breakthroughs often go through four stages of cognitive and creative process – attention to detail (of a problem) → translation to metaphor → defamiliarisation → receiving something at a dif- ferent angle – in effect, perceiving it anew, as a child does. We now know a little more about the physiological and neural states that certain types of creativity take, as well as those phases which acts of creativity and metaphor engender in readers. The making of creative language and story is natural, and part of everybody’s potential world. ‘Inspiration’ and fluency are aspects of our neu- ralflexibility, and practice, endeavour and good perception make them so. As Flaubert claimed to Van Gogh, ‘Talent is long patience, and originality an effort of will and of intense observation’ (Oliver, 1994: 121). A play of mind So: is the literary mind the fundamental mind? Are we all born storytellers and metaphor-makers? In The Seven Basic Plots,Christopher Booker argues that there are seven standard storylines in the world that all fiction uses and recycles (see Chapter Six). He believes, ‘The very fact that they follow such identifiable10 Creative writing patterns and are shaped by such consistent rules indicates that the unconscious is thus using them for a purpose: to convey to the conscious level of our mind a particular picture of human nature and how it works’ (2004: 553). This creates an interesting picture of the power and purpose of story, but is an impossible point either to prove or falsify. It is important not to lie about creative writing. It is not in its nature. Yet, what is its nature – what is our nature – if not in the making of fictions and metaphors? What are our lives but stories we constantly rewrite? What are metaphors but fictions, doppelgangers, ¨ sculpted otherness? Voice, for example, sings within a writer’s poems or stories. The poems and stories possess that voice, or are possessed by it. A writer’s voice is a metaphor for spoken voice, but is not the voice of the poet or novelist. We need to travel back in time. If we go back to the plausible origin of creative writing as a taught discipline, we open Aristotle’s Poetics, and read that ‘the standard of rightness is not the same in poetry as it is in social morality or indeed in any other art’ (that is, poetry as an art of fiction and drama). We might conclude that same oscillating standard holds within creative writing. We could reason that it depends upon the position of the player; on a writer as player of language; on their play of mind on mind, and mind in mind. The craft of writing lies in the way the cards of language are played; the voice in how the cards become your choices. Writing Game DISCOVERING YOUR CONTINENT Imagine a door. It could be a door in your own home, or room, or a door in a library or in a wilderness. Close your eyes and visualise this door. Write a few lines of prose or poetry describing it. What does the surface and the handle look like (use simile or metaphor)? In your mind’s eye, open that door. What does the handle feel like? You step through. You have passed through a door in time and space. In front of you is a land you do not know. What are the first three things you notice, and what do they look like or even smell like? Now describe what is under your feet. You begin to hear two sounds in the distance. What do they sound like? You see some words; they could be on a sign, or a piece of paper. What do they say? What is the weather? Imagine this is part of a continent. Nobody knows about it except you – for now. You begin to explore the space around you. Write ten sentences or ten lines describing this exploration. Then you meet somebody. It could be somebody you know well, or somebody quite new. They say something to you. What do they say? You answer. What do you say? Use another ten sentences or ten lines to finish this writing. Then put it away for three weeks, after which revise it completely into a short story or poem.Introducing creative writing 11 AIM:Weare making a new poem or story created from a combination of a dream-state and a prompted imagination using a method somewhat like self-hypnosis. It is a good idea to try these questions on yourself regularly, writing with your eyes closed while you are visualising the images in your mind’s eye. Be sure to alter the part of the continent each time you try this. In Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, the protagonists pass through warps or doors in time and space. You are doing the same. What is behind the door is entirely up to your writing self. How far you wish to go is also up to you, but try to go a little bit further every time, and spend more time beyond that door. Learn the entrances, exits, contours, cities and citizens of your continent of writing. A psychological apprenticeship Hemingway again: ‘We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.’ For any prospective writer, it helps to know who you are, what role youare playing and what you wish your language to perform. Many myths and metaphors swirl around the discipline of creative writing. A student is an apprentice to writing and, by innocent attachment, to those selfsame myths and lies. They rub off on them. It is hard for them to know who they are; if they are a writer at all; or whether they are somebody who has never really left the audience, who is still lost in a book. Some students of creative writing know who they are already, and will have sensed this self-knowledge at some early stage of their lives. Infancy and child- hood are the most important periods for the ‘making’ of the writer: the making of their neural complexity. However, talent and vocation are not selfish genes unless constructive nurture in childhood makes them so. Talent and vocation are understandings that need to be then identified, encouraged and corrobo- rated by the external world: firstly by your parents very early on, then by friends and teachers; and later by your editors, publishers and readers. This is where the teaching of creative writing comes into its own. Your creative writing teachers are your first real readers, and they are editors of your writing. They are also to some extent editors of your character – as parents and teachers are – in this case the editor of the character who writes, for whom the creation of story, of metaphor, of played language, is already, unbreakably, a natural habit of mind. Youneed to possess a purpose for writing, and to learn to keep this purpose strong and supple. If an apprentice of writing does not have some genuine aptitude for these skills, then their time may be better spent some other way. This has nothing to do with talent being mystically (or even genetically) innate. It has more to do with being trained, taught and encouraged in creative language and writing when you were a child. I believe, however, you can ‘catch up’ without early12 Creative writing encouragement: many good writers were once autodidact teenagers, going it alone, teaching themselves, or taking up serious writers as mentors in loco parentis,becoming their proteg ´ es. ´ This argument for aptitude (rather than, say, desire) would be accepted for any other profession, and creative writing is no different. It is not some special world where miracles, cures and conversions happen. It may create illusion, it may even invite illusion, but it is both more and less ordinary. It may prove that you can take the lessons of creative writing into the world, and use them to help conduct creative lightning if you are lucky and talented, but that depends on several factors, including your willingness to face failure. And failure rides in the slipstream of so many actions that require vocation. Passion Some of what I have just said sounds like a call to vocation and, to some extent it is, but only because vocation is a wholly commonplace state of mind for many people, be they good designers, entrepreneurs or athletes. Vocation is not a holy calling; it is about the callings of skill and, surely, it is about passion for that skill. If you are going to write, at least find your passion for writing first. Passion emboldens you. Boris Pasternak defined talent as ‘boldness in the face of the blank sheet’. A passion for language will push you through a wall of words, and a passion for writing will push up the temperature of your written voice. It will also smoulder beneath your syntax unnoticed by the reader but, if it is not present, the reader will recognise, unconsciously, its absence. I am sure you have read a book and have not been able to understand why it did not quite work. The answer is that it was an unwanted child; the author did not wish to write it at all. It does not possess what the Spanish poet Federico Garc´ ıa Lorca called duende, its own blood-beat (see Chapter Four on ‘Inspiration and duende’). There is nothing wrong with being passionate or even obsessive about creative writing; drivenness can oxygenate writing when technique is under pressure. Vocation’s providence Vocation is important to many professions, including those of science and medicine. The impulse to write and the desire to be a writer are not the same thing, and a good reader knows this in the same way that the calling to be adoctor and the desire to be one would be a terrifying confusion – for the patient, anyway. However, you can possess more than one vocation. William Carlos Williams was a poet and a doctor. The poets John Donne, George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins were men of the church, although the traditionIntroducing creative writing 13 of the writer as an actual believer is thorny and interesting since some writers seem to require a structured belief system in order to write (or their books create belief systems for their reader, as in the work of J. R. R. Tolkien). Some believe that creative writing and belief are callings that sit all too shakily on the scales of responsibility and guilt. Does one finally outweigh the other? Do they circle each other like opposing magnets? Some writers can be preachy, especially the godless ones. If that ossifies into apose, that pose arises from their conception that creative writing is hieratic. This is false. If vocation is thought of as belonging to somebody who places importance on acquiring and developing literary skills, then creative writing is avocation, humanly commonplace in its constituency. It is delusive to suppose writers are anything at all like priests or shamans. Readers are not congregations, nor are they tribes for whom writers act as walking, talking language-purifying plants. If youpossess a vocation in addition to writing, you may wish to consider the demands on your time and mind before you commit to both. At best, the other vocation offers language, philosophy and material to the vocational practice of writing. Please think about these issues both by the terms of your own character and motivations. Be warned that top-heavy seriousness can create avery disabling tension, putting too much pressure on yourself, expecting miracles of composition – the result is creative constipation. We make our ownprovidence as writers, and there is nothing more spoiling to providence than pomposity; or programmatic ideas about writing; or outlandish measures of our importance. We can take ourselves far too seriously; we can regard our purpose over-earnestly. We over-prepare, over-think, and then under-shoot all our objectives in our desire to be taken seriously. It can also make our writing itch with puppy-fat self-consciousness and self-importance, both of which are unattractive qualities for many readers. Writing Game OBSESSIVE SERMONS Playfully, write a 500-word monologue spoken by an authority figure (who should be somebody known by everybody in your group). Imitate their speech patterns in your prose. Use an obsessive subject (and keep to it unwaveringly), such as ‘counting ants’, ‘skyscraper-hugging’, ‘mouse breath’, ‘invisible friends’, etc. Read these aloud, and guess who is being parodied. AIM: Parody makes for effective exercises in style, but often ends up saying more about the writer. Becoming aware of the tropes of language used by the powerful allows you to exploit them in creating believable character dialogue.14 Creative writing Honesty of the amateur As Charlie Chaplin says in Limelight,‘We are all amateurs. We don’t live long enough to be anything else.’ There is much to be said for holding on to the mentality of being an amateur or apprentice. Knowing you have a lot to prove means you are freer to play and make errors (and accidental successes). If you go about the business of writing in the mask of The Professional, then you remove most of the fun from the natural guesswork of writing, and stymie your chances at finding your luck or voice. You end up prizing technical ability at the price of your imaginative facility. Nothing kills the energy in prose or poetry like conscious professionalism or mere technical skill. Of course, in your dealings with the world of workshops and publishing, you should act professionally, but you can leave that persona, along with your ego, at the door of your writing room and the workshop room. There is no wrong in being serious or earnest. Playfulness,however, tends to produce honesty, providence and surprise in your work – and closer audiences. Try to view writing as something of a daily habit, rather than a moral activity. You will very likely achieve more by taking the pressure off yourself. Vocation should have the quality of being commonplace, even light- hearted, like having a daily working job, which – lucky us – is to write what we like. Purposes Creative writing is a discipline with many apprentices, but one that respects the fact that, at whatever stage we reach, in the Writing Game we are all beginners. This apparent modesty of self-perception could seem otherworldly to some people. Language is a little like a shifting belief system in which you settle, uncomfortably enough beside its many apostates and revisionists. Thus, writing seems a sharper vocation than most because of the unsettled and unsettling material with which it deals. Youlivewith that by finding your habit for expression. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney, writing of T. S. Eliot, believes ‘vocation entails the disciplining of a habit of expression until it becomes fundamental to the whole conduct of life’ (2002: 38). Getting to this point involves errors as well as epiphanies. You will know yourself better through failure and retrial, however tortuous the process, and learn more about yourself than others would have you know, by going beyond your own intelligence in language and writing. You will acquire different and oscillating rationalisations for your writing: from Jane Austen’sIntroducing creative writing 15 miniaturist conception of painting upon two inches of ivory, to Franz Kafka’s yearning to smash the frozen sea inside us. We must never confuse literary vocation with literary or personal ambition. Although they wear a similar face, ambition is a mask and vocation is skin. As the writer Cynthia Ozick says, ‘One must avoid ambition in order to write. Otherwise something else is the goal: some kind of power beyond the power of language. And the power of language...istheonly kind of power a writer is entitled to’ (Plimpton, 1989: 301). Self-belief is a quality of mind that arrives with time, however waveringly – it allows you to become driven. In the end, much good writing is gained by practice, by knowing your objectives and knowing how to achieve them in language. You just have to know what this means, and that you must put in the time. As the renowned novelist and creative writing teacher John Gardner states in The Art of Fiction: most of the people I’ve known who wanted to become writers, knowing what it meant, did become writers. About all that is required is that the would-be writer understand clearly what it is that he wants to become and what he must do to become it. (1983: ix) Whatever your approach to the continent of writing, you may find yourself serving an audience, sometimes by serving their consciences on their behalf, or by creating work that is entertaining or consoling. Most writing is an argument – and a working affair – between you and words. You write it for yourself, in aroom, alone. Your first purpose should be to surprise yourself; and other people, second. ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew’ – Robert Frost (quoted in Barry, 1973: 126). Creative writing in time Some people believe there is something new or untested about the discipline of creative writing, and nowhere is this debate more volatile than in some departments devoted to the study of literature. Rare forests of paper are given over to compacted debate, the heart of which comes down to an argument between two vested interests: a desire for a mystification of the process of writing by some writers, and a covetousness of that privilege, that process, by some critics. What is clear to many writers is that creative writing, and its teaching, never really left the university building.16 Creative writing Inventions of creative writing The modern version of the discipline of creative writing begins in 1940 with the foundation of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, although there were precur- sors, including George Baker’s ‘47 Workshop’ at Harvard from 1906 to 1925. The discipline can be seen partly as a reinvention of two great grainy wheels: ancient dramatic teaching and Renaissance rhetorical exercises in composition. Creative writing’s tale begins in Athens, with Aristotle (384–322 bc). It origi- nates before that because Aristotle’s Poetics is an account of creative practices accepted and used for years, and is no more than a fragment of the knowledge he gathered for study. Aristotle tells his class what to seek and what to shun in the composition of poetic dramas; the outcome at which such dramas aim; how the achievement of that aim governs the form of the drama; by what means that aim is realised and by what defects a dramatist may fail to realise it. How- ever, Aristotle’s work goes further, for it has a moral aim, and creative writing teaching inherits this aim to some extent. For example, Carol Bly’s Beyond the Writers’ Workshop (2001)went as far as to include an ‘Ethics Code’ for creative writing teachers and students. Reflecting his society, Aristotle is concerned with the effects of human con- duct. The playwright Ben Jonson commented on this in Timber or Beliefs as ‘how we ought to judge rightly of others, and what we ought to imitate specially in ourselves’. The practice of creative writing is as personal as he says. Aristo- tle uses the theatre as a means to an end: the players are the people, and the playhouse the world in which they live and die. He is anxious to show that the effect of tragedy upon spectators is good for them. It teaches civic and human conduct. Aristotle wants to move people to strong emotion through rhetorical and dramatic strategies. He shows his students the techniques for manipulating an audience – the human body as a reader of the drama of itself. His former mentor, Plato, thought ill of the enterprise, urging emotional restraint: ‘Poetry waters what we ought to let wither.’ There is a moral dimen- sion to creative writing; it is one of the reasons it troubles its detractors as well as its advocates. What does poetry ‘water’ in today’s creative writing classes, and what might wither otherwise? What does the teaching of creative writing do to, or with, its small society when it goes beyond teaching mere technique? Is creative writing about more than just new writers, streaming into formation behind their teachers like a self-invading squadron? Apedagogical mega-virus, Aristotle’s teaching transmitted and mutated itself into later centuries by circuitous geographical routes and several translations through language, space and time (the earliest authentic version is in Arabic). It whispers in quotation in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.Itbeaches itself withinIntroducing creative writing 17 the body of theory about literature and poetry that formed and informed the Renaissance. Writers leaned into it for their own philosophy of practice. Time- travelling, the Aristotelian mind made itself felt in the work of many writers and their critics. Speaking and writing were seen as art, and rhetoric (from the Greek rhetor,‘public speaker’) taught the means to speak and write effectively to persuade an audience and bind a society. The practice is as old as it is new. Step aboard the time machine of this book, and travel back in time to the Middle Ages to take part in a class taught in the thirteenth century. Rhetoric’s play Howwould you feel if your creative writing teacher asked you to write a story or poem that personified ‘the cross lamenting its captivity under non-Christian rule and urging a crusade’? This exercise comes from Geoffrey de Vinsauf’s Poetria Nova or The New Poetics, published around 1210 ad.Itisamanual of writing instruction, a casebook on style. Unlike any contemporary book on composition, Poetria Nova is a metrical composition of 2,000 Latin hexameter lines. An ambitious masterstroke, de Vinsauf teaches by example. But what drives Poetria Nova deep into memory is its playful delight in restrictive and thematic creative writing. A stanza is a room, and a poem a house containing many lit rooms: Ifa man has a house to build, his hand does not rush, hasty, into the very doing: the work is first measured out with his heart’s inward plumb-line, and the inner man marks out a series of steps beforehand, according to a definite plan; his heart’s hand shapes the whole before his body’s hand does so, and his building is a plan before it is an actuality. Imagine yourself a student of creative writing in the thirteenth century. Our teacher instructs his students to write from the point of view of aworn-out tablecloth,or an angry French fortress.He urges us to compose a digression from the subject of two lovers about to be separated to a description of springtime as the sexual union of air and earth; and, for homework, an abbreviated version of the anecdote of the adulterous mother, the vindictive father, and the snow- child.Most demanding of all is to make a poem that is to be a ‘Set Piece using the nineteen figures of thought (with fourteen sub-categories) on the Pope’s responsibility with regard to clerical wrongdoing’. Ihavetried some of these exercises in class. Oddly enough, they work. They represent an inventive pedagogy, daring in their feel for new shapes, forms, themes, even for anti-narrative. Our teacher is an expert on drafting too (read the epigraph of this chapter), with an endearingly human touch and a taste for18 Creative writing extended metaphor: ‘I have given you a comb, with which, if they be combed, your works may gleam . . . My own way to polish words is by sweating: I chastise my mind, lest it stagnate by resting in one technique.’ I would love to sign up for his creative writing class, but I am 800 years late. Rhetoricians taught technique, style and rewriting using imitation and exem- plification. The most effective teachers of creative writing teach wide, deep reading and the value of trying on voices, strategies and styles. They teach the techniques, forms, measures and metrics of writing, and their associated counter-practices. If time allows, they show the pleasures and imaginative chal- lenges of translation and experiment. I would call this a basic curriculum. If these basics engage and delight the students in class, then the teacher has become apowerful alchemist of thought and practice. During the Renaissance, rhetoric was taught to students when old univer- sities were there to serve and teach the articulate and deserving poor. It was field-knowledge for the whole curriculum – lessons for survival through manip- ulation of, and skill with, language: Forit happeneth verye sildome, that a man not exercised in writinge, how learned so euer he be, can at any tyme know perfectly the labour and toile of writers, or taste of the sweetnes and excellencye of styles, and those wiser observations that often times are found in them of olde tyme. (From Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier,trans. Thomas Hoby, 1561) It was granite knowledge upon which every subject grew by degrees, and by which language lived and played at the time. Drama was a branch of rhetoric, whose pedagogical purpose was to sharpen the skills of the future preacher and statesman by reading, imitation and compositional practice. Rhetoric was the vehicle for what we call now active learning, such as writing exercises; practising verbal gymnastics within incredible linguistic or formal constraints (anticipating the OuLiPo; see Chapter Three); and creating arguments and compositions in face-to-face competitions (what we would call slams). The poet John Milton taught rhetoric in the school he set up within his own home. If students were good, they were allowed a little original composition at the end of the curriculum. Romantic critics (not Romantic practitioners) teased and blasted this rhetorical tradition. To some of them it seemed artificial, or a petrifaction: language could not flourish among such ordered stones. There was something in this, but it was taken to extremity. Many wrought and serious matters were tamed in the process. Aspects of the old teaching went to sleep in Europe one century; they woke up in America in the next, in safer hands, in a newer form called Creative Writing. Back in Europe, the sublime came into its thin inheritance; ideas of inspiration rose to their feetIntroducing creative writing 19 and walked away pocketing notions of deliberation, intelligence and practice. Writing gained an image, it even gained a kind of audience or celebrity, but it lost the ability to hear part of its history with reason and clarity. A tradition of revolution We lost something almost as valuable: not just the idea, but also the practical reality, that authors ‘can be made’, and that the further business of making (composition, technique, drafting) – what Scots and medievalists call being a ‘makar’ – is as worthy a living as being a maker of sculpture, of paintings, of music, of performance. Who begrudges the art school its students, the music school its composers, or the academies of dramatic art their young actors? I do not think anyone would question the necessity for serious painters, composers or actors to teach a rising generation, nor do we question their need for desig- nated and secure space, and for qualifications to attach to their achievements before they enter the world to do it on their own. This is tradition: a tradition of revolution, of revelation. Most iconoclasts go through mentoring; they learn, at the very least, technique. Structures and models must be known intimately if they are to be altered and renewed with precision. The rise of creative writing has reinstated a reality to one aspect of higher education and the writer’s place within it. Now it needs to synthesise the teaching of ‘making’ with ensuring that we can do so with the respect – and understanding – of our fellow teachers and fellow students both inside and outside the academy. How we do that depends on how far we want to go, and on the standards we intend to set. It also depends on the seriousness of that intent, and on how serious the writers and poets are who do the teaching. Writing Game RECREATING THE SNOW-CHILD Write a very short poem from the point of view of a worn-out tablecloth, or an angry French fortress. Then compose a playful short story about two lovers about to be separated in which you incorporate a description of springtime as the sexual union of air and earth. Write a longer and darker story in which you include the following characters (without naming their qualities): an adulterous mother, a vindictive father and the snow-child. Call the story ‘The Snow-Child’. AIM: These are very early examples of compositional exercises. Their very strangeness allows you a great deal of freedom of interpretation and expression. You may wish later to use these examples to create a story set in the Middle Ages, in which such a writing class took place.

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