Why does every Tom, Dick and Harriet think they have a book in them? And if they do, can a creative writing teacher extract it without too much pain?
I’m writing this in the wake of the Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final, having spent an exhausting afternoon on my sofa watching two men slug it out for mastery of a furry yellow ball. We define this as ‘playing’ tennis. Tennis is a ‘game’. Well, yes, at the level of most ordinary club players, tennis is a game, played largely for fun, (furry yellow ball, beer afterwards) but at the level of Messrs. Murray and Djokovic it is a game only in the sense of Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game. It is, to hijack a famous aphorism, war pursued by other means. You don’t get the impression tennis was ever fun for men like these two, and you know that club players who enjoy a lightly competitive knockabout on a Saturday morning before going to the pub are not only in a different league to the top professionals. They are a different species altogether.
As a teacher of creative writing I have noticed, over the years, that in writing, unlike, I would suggest, any other artistic or sporting pursuit, there is little or no perception of the boundary between the amateur and the professional, even the top professional. I see students with barely a grasp of basic English grammar who confidently believe themselves to be the next Toni Morrison or Peter Carey. They arrive in my classes with the sense that all they need to produce a masterpiece is conviction and inspiration. They have no concept that, in creative writing as in any other field of human endeavour, excellence is only achieved by hard work – and sometimes not even then. When meeting people for the first time, I rarely tell them what I do because the next thing I know they’ll be telling me they’ve always wanted to write a book, and, if I’m really lucky, confiding in detail a convoluted plot that makes Game of Thrones seem like child’s play or their Uncle Jack’s wartime experiences in Burma that are just crying out for the memoir treatment. It’s just the lack of time…they’ll do it when they retire… There is an apocryphal tale attributed to the writer Margaret Laurence who, when she met a neurosurgeon who planned to write a novel when he retired, replied that she was planning to take up neurosurgery when she retired.
Why does this happen? What is it that makes anyone believe they can ‘be a writer’? Small children very properly believe they can do anything, but with adulthood comes an acknowledgement of one’s limitations…except, it seems, in the field of creative writing. My own theory about this is that the misplaced confidence of the aspiring writer stems from the fact that writing is something we all learn to do at a young age and that it doesn’t require any special equipment or arcane knowledge, or even any location more specialised than your kitchen table or favourite armchair. If you want to be a weaver, or a sculptor, or even a tennis player, you have to invest in stuff. You also have to train your body to behave in ways to which it is unaccustomed and set aside formally delineated periods of time when you go to the place where your chosen occupation can be pursued. The entry bar is, therefore, set higher than it is for writing. Or so it seems.
The somewhat dispiriting task of the creative writing tutor is, more often than not, to manage the gradual disillusionment of the student who arrives in class with a new pen and pristine notebook, or the last thing in tablet technology, believing that, in a mere twenty hours (average length of a beginners’ course) s/he will be Lee Child or Hilary Mantel. Ninety-nine per cent of them will probably never write anything better than a poem for the parish magazine or a story for their grandchildren – and, to be fair, some of them will be perfectly content with that. But even those who are in possession of the raw material that can be honed into good, publishable prose under the guidance of a tutor will probably never win a competition, find an agent or sign a publishing deal. (Self-publishing is a different kettle of fish, and not for discussion here or I shall exceed my word count. The student who thought a 300,000 word novel was an acceptable length, please note.) I have been teaching creative writing for over ten years, and in that time, although several of my students have enjoyed significant successes in competitions, entry to MA programmes etc., only one has gained a ‘proper’ publishing deal, with Bloomsbury. The number of people I have taught must run into the high hundreds. The ‘real’ entry bar, as those of us dumb enough to be in the profession know, is very high indeed.
My argument clearly begs the question, if so many of my students fail to achieve glory or anything close to it in the literary world, what use am I as a teacher? Whenever I talk or read to audiences who know I am a graduate of the University of East Anglia creative writing MA myself, someone always asks the question: can creative writing be taught? I don’t know, but I suspect this isn’t a question Andy Murray gets asked about tennis or Amir Khan about boxing. On the contrary, sportsmen and women are always quick to praise their coaches whenever they win something. In the plastic arts – painting, sculpture, embroidery, furniture making – the requirement to learn technique before you can develop creativity is self-evident. So, how to answer the question in respect of creative writing? Of course, the basic technique is embedded in us from the age of four or five, when we go to school. We all learn to form letters and string them together in lines on a page. Most of us, more or less – and here I shall indulge in a moment of Colonel Blimpishness about the English education system – learn the basics of spelling, grammar and punctuation. We read enough to know the difference between prose and poetry, short stories, geography textbooks or novels. We understand rhyme, chapter headings, possibly even epigraphs and footnotes. All this is taught.
As those of you who have read some of my earlier contributions to WWJ will be aware, it is possible to dissect fiction into component parts such as plot, character, voice, dialogue, description etc. and to supply beginning writers with tools, usually in the form of exercises, with which to craft these different aspects of a story.
In the final analysis, however, I don’t believe the genuinely gifted and driven writer can, or needs to be, taught. I don’t believe Andy Murray was taught, per se. A handful of individuals are born with a gift, and without a choice. Their lives are dedicated from a very early age, whether they like it or not, and they have no option but to pursue the obsession embedded in their brains and hearts, whether it be writing, painting, fast bowling or boxing. For the teacher, it is a joy and a privilege to encounter such individuals, but it is also a caution against hubris because, while you can facilitate their development and act as a sounding board for their ideas and experiments, as rule, you learn more from them than they do from you.
Writing for some is a compulsion, for others a hobby. What it is emphatically not is a profession to be undertaken on the side, in your spare time, when you retire, and those who take that attitude insult those of us who work at our craft with dedication, even if without great material gain, and who would probably, gladly, do something more sensible if only we had been born without the particular glitch that makes us writers. Summertime is may be, but the living ain’t easy. Ask Andy.
Sarah Bower is a novelist and short story writer who also teaches creative writing for the University of East Anglia, the Open University and the Unthank School. Her novels, The Needle in the Blood and Sins of the House of Borgia have been translated into nine languages. She is currently working on a short story commission for BBC Radio 4, to be broadcast in September. Her third novel, Erosion, is scheduled for publication later this year. In 2014, Sarah will be writer in residence at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. Sarah’s website is currently being rebuilt, but you can find her on Facebook and Twitter @SarahBower.