Thursday, January 06, 2011

Faber Academy discussion on creative writing: Sue Gee's view

What's the point of writing? Why do we do it? And what's the point of teaching it? Is there any point in teaching it?

All the time on the web we talk about writing but these are the radical questions we rarely ask. Faber Academy is now asking them, and I'm delighted to host the discussion they've instigated, and to introduce the first of two pieces from the leaders of the upcoming Faber Academy course Getting Started. Marcel Theroux will contribute next week, and today's post comes from Sue Gee (left). Sue is the author of several acclaimed novels including the Orange Prize long-listed The Mysteries of Glass (Headline) and a forthcoming collection of short stories (Salt). Here's Sue:

'In the end, it's just you and the page.'

It was Ishiguro who said that, in a radio broadcast some years ago, and no writer ever put it better. But why should we seek that musing solitude? What is the point of creative writing?

As with any other creative activity, I would say that there is simply nothing else in life which offers what such an endeavour can: a secret life coursing through your bloodstream, an entry into another world. In writing, whether alone with the page or screen - and when you're away from them too, just thinking - it's the wrestle with words, finding the voice - that style which is right for your material. It's an engagement with something which is both mysterious and visceral, operating both in the mind and in the gut; something which both takes you away from yourself and demands that you engage yourself at the deepest level.

No one ever said it was easy - you often struggle with despair. But when it does come right, the reward is a joy like no other: the feeling of touching the real thing at last.

I actually have a bit of a problem with the term 'creative writing', and I don't think I'm alone in this. How many writers describe themselves as 'creative writers'? I don't know any. None the less, 'creative writing' has come to be associated with writing fiction, and the big question is then: But can it be taught? (No one ever asks this of painting, or sculpture, or musical composition, you notice.)

Broadly speaking, I think teachers of the art, craft and development of writing fiction - the short story and the novel - divide into two camps. The first contains those who see it as their job to generate ideas: to give exercises which will help students find material they might not otherwise have done: a psychological/emotional approach. The second, which is where I mostly locate myself, assumes that students will come to class with their own ideas, and that the tutor's task - through examples and exercises - is to offer technique, editing, appraisal. Of course they do cross over, but my experience from the first Getting Started course is that students who arrived saying that they had never written any fiction, and didn't know where to begin, had by the end developed work as original, memorable and strong as any I have encountered in many years of teaching.

A good creative writing class will inspire, nurture, develop. It will send you away to that quiet communion with the page; it will bring you back to encourage, to look for what is best in what you've written and see how you can make it better still.

Writing fiction can take you over - and if you're serious about it, it should. The short story and the novel, in their different ways, can go anywhere, and tell the profoundest truths about what it means to be human. Writing fiction can nourish, extend and excite - once you've found what you want to work on, just thinking about it can make you happy. But as someone once said: Thinking about writing is not writing. Talking about writing is not writing. Only writing is writing.

That's where everything happens.

Thank you to Sue for this. Your own views on the issues will be most welcome and in
a later post Sue and Marcel will be happy to answer questions raised on the comments thread. You can also discuss the issues on Twitter on #whywrite.
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