Sunday, January 20, 2013

Giving it to the students

A deeply-thought article by Rachel Cusk in yesterday's Guardian Review, considering the value of teaching creative writing - not only for students, but also in relation to the creative well-being of teacher-writers and our culture in general.

With searing insight she identifies the impulse which sends students flocking to courses:
Very often a desire to write is a desire to live more honestly through language; the student feels a need to assert a 'true' self through the language system, perhaps for the reason that this same system, so intrinsic to every personal and social network, has given rise to a 'false' self
and her article is steeped in a need to honour that. Market-driven publishers, she points out, do not always do so - publication is not always 'an assurance of quality', and this justifies the need for the kind of academic haven for writing which painting and music have always enjoyed:
academic institutions offer a shelter for literary values, and for those who wish to practise them
But what of the writer-teacher? With unerring precision, she puts her finger on a conundrum here:
the role of teacher, like that of parent, effectively ends what might be called creative unself-consciousness. The teacher/parent is under pressure to surrender, as the phrase goes, the inner child, to displace it into actual children, to become scheduled and reliable in order to leave the child irresponsible and free. For a writer, who may have fought every social compulsion to "grow up", whose inner world has been constellated around avoiding that surrender, this is an interesting predicament. Like the child, the creative writing student is posited as a centre of vulnerable creativity, needful of attention and authority. So the writer is giving to others the service he might customarily have given himself.
Some writers will be creatively diminished by this, she says, others made bigger, enriched, and in a perhaps politic gesture, she leaves it there, so it's a conundrum that remains unaddressed in the article. Yet I suspect it's one that's crucial to the whole subject: more than once have I given up teaching creative writing for the sake of my own writing self, and thus the sake of my own writing - exciting as I do find teaching, exhilarating and stimulating as the writing community of a university can be - and I can't remember the number of times other teacher writers have said to me - or announced at readings - that if they had my opportunity (a partner prepared to foot the bills) they'd do it too. Cusk rather brushes aside the need for money that leads published writers into teaching, listing it as only one reason alongside possible others. Last September I heard a complaint (in a workshop discussion at a two-day celebration of the 60th anniversary of Stand Magazine) that, while it is now essentially the academy that funds literary writers, writers - especially poets - seem reluctant to acknowledge their academic affiliations in their  biographies; on the contrary, they were taking the money and running. Other reasons that bring writers to the academy, says Cusk, are an interest in the subject and a desire for social participation, and (again in contrast to the Stand complaint) a desire (of which she rightly seems not to approve) for the professional profile that attachment to an institution confers, and for the way it can 'ward off the suspicion of amateurism and the insecurity of creative freedom'.

It occurs to me that every reason Cusk lists is essentially selfish: she doesn't include a love of teaching for its own sake, or a desire to bring other writers forth into the world. I'm pretty sure from this article, and her previous piece for the Guardian, that Rachel Cusk has these last qualities and is one of those brilliant and committed teachers of creative writing, but the overall view of creative writing teaching she provides is, in spite of her project of defence, less heartening.

Is it possible that those writers most able to divest themselves of their self-oriented writing identities for their students are the ones who find it most difficult to keep going at both?  And if it is, what does it mean for students, for the academy, and for literature? I'd call it more than 'interesting.'

Oh, and I should of course refer you to Marcel Theroux's pretty honest guest post on this blog for Faber Academy.


Dan Holloway said...

Maybe it's being locked into a certain politicised mindset (you can tell I was a student in Oxford when Terry Eagleton was in his heyday), but I would go beyond "the student feels a need to assert a 'true' self through the language system" and say that if I were to embark on a creative writing course (if only there had been such things in the days when I was looking for what to do after my BA and funding was possible) I would feel a tingle of excitement at the possibility of asserting a true self by undermining, unravelling and then rebuilding language. And whilst I will never be a well-known enough writer to teach it, I am privileged to have been able to publish others, and that same desire is what drives me - the possibility of taking apart a language system that ties us down within power-driven structures, of dismantling the repressions of syntax and vocabulary and sending writing into the world that puts its axe to those roots on the widest possible stage and proffers the possibility of a new poetics of hope. Or to put it strictly in 60s terms. Language is politics, and the privilege of teaching writing is that you bring the possibility of liberation.

Elizabeth Baines said...

And of course, Dan, you're right. It's actually implicit in what Cusk says, though she doesn't develop it: if the tendency of a language system is to create a false self, as she implies, then clearly that language system needs to be deconstructed and replaced with a different language 'system' in order for the false self to be dismantled and replaced with a 'truer' self.
Yes, and it's the sharing of that kind of liberation that is so exciting in teaching.