Monday, January 31, 2011

What's the point?

Prompted by the Faber Academy discussion about Creative Writing on this blog, here's my own (ambivalent) take on one particular aspect, the teaching of the subject. It's my first post as a contributor to the online version of the excellent literary magazine The View From Here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Faber academy discussion on writing: Ian Ellard

Today on the Faber blog, Faber Academy's Ian Ellard takes up the debate - Why write? - at its most radical level, with an historical and extremely thoughtful exploration of why on earth we actually do it. I urge you to click on over and read.

Meanwhile, it's still possible to leave any questions you may have for previous posters Sue Gee and Marcel Theroux, on the comments thread here.

Also join in on Twitter  #whywrite? #whynot

Monday, January 17, 2011

Faber Academy discussion: any questions for Sue Gee and Marcel Theroux?

The posts from Sue Gee and Marcel Theroux on creative writing generated a very interesting debate here, I thought, with a variety of both teaching and student perspectives, although I do wonder if we have yet reached the heart of some of the thornier issues. Shortly the series will move over to the Faber blog, where Faber Academy's Ian Ellard will post his thoughts. In the meantime if anyone has any questions they'd like to ask either Marcel or Sue, or both, about the issues or their own experience as writers, then do leave them in the comments thread below, and I'll post their answers on this blog.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Faber Academy discussion on Creative Writing: Marcel Theroux's view

I am pleased to publish today a contribution to this debate from Marcel Theroux, co-tutor of the upcoming Faber Academy course, Getting Started. Marcel is the author of four acclaimed novels including Far North (Faber) and is a winner of the Somerset Maugham Award (2002).

Thursday's very thoughtful piece by his fellow course leader Sue Gee brought a very lively response and several issues have emerged. Marcel now cuts to the chase:

I share the ambivalence that many people feel about the Creative Writing industry.

Arts coverage in the conventional media is shrinking; publishers are panicking about the future, digital sales and the end of the book; bookshops and libraries are threatened - and yet there's a mini-boom in courses in creative writing.

There are some really tough questions that need to be asked about them - particularly by the students.  Is it a route to publication? (No - but I have yet to meet anyone who accepts this in their heart, and the concomitant truth that publication is not the answer to all their hopes and prayers.)  Would my teacher be here if she or he had sold the film rights to their latest novel? (Probably not - and that's assuming your creative writing teacher can even get published.)  Are these courses a money-making wheeze for the institutions who run them? (Undoubtedly.)  Might I be better served by renting a cabin in the woods for two weeks and sitting there in front of a computer, or, better still, a typewriter? (Perhaps.)  What do I want to get out of this? (Harder to say...)

In Tokyo, a few years ago, I went along to a haiku club. They are popular in Japan. They met in a park, under the guidance of a teacher who assigned them specific kige - words like maple leaf, dew, and nightingale which evoke a specific season and are intrinsic to the form.  The students then spent and hour or two wandering around the park and writing half a dozen haiku.  After that, they had lunch, read the poems aloud, and their teacher made suggestions about how they might be improved.

Was it a route to publication? (No.)  Was it a money-making wheeze for the teacher? (Kind of - but not exactly on a par with hedge funds.)  Might the students have been better served by renting a cabin in the woods for two weeks? (I doubt it, but they would have probably written a lot more haiku.)  What were they getting out of it?

Well, you'd have to ask them, but I wrote a couple of haiku when I was with them, and I loved the whole experience. Oddly, the deepest pleasure of writing the poems was an ego-less one.   It's the feeling of being an instrument of the words themselves, of recognizing that maple leaf, dew and nightingale have their own loveliness and it requires no authorial genius to make them beautiful.  There's also something instructive about the conciseness of the form - it's what gives each one its poignance and gravity.

There is also a more egotistical thrill of knowing that, whatever the gulf in talent between me and Basho, Issa and Onitsura - haiku masters of the past - we are all just people with pens trying to describe the harvest moon or cherry blossom in 17 syllables.  It's a strange thing about writing - that there really is no special equipment or secret knowledge that separates the amateur from the professional. And whether or not I've improved as a haiku writer, I read the poems with a new appreciation for the difficulty of the form.

But I think probably the most uplifting thing of all is this: last week one of my haiku got picked for the Richard and Judy Haiku Club, and now Ridley Scott has just made a huge offer for the film rights! Cancel my classes! In your face everyone!

Thank you to Marcel!  Once again, readers, your own views and questions are more than welcome, and in a later post Sue and Marcel will tackle the issues raised. You can also discuss the issues on Twitter on #whywrite.

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.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Upcoming Faber Academy discussion on creative writing

I'm delighted to announce that beginning tomorrow this blog will host a Faber Academy discussion on the radical question, 'What's the point of creative writing?'

As many of you will know, the Faber Academy, a series of writing courses run by the publisher and which started only in October 2008, is now a very busy concern, running several courses a year. Here's the Academy's Ian Ellard on its aims:
People come to us at lots of different stages of their writing, looking for practical help... The emphasis is on nurturing rather than churning, on the personal, not the proscriptive.
Those who follow my author blog may remember that I attended the very first Faber Academy course at the famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop on the Left Bank in Paris, tutored by the meticulous and thoughtful Tobias Hill. On that occasion several of us were fairly experienced writers, there to take stock and refresh our palates, and we had a most enjoyable and stimulating weekend, with two characterisically inspiring talks from Jeanette Winterson. (You can read about it on my other blog here - scroll down to see posts about the course.)

Many of the Faber Academy courses are inevitably for beginners, since, as Ian Ellard says, many potential writers have ambition but are 'waiting to be encouraged and nurtured.' However, he points out: 'There’s one question that, somewhere along the line, they would need to answer: What’s the point?' and this is what the upcoming discussion will focus on. Central to the discussion will be the directors and tutors of a four-month course for emerging writers, Getting Started, which begins on the 21st February: novelists Sue Gee and Marcel Theroux. Tomorrow Sue Gee will kick off by contributing her thoughts on the whole subject, and later Marcel Theroux will add his. Both will be prepared to answer any ensuing questions.

As readers of this blog will know, I have some ambivalent views about the teaching of creative writing, so this promises to be a very apt and interesting discussion...

Monday, January 03, 2011

Bestsellers and Literature

Gloomy assessment by John Dugdale of Nielson's 2010 bestseller list.

Meanwhile, let's stick our heads in the sand and think about literature. Here's a link to another recent discussion by my reading group, a comparison of two novels about Hollywood, Nathanael West's 1939 The Day of the Locust and Joan Didion's 1970 Play it as it Lays (though one of our group dropped the latter to read a Le Carre instead.)

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy New Year, links and an upcoming discussion

Happy New Year to my readers!

A couple of links:

Over on my other blog, a discussion by my reading group (and my own views) of The Leopard by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.

Cultural highlights of the year on the The Faber blog, including my own recommendation of The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist (Oneworld Publications), which I can't recommend highly enough.

And advance notice of the fact that beginning on 6th January, I'm delighted to say, this blog will host a Faber Academy discussion on the crucial question, Why Creative Writing? with contributions from novelists Sue Gee and Marcel Theroux, directors of an upcoming Faber Academy course for new writers. Should be very interesting, and a chance to ask some fundamental questions not always addressed on the web.