THE WRITER AND THE TEACHER
Dear Readers, my dispatches will always be free and open to everyone. I am unable to use my hands and I’m writing, via dictation, with the help of my family. If you could become a paid subscriber and support me, it’d mean so much.
If it is true, as I have read somewhere, that at any one time at least two percent of the population are writing novels, then many questions about ‘creative writing’ courses, and their recent rapid proliferation are really about what you need other people for.
Is writing something you do alone, or do you need others to help? You can have both useful and repetitive conversations with yourself, and you can have sex with yourself, though it might cause alarm if you claimed to be making love to yourself. Conversation and sex are generally thought to be more productive and unpredictable with others. Several of the most significant art forms of the 20th century – jazz, pop, cinema – have been collaborative. Is writing like this or is it something else altogether?
Some people become writers because they want to be independent; they want neither to be competitive nor to rely on others. For them writing is an entirely personal self-exploration, a way of being alone, of thinking through their life, and perhaps of hiding, while speaking to someone in their head. And certainly, without a passion for solitude no writer is going to be able to bear the tedious obsessionality of his profession.
Yet that’s not where the story ends, in solitude. Particularly when they are first beginning to write, some students like to show their work to their friends, and, sometimes, to their family, both as a way of informing them of certain truths, but also in the hope of a helpful reaction. Yet, however much the well-meaning reader might like the work, it doesn’t follow that he will have the vocabulary to be able to speak usefully about it, saying something which might help the writer move forwards. Kindness may be comforting, but it isn’t always inspiring.
Men and women have always searched for ways to enhance, modify or transform their states of mind, using herbs, nicotine, alcohol and drugs, as well as bolts of electricity through the skull, opium, baths, tonics, books and conversation. [Even ‘pearl cordial’ – powdered pearl - was popular in the eighteenth century, as a purported cure for depression.] There’s no reason why the practise of writing can’t help people see what’s inside them, as well as helping them organise and deepen their ideas of who they are. Reading does this too, providing a vocabulary of ideas which you might utilise to view your life in a new way. But a writing teacher is not a therapist, listening patiently for the unconscious in a free association or dream telling, and the student would be surprised to learn the teacher saw himself as a healer rather than as an instructor.
When necessary, and it is usually necessary, the teacher has to teach, to pass over information about structure, voice, point of view, contrast, character, or the discipline of writing. But, particularly on those occasions when faced with a mass of work she can’t understand, and doesn’t know how to begin addressing – particularly horrifying for a teacher who might be under the misapprehension that she must understand, and quickly too - she might use something like a Socratic method. By asking numerous questions, the teacher will give the student her work back in a different form, making it seem both clearer and more puzzling.
Students are often at a loss when you ask them what a particular image or piece of dialogue means, and whether it is doing what they believe it is doing. While it might be productive to write from the unconscious where the world is weirder and less constrained, the work has also to be assessed rationally. Discussing it is part of this.
In a short film he’d made, a film student had stationed two young men on a park bench where he filmed them from behind – the backs of their heads - for some time. When I asked him why the shot was so sustained, he replied that the moment – to me a considerable moment – represented ‘death’. He said he wanted the viewer, at this point in the film, to consider their own death. Always up for that, but trying to remain calm, and reminding myself of the nobility of teaching, I said it defeated me how he thought an audience would leap from the picture he presented to this thought. He seemed to see he needed more vivid and accurate images to convey what he wanted to say. It was also helpful for him to be told that he needed to develop a sense of story, rather than slamming scenes together in the hope the audience might notice some connection. If nothing else quite succeeds in a piece of work – humour, for instance, or the fascination of the characters – the story alone might still hold the reader’s interest, as it does with soap-operas.
This student might have also benefitted from better authorities, from closer contact with other artists and dead poets, from whom he might learn more imaginative solutions as he strove to carry his internal world into the outside one. It is amazing that students are so rarely taught to see the connection between studying others and their own work. Borrowing a voice, or trying out new ones, isn’t the same as acquiring your own, but it’s a step in that direction. What you steal becomes yours when it is creatively modified. Since almost anything can usefully feed an artist, a broad humanistic education, a sort of foundation course involving religion, psychology and literature, would be a positive accompaniment to any writing course.
Conversations with a teacher should enable the student to get an idea of what an ordinary reader might make of her work, and how she must bear in mind that, in the end, she is writing for others. Writers are entertainers rather than exhibitionists. These exchanges should also give the student an idea of what she is striving to say.
The clarity a student might gain, along with new ideas, can also be obtained from writers working in groups. While concentrated individual teaching is usually preferable – most advice about writing is too general and is along the lines of ‘write about what you know’ - the advantage of the group is that each student has the opportunity to hear a range of criticism and suggestion, some of it mad, some invaluable. The students learn from one another.
Another version of this is for the students to work in pairs, reading their work to one another, though this is not easy with longer pieces, and difficult to keep going over the considerable period it might take to complete a sizeable work. What must be recognised is that the reader orients the writer, and the writer should understand he exists only in relation to the one whose attention is being solicited. The reader or spectator must be convinced by the competence of the writer, acknowledging that his work is credible, and that it’s safe to believe it. What the writer wants is for the reader to feel as he felt.
When attempting to write there are some mistakes you have to make, mistakes which will yield good ideas, opening up a space for more thoughts. And there are other mistakes it might be worth avoiding, though sometimes it is difficult to tell the two apart. What might make it clear is when the writer gets blocked or stuck. A student of mine wanted to tell a story in the voice of a seven-year old. As you can imagine, she was finding this inordinately difficult, and it was holding up her progress. [That which you most urgently want to say might not make the best writing.] By trying to inhabit a point of view it was almost impossible for her to see from, she was getting little work done and becoming discouraged. Good advice would have been for her either to see if she could get hold of the the story from another position, or work on something else for a time, before returning to the idea.
She might then have to learn how to wait for the occurrence of a better idea. And this question of waiting, for a writer, is an important one. A good idea might suggest itself suddenly, but its working out or testing, will take the time it needs. It might appear to acquaintances of the author that he’s doing little but lying on the sofa staring into the distance, or going on long walks. [Clearly, Charles Dickens was writing when he was walking.] This might be when good ideas turn up – a book is a thousand inspirations rather than one big one - and the guilt of fertile indolence has to be borne.
Writing and life are not separate, though they can be separated, and, on the whole, it is the teacher’s job to consider the writing as an independent entity. Often though, a student will use writing to think about his life, so that what the student is showing the teacher is a problem.
A woman decides to write about her mother but finds herself overwhelmed with grief and heartache. She pushes on, but stops, terrified of what she might want to say. Eventually she must decide whether or not to drop this painful but essential subject. Perhaps she’d prefer to write something else. Or she might need to discover whether she can endure the difficulty of confronting the matter. And it might also occur to her: is writing a way of calming terror, or of creating it? We can see here that the writer is the material; the poem is the person. They are the same thing.
Following on from this, an anxiety in the writer will be a fear of what his words will do to others, and what others might do to him in return if he says what he thinks, even in fictional form. As there are certain ideas which are discouraged or forbidden in families, and indeed in all institutions, most adults - even if only unconsciously - are afraid of expressing their own ideas about what is going on. They fear they will be accused of betrayal and then punished - both of which are possible. They will have to wonder whether they are prepared to put up with this. A certain personal truth might, however, be what the writer most wants to reveal, thus creating an intolerable conflict which might lead to a block.
If a student can only write miserable monologues at the end of which the speaker kills himself, you might wonder, not only about the student’s state of mind, but also about why there aren’t any other characters in the piece, about the voices which aren’t being heard. Obviously this student - who had been through the psychiatric system where he wasn’t much listened to - was showing me something I had to take seriously and think hard about. It was worrying, and not easy for me to see how to proceed here.
Eventually I persuaded the student to bring in other characters to make more of a conversation of it. To his credit, after a few weeks, he was able to do this, though the suicides continued. I learned that when the unsayable was about to be broached at last, suicide was seen as the convenient way out. It was like a version of writer’s block. But once his characters began to have exchanges – and the student saw the point of debating with himself, of opening up his own head – his work developed. The scenes got longer and the people spoke. His work became more available to others.
For a while at least, a measure of madness appeared to have been transferred from the writer to his characters. They were iller than he was. Certainly it’s not the most healthy who are the most creative. As Proust reminded us, “Everything great in the world comes from neurotics. We enjoy a thousand intellectual delicacies, but we have no idea of their cost, to those who invented them, in sleepless nights, tears, spasmodic laughter, rashes, asthmas, epilepsies, and the fear of death, which is worse than all the rest.”
It was my student’s excitement and determination in his work which reassured me. Our meetings were a helpful structure. I think without a teacher to accompany him through this, he could have twisted in painful circles and become more isolated. As it was, his work was among the most imaginative and strange I’ve read, far removed from the dull realism and conventionality which most students think passes for imaginative work.
Some students have considerable phantasies about becoming a writer, of what they think being a writer will do for them. This quickens their desire, and helps them to get started. But when the student begins to get an idea of how difficult it is to complete a considerable piece of work – to write fifteen thousand good words, while becoming aware of the more or less impossibility of making significant money from writing – she will experience a dip, or ‘crash’ and become discouraged and feel helpless. The loss of a phantasy can be painful, but if the student can get through it – if the teacher can show the student that there’s something good in her work and help her endure the frustration of learning to do something difficult – the student will make better progress.
In the end, the writer mostly teaches himself and will always want to develop, finding new forms for his interests. If he’s lucky, along with learning to allow his imagination free reign, he’ll mostly edit and evaluate his own work himself. Of course it doesn’t follow that he’ll never need anyone else. He might prefer to ignore others, but he will need to listen to them first, as he continues to speak.