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About Time

Lia Mills

Imagination In The Classroom: Teaching & Learning Creative Writing in Ireland, by Anne Fogarty, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and Eibhear Walshe (eds), Four Courts Press, 150 pp, €45, ISBN: 978-1846824135

Did Hanif Kureishi know what he was doing when he confided his views about teaching creative writing to a roomful of people – people equipped with mouths, notebooks and Twitter accounts as well as ears – at the recent Independent Bath Festival of Literature? The novelist (The Buddha of SuburbiaThe Last Word) and screenwriter (My Beautiful LaunderetteLe Weekend) is widely quoted as having said on that occasion that writing can’t be taught.

He’s not the first person to say so – and is unlikely to be the last – but his comments were noteworthy because he also happens to be a professor of creative writing at Kingston University. His students have no talent, he is supposed to have said; they have no understanding of what it takes to write a story.

Leaving aside the obvious retort that it’s entirely reasonable to enrol on a course in the expectation that instruction will be given and understanding will follow, it’s possible that Kureishi’s meaning was other than what’s been inferred – a context or a caveat may have been omitted. An underreported phenomenon of festivals is the reckless fluency that public conversations can spark in a writer – if your ego is being massaged by an interviewer it’s easy to forget that the room is full of strangers, not all of them benign. Anyone can have a day when they question the value of what they do, anyone can trip over their own tongue. But Kureishi’s sentiments kicked off a predictable storm of comment in the newspapers that reported the story (The IndependentThe Guardian), on Twitter and in the blogosphere. One student responded to Kureishi with a blog post entitled: “Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Not If Your Teacher’s A Prick”1.

A quick survey of the comments shows that we are still having the same jaded argument as to whether or not creative writing can be taught. Between the jigs and the reels one thing is certain: this is not a question that interested parties feel neutral about.

Among the more enlightening responses was a contribution from Philip Hensher – no stranger himself to twitterstorms – in The Guardian:

It is no accident that [creative writing courses in universities] started expanding at precisely the moment when traditional financial props of the writer’s trade such as the Net Book Agreement were abolished; when traditional supports of writers’ incomes such as book reviews started being eroded by budget cuts; when publishers, under their own pressures, started savagely cutting away at their standard advances for authors of all levels. The days when VS Pritchett could run a house in a Regent’s Park terrace on the proceeds from short stories and book reviews are long gone. In 2014, a professorial salary may be anything, financially, from a useful support to an absolute necessity.

Hensher is right to comment on the blindingly obvious fact that, like everyone else, writers need to make a living and it’s getting harder to do so. What he doesn’t mention are the less tangible but essential supports that editors and publishers previously offered to writers, such as the luxury of being allowed to develop their skills over the course of a series of slow-to-sell books. Legendary editors (Max Perkins, William Maxwell, Gordon Lish) nursed difficult, unreliable individuals through failed experiments and lapses in judgment, taste and form throughout their careers. “First novel” used to be code for a certain permissible rawness, but now – not so much.

Writing is a profession that many people (think they) want to enter. So many that would-be writers are not unlike sea turtles: thousands of hatchlings emerge from their nests fizzing with hopeful life but – unnurtured and undefended – few escape the hungry predators who wait for them on the beach. The survivors swim for their lives – and out of our reckoning – for a period of time known as the “lost years” before returning as adults to repeat the cycle. An estimated one in a thousand reach that maturity. Let’s put that another way: 999 hatchlings are lost for every single turtle who survives to become an adult.

The parallels are obvious. Tillie Olsen’s inspired study Silences charts some of the losses to literature that result from the frustration of talent. Her argument is political – her lenses are gender, race and class – but in practical terms the recurring obstacles to a writer’s development and output are, according to Olsen: time, education and money.

The arrival of creative writing as a subject taught at postgraduate level in universities addresses the first two issues, while it stands in uneasy relation to the third. Of course, writers can and do emerge from years of solely self-directed reading and practice, trial and error, the whole weary cycle of submission and rejection. They always have. Most writers outside the US are still self-taught. The concept of apprenticeship may not be fashionable, but in reality that’s what a writing career amounts to, whether you take a course or not: it’s a lifelong apprenticeship. Talent is only part of the long complex equation that goes into the final sum.

When a friend of mine heard that I’d started to teach on an MFA creative writing course, she asked “Do you believe in it?” Such a strange question. No one asks if you believe in French, or engineering, or medicine, although even medicine began as an unstandardised and faintly disreputable occupation. How do other university courses justify themselves? These days, the sad answer is likely to be enrolment figures. And creative writing courses have no complaints there. It would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that universities and other institutions (libraries, arts centres, festivals etc) collect fees, or that writing courses are profitable.

“And when they get their degree, they go off and they know how to write, is that it?” was the next question. Er, no. It’s not write-by-numbers. It’s how to push yourself to be the best writer you can be, how to keep doing it for the rest of your natural life (or not). Years of reading and practice, trial and error lie ahead of the emerging writer whether she goes to workshops or not, takes a course or not. But she can save herself a lot of time. See under: wheel, reinvention.

Throughout literary history there have been writers who worked alone and writers who belonged to some form of peer group or network who ultimately helped them to achieve prominence (The Inklings, Bloomsbury, Paris cafés, AE’s literary salons, the early years of the Abbey etc). Before the advent of postgraduate creative writing courses or even workshops in Ireland, we had a healthy population of writers’ groups – we still do – which could be said to be the peer-to-peer equivalent of courses. In those groups writers teach themselves and each other how to pay close critical attention to their work, give each other feedback and support, share information about which publications are looking for what kind of submissions and so on.

There is no formal collected record of those groups in an Irish context, or of the workshops they generated or grew from, but in Imagination in the Classroom Gerald Dawe’s essay “The history and practice of the teaching of creative writing in Ireland” begins to assemble anecdotal evidence of the context and background out of which creative writing teaching has emerged, dating back to the seminal National Writers’ Workshop (1976), which took place in University College Galway, sponsored by the Arts Council. (The idea is said to have come from Éilís Dillon.) He notes that:

Apart from the pioneering work of the Poet’s House, based at one time in the North of Ireland with a degree course accredited by a UK university, Trinity College Dublin was the first Irish university to offer a Master’s programme in Creative writing in 1998.

Several other universities followed. Dawe describes some of the issues and pitfalls associated with teaching creative writing, citing a celebrity culture “something akin to a form of literary X-Factor” and quoting Elizabeth Bishop, who declared of a creative writing class in 1966: “Those students are not there to ‘express’ themselves; they’re there to learn how to write a good poem” (original emphasis). In the discussion that follows Dawe lays an emphasis on the working dimension of workshops – their practical focus:

The whole point of teaching creative writing – in whatever setting – is to benefit the individual and strengthen his or her ability to read and see better what it is he or she is doing; to critically connect the reality of the poem or story or scene from a play with the aspiration of the writer; and to place in a revealing light what has or has not been achieved. Knowledge, examples, comparisons that flow from the imaginative use of language, are every bit as critical as the support and responses of encouragement and enjoyment. And we cannot exclude the pleasure principle in all this; otherwise, why bother?

In an introduction which also describes the context out of which creative writing has emerged in Ireland, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne points out that “teachers of creative writing, in Ireland as elsewhere, are writers themselves – just as teachers of most subjects in the university are scholars and researchers themselves, rather than people with merely pedagogical training”. But, precisely because the subject is so new to Irish universities, she goes on to say that many of them

are instinctive writers, or perhaps more accurately, autodidacts, who have learnt by reading. In my case, although I had a degree in English (in common with many Irish writers), and had attended a few workshops as a young writer, I did not hear basic fictional concepts such as point of view and voice until a late stage in my career, much less discussed from a technical, moral or philosophical perspective. I learned by imitation and practice, as people of my father’s generation learnt to drive, without the benefit of formal lessons or even a handbook outlining the rules of the road.

Many of the contributors, while discussing their teaching methods, also describe their own genesis as writers/teachers and in this way lay the foundation for some enterprising literary historian to come along and compile the evidence to construct a more comprehensive account.

Sometimes things appear to happen organically, to develop while they are happening. They grow and spread and next thing you know everyone is doing it, but the more they proliferate and the longer they grow the harder it is to peer back through time and say this is when it started, this is how it grew. All of which adds to the value of the enterprise undertaken by this volume of essays.

In his influential 2009 study of the impact of the many postgraduate creative writing programmes in the United States The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing Mark McGurl cites the importance of the kind of literary history that traces the development of such movements and lays the groundwork for studying the extent of their influence on the development of American Literature.

In 1936 the University of Iowa had initiated its formal creative writing degree programme, the first university in the anglophone world to do so. It must have seemed a logical step at the time: it had been the first to accept creative work submitted for advanced degrees (since 1922) and had hosted creative writing classes since the 1890s, according to its own website. But the idea has caught on, and creative writing courses are now a familiar and widespread feature of American university life. McGurl suggests, worryingly, that traces of the various schools’ influence are apparent, like a watermark, throughout the literature, and that affiliation through schools might replace regionalism as a means of classification.

But in Ireland it’s far too soon for that. Coming late to the discussion, as we do, may be an advantage, as Ní Dhuibhne observes. We have the benefit of positive examples to follow, and a forewarning of the potential pitfalls.

The contributors to this volume currently teach at university level, but they have also taught – and many continue to teach – in other, more informal and community-based contexts. The range of teaching methods they describe varies accordingly, but the collection is a useful introduction to a variety of pedagogical approaches as well as giving fascinating insight into their preoccupations and practices as writers. As Ní Dhuibhne states, the question is no longer whether but how creative writing can best be taught in Ireland.

In “Write first, worry later: fostering creativity in the classroom”, Roddy Doyle sounds a cautionary note. Characteristically, he worries about the risk of stifling creativity in young people, concerned that when terms such as conflict and resolution are pronounced essential to fiction, they are “the death of creativity before it even starts”.

Fighting Words, the creative writing centre for children which Doyle initiated with Sean Love, is a thriving testimonial to their respect for the creative energy of young people. Doyle is concerned about prescriptive practices that might predominate elsewhere, but it’s clear that Fighting Words shares some of the conditions offered by creative writing courses more generally, whether in the community or in a university: a safe place to explore imaginative possibilities; a place where stories, daring and innovation are encouraged; somewhere students are given the means, the materials and – crucially – the time to make use of them. Doyle writes:

School is all about time, chunks of measured time; the start of the day, and the bells within the day, the week, the term, the year, the move from primary to secondary, the important examination years, time measured as an investment in the future. It’s a huge part of a good education: “Don’t waste time”. But a kid writing a story should be able to climb into a different kind of time. The page can also be seen as a form of time, measured across and down, and the move from one page to the next. But it isn’t tick-tock time and it shouldn’t be stopped by the bell or squashed into an exam paper.

Doyle’s concern is that courses might focus on the sorts of things that “stop people from starting”, but he allows that “the literary imagination is very robust. It survives in prisons and labour camps, and seems positively to thrive in hospitals. Universities seem like harmless enemies, by comparison with the gulag.”

In any case, students who sign up to postgraduate courses are not exactly hesitating at the starting line. What many critics of postgraduate creative writing courses overlook is that there is a competitive selection process. The vast majority of students are already published writers when they apply. There are entry standards and course requirements, assignments and assessment to go through before a degree is awarded, by which time the student is usually expected to have brought a substantial piece of work to publication standard. (There is no guarantee that the work will find a publisher.)

But what actually happens? How are students taught? These are questions Imagination in the Classroom sets out to answer. It’s one thing to write yourself, Ní Dhuibhne says, but the question of how to fill the teaching hours of a standard university course is an entirely different matter:

How are the ninety credits awarded to a Masters in Creative Writing calculated? How are degree curricula and individual module programmes in creative writing designed? What elements do they contain? What should students, embarking on a Master’s degree, expect to learn or experience, in return for their not inconsiderable investment of time and money?

These and other questions are raised and explored within the essays that follow in the collection. There is no specific analysis of how university courses differ from others, but answers are embedded in various essays.

Creative writing courses are designed to educate writers in craft and in doing so to save them some of the time they would have spent figuring things out for themselves. As Sinéad Morrissey writes, “What you can offer students is a sort of invaluable short-cut: years of solitary reading and thinking condensed into a twelve-week package.”

But courses – and standards – vary. The best writers don’t always make the best teachers, and some of the harsher critics of creative writing courses (Lucy Ellman, Elif Batuman) have had direct experience, either as teacher or student, and become disillusioned as a result. A student in search of a postgraduate creative writing degree would be well advised to look around, read course descriptions, look at faculty lists (and the current writer in residence, if there is one) and proceed from there.

The clearest distinction between teaching in a university setting and in the wider literary world is in the necessity for grading, which Sinéad Morrissey calls “the price tag attached to bringing poetry composition as a viable subject into the academy”.

Mary Morrissy has taken the subject of grading as the focus of her essay. At beginner level, she writes, workshops are about instilling confidence, kickstarting the creative process and “guiding the new writer towards the spring of the sub-conscious […] to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor it’s about encouraging the ‘habit of writing’”.

At undergraduate level, grading is about assessing “basic competence – the ability to shape short pieces of writing – and the engagement with the creative process”. But at Master of Fine Arts level there’s a vocational component. A career choice is implied, so students are treated as if they are going on to be writers. Worryingly, Morrissy points out that in the US students might go on to be not writers but teachers of creative writing. Surely that defeats the whole purpose of the enterprise? What is the point of an apprenticeship that excludes the working craftsman from the equation?

Morrissy tells a hilarious, if alarming, anecdote about being threatened by a gun-owning student for awarding a poor grade. In Ireland we might laugh (uneasily) at this story, but it’s a salutary reminder of the distorting effect of grading on the relationship between teacher and student (also alluded to by Nessa O’Mahony) and the pressures associated with graduate degrees.

The contributors cover a range of topics, some esoteric, some practical and some suggestive of the idiosyncratic directions a teacher will have time and space to explore with students – and surely one of the pleasures of learning is the opportunity for both student and teacher to pursue particular questions and enlarge their exposure to influence accordingly.

Paul Perry, for example, writes of a psychoanalytic exercise conducted with students that asks questions about “the self, constructed or otherwise, which creates the work […] the emphasis shifts from the work produced for public consumption to the process of personal transformation. The emphasis is not on craft or technique, but the task of the imagination.” Eibhear Walshe, writing of his own emergence as a memoirist, alludes lovingly to the influence of writers like Kate O’Brien and Elizabeth Bowen, who have both benefited from his critical and scholarly attention in a different academic context. Carlo Gébler describes his own dawning appreciation of the value of literary non-fiction (originating in a series of sessions of being grilled by an intimidating father) and the joys of choosing words which are “perfectly suited to their subject”:

While it is a pleasure to make something up, it is equally a pleasure to take a lump of unreconstructed experience and to fashion it into something that is both honest to the original experience and yet has the integrity of a literary artefact.

Nessa O’Mahony’s essay takes us in a whole new direction: the future. “One of the great romances of the twenty-first century has been that between the academy and information technology. Universities worldwide have been exploring the potential of technology to streamline the delivery of courses, while at the same time broadening access to a student base no longer limited to those found locally.” In her essay O’Mahony describes the experience, challenges and rewards of teaching in an online academic environment and the importance of building a sense of community through discussion forums. In her account, technology extends considerably the possible range of learning and teaching options. What she describes sounds in many ways like an increased workload for a teacher, but it’s easy to see the potential benefit for students.

The contributors refer widely to the work of other writers. While there is nothing overt to distinguish the teaching methods discussed in the book from teaching methods elsewhere, many of the exemplars cited are Irish (Michael Longley, Kate O’Brien, Frank O’Connor, Elizabeth Bowen). Besides the historical overview given at the outset, this is perhaps the only actual “Irish” slant in the book. But this is in no way a criticism; it would be counter-productive to strain after an artificial “Irishness”.

The contributions of Sinéad Morrissey and Mary O’Donnell, in particular, are an answer to people who suggest that creative writing courses happen in a narcissistic, reading-free zone. Morrissey, who teaches at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, writes:

It is unlikely that anyone will write a good poem without being a good reader of poetry. We write in conversation with other poems, with other poetic models which help us to find our way through a difficulty, or which offer an alternate perspective on our current obsession.

(NB: not just a reader, but a “good reader”.)

Both of these poets describe teaching methods that are steeped in attentive reading and close attention to the methods and technical skill of the poets they study. They demonstrate a deep intellectual and technical engagement with the fundamentals of craft as demonstrated by canonical and new poets. The sources quoted and examples offered – in particular Louise Gluck’s essay “Against Sincerity”, from which O’Donnell borrows to make a distinction between honest poetic intent and sincerity in poetry – are clear evidence of the intellectual range that underpins the teaching, and an answer to those who suspect that creative writing courses are all about praise and encouragement.

O’Donnell articulates challenges that workshop facilitators face in dealing with the preconceptions of some participants, and lists questions that she brings to the work at hand, while Morrissey gives a generously detailed account of work she sets her students – as does Paul Perry.

In her essay “Beginnings: becoming a teacher of creative writing”, Leanne O’Sullivan writes about her progression from being a slightly sceptical workshop participant to becoming a teacher of creative writing. She describes the value of demystifying the work a poet does, exploding the illusion of “prolific” inspiration and “easeful” writing. But like many (if not all) writers, she acknowledges that there are places where teaching cannot go: “if the mystery could be taught, poetry would die”.

The function of workshops and courses is not to undermine the ineffable but to establish a critical vocabulary, organising principles, an appreciation of the subtle grammar of fiction and practice in attentive reading, so that writers can engage consciously with their craft as they practise it. For as long as writers have existed, they have found ways to do this for themselves, but it can take years and years of trial and error through solitary practice – or even within a peer group – to get there.

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and James Ryan get every bit as technical about teaching aspects of fiction (“time and the novel” and dialogue, respectively) as the poets do about poetry. Ní Dhuibhne describes the challenges of working with the novel as opposed to the story:

the novel […] is hardly a single genre at all but a spectrum of related sub-genres, like an enormous extended family. By comparison, the short story is not just a lonely voice, but an only child. The novel is like the species “dog”: it includes everything from alsations to toy poodles – because we have a Platonic idea of “dog”, we are able to classify many breeds which look completely different from one another as belonging to the same species. So it is with novels. Short stories are more like cats.

This leads into a complex evaluation of issues of time in and around the novel, which does not yield easily to a workshop format. In reality, “the whole narrative ‘language’ of the novel requires a different sort of review, at workshop level, from that which serves the lyric poem or even the short story.” Or:

The neatly shaped feline short story finds a snug bed in the Creative Writing workshop, but the bounding barking dog that is the novel needs more time and space. When the university year is over, the would-be novelist usually discovers that she has still not written her novel, and is henceforward on her own. This may feel like abandonment to the student now accustomed to the company of fellow writers, to feedback, to a nurturing creative environment. But arguably it is a desirable outcome for a Creative Writing module. The graduate may need to feel the sharp edge of abandonment in order to become an independent writer.

Because a creative writing course, at any level, is not a quick-fix solution, there is no magic wand. The work remains to be done and no one can do it except yourself. The apprenticeship continues, with great attention to detail, as is evinced in James Ryan’s wittily (and allusively) entitled “What we talk about when we talk about talking: writing dialogue in the novel and short story”, a detailed exposition of the pitfalls and possibilities inherent in writing dialogue and a close reading of its many functions in fiction.

There are writers who’d have you believe their gift is entirely natural, if not actually sacred. Natural to them, is what they mean to imply. They give the impression that they never break a sweat while doing it, that their torments relate to that enigma, their muse, and happen on another plane. Well. If the muse turned up at a workshop of mine I’d show her the door pretty fast. She can go flick her hair and chew her nails somewhere else.

Discussions of art and inspiration have their place, but that’s not what most people leave their fires for on a damp winter night when they venture out to a workshop with a notebook in one pocket and the draft of a story in the other. They want to know how to make that story work. Mostly they want to know how to get into print (and how to get paid).

Writing is a discipline you acquire through practice over time. Among the most popular questions asked at festivals such as the one where Hanif Kureishi made his contentious remarks, “What made you a writer?” probably ranks in the top three. Answers vary, as you’d expect, but they rarely address the shadow question that hides inside the stated one. What people really want to know is: why are you a writer, when other, infinitely more talented and far more deserving people personally known to the questioner are not?

The simple answer is: because I write. It’s the patient dredging of words from the confusions of inner sludge, their careful selection and arrangement on the page, one after a hesitant or fluent other, that does it – words that are in turn printed, sold and – crucially – bought and read. But – remember the turtles? If you ask me, the other, the real answer lies in the “lost years”. Years of trial and error and frustration, of ripping things up to start again, of dragging yourself back to the beginning over and over, of sleepless nights and word obsessions and more error and correction. Ideally, the learning experience offered in creative writing courses at every level help you to elude the distractions of light pollution and the dangers of beach and predators, then help you to lose yourself, wonderfully, in the unseen realms where work is made.

I was at a seminar last month where a recent graduate of a Master’s in Creative Writing spoke to current students about his experience of finishing a novel at the end of the academic year, of finding an agent and a publisher. He said that he’d only written fitfully before taking the course. The year of study had given him time to focus, to think about nothing but writing and to do it. Most of all, he was exposed to the work of writers far outside his usual comfort zone, writers he would never have found for himself.

This was a young man. He’s unlikely to have said, and may not even be aware, that during his time as a postgraduate student he changed, through persistent application, from the dilettante/procrastinator he described himself as being before he took the course to a committed practitioner. Writing can’t be hurried, but deadlines must be met. These are the sorts of contradictions you learn to negotiate on a creative writing course.

It would have been interesting if the collection had included a contribution from someone like him, explaining why he chose to take the academic route, what his expectations were and whether they were met. It’s also interesting to consider whether data is being compiled on Irish creative writing graduates and their subsequent experiences of publication and/or employment.

Teachers vary. Not every writer will make a good teacher. Some writers have a gift for imparting useful knowledge, others don’t. A potential student would do well to look around at the ever-expanding range of courses on offer, who’s giving them, what if any academic credit goes with it (if academic credit is what you’re after) and whether or not you will end up with a manuscript that is ready to go to a publisher. Some courses are run by publishers (eg the Faber School) newspapers (The Guardian) and even agencies (Curtis Brown Creative). The Arvon Foundation in the UK has run residential courses for years.

The question of whether creative writing can be taught has a shadow-side: should it be taught? In his essay “In Defense of Writing Classes” the American poet and teacher Richard Hugo writes:

What about the student who is not good? Who will never write much? It is possible for a good teacher to get from that student one poem or one story that far exceeds whatever hopes the student had. It may be of no importance to the world of high culture but it may be very important to the student. It is a small thing, but it is also small and wrong to forget or ignore lives that can use a single microscopic moment of personal triumph. Just once the kid with bad eyes hit a home run in an obscure sandlot game. You may ridicule the affectionate way he takes that day through a life drab enough to need it, but please stay the hell away from me.

Some people worry about the privilege associated with university courses and the unfair advantage they are perceived to confer. There are concerns, too, about financial barriers which suggest that only middle class, well-off and leisured individuals have access to them. Others fret about the stamp university training might put on the work that emerges from it.

These are all valid questions. No doubt the arguments will continue, but at least, with this volume, a proper conversation has begun. And as Paul Perry writes, “the workshop is all the more a productive space for being contested. It is enriched by the debates surrounding it.”
1. http://bit.ly/1k5GHiw

Lia Mills writes novels, short stories, essays and the occasional blog (at http://libranwriter.wordpress.com/ ).  Her third novel, Fallen, is due out from Penguin Ireland in June 2014.   Her second novel, Nothing Simple, is about to reissue as an ebook.  She teaches aspects of writing, most recently at the Irish Writers’ Centre and at UCD.

Note 25/04/2014: The author wishes to advise readers that the Richard Hugo essay “In Defense of Writing Classes” is from the book The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing.



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