Wednesday, 19 October 2011

‘Describe cancer. Describe calico.’

I’ve never done a writing course (as either student or teacher). I’d feel hugely self-conscious if I signed up to one. Not sure why; no one else seems to have this hang-up, and nor did the wannabe artists who went to art college decades ago, before ‘creative writing’ was on any syllabus. I tend to be cynical about them.

But today, there on the kitchen table was a 40-page Guardian supplement entitled ‘How to Write Fiction’ – a thing I occasionally try and usually fail to do – and it looks, after a quick skim, pretty impressive: non-prescriptive (‘feel free to dispute or ignore everything in this introduction or in the articles that follow,’ writes Geoff Dyer), and enough text written by enough authors for readers to cherry-pick the bits that look juiciest and ignore the others. (The authors – Rachel Cusk, Adam Foulds, M. J. Hyland, Andrew Miller among them – teach a new range of ‘UEA/Guardian Masterclasses’. Cost of the first one I checked out: £4,000. Which for weekly 3-hour class sessions over 24 weeks works out at £55 an hour. Which is probably no more than the rate you’d pay a plumber to mend a dripping tap, but still enough for my cynicism to click back on. Even if they get taken on by one of the big publishers, most first-time novelists are, I believe, getting advances of far less than that course fee.)

For someone who has written previously as a poet and who is switching to prose, there’s a lot to learn. Hugo Williams once did a good column on this: all those ‘he said’s and ‘she said’s, all that getting people into and out of rooms. All that description.

Description. Geoff Dyer in his introduction licenses me to dispense with it and just get on with the stuff I’m better at (= enjoy more?). Depends how it’s done and what it’s done for, of course, but here’s Virginia Woolf on the subject, after quoting (in ‘Character in Fiction’) a passage from an Arnold Bennett novel describing the view from a window: ‘One line of insight would have done more than all those lines of description; but let them pass as the necessary drudgery of the novelist.’ Her essay goes on to talk about ‘how serious a matter it is when the tools of one generation are useless for the next’, and about the difficulty of putting into words even the simplest experience or observation (‘this vivid, this overmastering impression’), in this case of an old woman she happened to have shared a railway carriage with: ‘To tell you the truth, I was . . . strongly tempted to manufacture a three-volume novel about the old lady’s son, and his adventures crossing the Atlantic, and her daughter, and how she kept a milliner’s shop in Westminster, the past life of Smith himself, and his house at Sheffield, though such stories seem to me the most dreary, irrelevant, and humbugging affairs in the world but if I had done that I should have escaped the appalling effort of saying what I meant. And to have got at what I meant, I should have had to go back and back and back; to experiment with one thing and another; to try this sentence and that, referring each word to my vision matching it as exactly as possible . . . I admit that I shirked that arduous undertaking. I let my Mrs Brown slip through my fingers . . . But that is partly the great Edwardians’ fault. I asked them – they are my elders and betters – How shall I begin to describe this woman’s character? And they said, “Begin by saying that her father kept a shop in Harrogate. Ascertain the rent. Ascertain the wages of shop assistants in the year 1878. Discover what her mother died of. Describe cancer. Describe calico. Describe –” But I cried, “Stop! Stop!” and I regret to say that I threw that ugly, that clumsy, that incongruous tool out of the window, for I knew that if I began describing the cancer and the calico my Mrs Brown, that vision to which I cling though I know no way of imparting it to you, would have been dulled and tarnished and vanished for ever.’

From which, two things. Writing involves at least as much arguing with your ‘elders and betters’, shutting your eyes and ears to them even, as it does learning from them. And if it’s about ‘the appalling effort of saying what I meant’, there has to be something you mean to say. Even if you only discover what that is through writing – which is where, I guess, the writing courses come back in.

Oh, a last thing. The Faber Academy course titled ‘Becoming a poet’ (£3,500, working out at just under £40 an hour class time, a snip). Roland Barthes would have had fun with that, in his Mythologies. Not writing poetry: becoming ‘a poet’.

1 comment:

A Reader said...

The Faber course sounds suspect for the reasons you say, and were someone to succeed through it I'm not sure I would like their poems.

One thing about Creative Writing MAs: on every single poetry MA, there are people interested in 'becoming a poet' and there are people who actually want (need) to write poems; imagine someone quite young who has just finished an undergraduate course in English, someone who doesn't yet see the problems with the MA system ... it's unfair to write them off as not-proper-poets-just-sheep-doing-MAs ...

I'm stressing this point because lots of powerful poetry figures (Don Paterson recently) like to slag off the poetry MAs when it suits them, whilst teaching on them, using them as a network, living off them, finding people to publish through them, etc