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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Creative Writing, Taught Courses and Tea Making

I was hunting for a picture of the Japanese Tea Ceremony to illustrate this post, but will have to make do with this one instead, a lovely old embroidery of a lucky crane! Late last night,  I got embroiled in one of those interesting Facebook discussions, with a couple of fellow writers, about the usefulness of creative writing courses, about why and how people write, about whether students on such courses should follow the course rubric to the letter, about whether such courses generally lead to publication and what other uses they might have for aspiring writers or for writers who are starting out, or perhaps for writers who feel they have ground to a halt and need encouragement, or inspiration, or a certain amount of 'mentoring'. We are all of us, let's face it, afraid to move out of our individual comfort zones, and it can be helpful to have a metaphorical hand to hold, while we are doing it! When, inevitably, the discussion strayed into why and how we write, things became even more interesting.
A friend expressed the opinion that writing is surely communication, and that writers must therefore think about the end product, the book, play, story and, presumably, the audience for that product. And to some extent, this is true. But the older I grow, the more I also get the feeling that somehow we have got the balance wrong, and it may be that courses in the so called 'creative industries' should take at least some share of the blame for this.
When I first began to tutor creative writing workshops, a long time ago, I was funded (not generously, but funded!) to work with groups in the community. It was in the nature of these groups that everyone wanted something different. There were people who wanted desperately to be published, people who only wanted to write for fun, people who needed encouragement to stretch themselves and a few who just wanted a chat. Some were poets, some wanted to write articles and stories, a few were interested in drama, even fewer thought they might like to tackle a full length novel. The trick was in juggling all these different requirements and abilities, making sure that each person went away from the class feeling that they had got something out of it. Difficult, but not impossible.
Then, things gradually changed. Those doing the funding began to want rigidly structured courses, and a very definite end product. This was difficult, with such disparate groups of people, with such a variety of wants and needs. In practice, it resulted in the publication of various anthologies, and certain amount of invention when it came to writing down the course structure! 
But that was the start of a slippery slope which, I think, has lead us to a situation in which our colleges and universities are busy trying to offload any course which can't be 'sold' as contributing to the student's employability by the end of it. Gone are the days when anyone valued learning for its own sake. And while you can easily assert that  IT, or engineering or applied mathematics will make you employable, it's quite hard to do it with creative writing. But you have to find ways of selling your course to the powers-that-be by labelling it as in some way vocational. You can either imply that it will be easier to find a publisher or agent at the end of it (a bit debatable) or you can  talk about the advantage of writing skills for other employment (true, but any decent English course would probably do the same). And this need to concentrate on some hypothetical end product: employability, the acquisition of an agent or a publisher, a completed and 'oven ready' novel or script or play, means that all too often, students don't do what they perhaps ought to be doing with these courses: using them as a rich seam of knowledge and experience to be mined, giving themselves permission to experiment without fear of failure and within a sheltered environment, giving themselves permission to play about with ideas and structures and forms, so that by the end of such a course, each student might be closer to finding his or her own unique voice, ready to move on with a certain amount of confidence. But can you imagine some poor course leader having to write that as a module descriptor? No. Me neither.
We have now reached the sad situation where a recent advertisement for a writer-in-residence/lecturer in creative writing for one of our old and distinguished academic institutions was couched in such precisely prescriptive terms that none of our equally distinguished national poets or playwrights could have applied for it with any hope of success. And that way, cultural disaster lies. 
Sadly, we seem to have lost any sense of valuing the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, so what chance does the pursuit of any individual creative practice for its own sake stand, in our current Pipchin-esque state of education?

 'It being a part of Mrs. Pipchin's system not to encourage a child's mind to develop and expand itself like a young flower, but to open it by force like an oyster.' (Dombey and Son)

So where does tea come in? I drink a lot of tea. All day, really. More, when I'm writing. But I don't dunk a teabag in a mug of warm water. I mix real leaf tea with plenty of boiling water, in a rather beautiful hand made teapot, (hand made by a friend, at that) well warmed, and sometimes I drink it out of a china mug, and sometimes out of a big handmade mug, and sometimes out of a large teacup. I like the process you see, like making tea for other people too. Most people tell us that our tea tastes very nice, which I think it does. It isn't, of course, as wonderful as a real Japanese 'tea ceremony' but it's my tea ceremony, and as the ancient masters of the art of tea said - you just make tea. That's all there is to it. The whole point of such practices, though, is that the making is key. Doing. Being in the moment. Becoming absorbed in the process itself and treating all aspects of it with loving care, while you are doing it.
I don't think you can teach talent, but you can certainly teach the craft aspects of writing, just as you can't teach musical talent, but you wouldn't expect somebody to sit right down and play a Chopin Nocturne either. But I don't think you can even begin to teach the craft of writing to other people without recognising that the doing is what is really important for those who are starting out. Perhaps I mean more than just 'doing'. I think most writers find themselves living in the present of their work. Becoming absorbed. Interrogating the work itself, exploring a character, an idea, a situation. Above all playing.  There's a rhythm involved, which includes imaginative play, followed by hard work, followed by more imaginative play, followed by more hard work. But you have to get the balance right. You have to allow yourself to be in that moment, without guilt, without a thought for the end product, the pass or fail. You have to be in a state of 'flow' as Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes it, where failure is not even an issue. It's the doing that matters. But I'm not at all sure whether the current structure of many of the creative writing courses on offer particularly undergraduate courses, are a help or a hindrance. I think it's a different matter with Masters and Doctoral degrees, because by then, you probably have a certain amount of confidence in your own voice, and in any case, such courses generally leave you more space to play about with the work.
Write, make tea, write.
If a particular course is taught by somebody whose work you admire and offers what seems to be an answer to a particular set of problems, for you, by all means apply. But don't expect miracles. Those generally take a little longer.

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