Thursday, 26 January 2012

This is where it all gets done

I’ve talked about this before, so I’ll try hard here not to belabour the point. But this recent article from Anis Shuvani on the age-old question of whether or not creative writing can be taught got me a-thinkin’, and as is my wont (perhaps unfortunately), I thought I’d share some more of these thoughts on this here blog.

Can creative writing be taught? Can it really?

Mr. Shuvani makes an excellent point in his article, for sure. (The Victoria-based writer Matthew Hooton, via Twitter, called him a “perfectly articulate devil on my shoulder”, and I’d say that’s pretty apt.) Do creative writing programs—particularly those in North America—run the risk of promoting one particular writing style (ie. Hemingway, Carver, Munro, etc)? Perhaps. Do they champion minimalism above all else? In my experience—at least in my North American workshop experience—they did. Is workshop an oddly sadistic, thinly-veiled form of therapy? Maybe. Okay, sure it is. The word cathartic isn’t used to describe the workshop experience for nothing.

But. But.

I take issue with Mr. Shuvani’s neat separation of “craft” and “literature”. Craft is a very revealing term, he says, as though writing were a matter of figuring out the essential components of a story or poem (the novel is typically not taught in workshop, because it's too hard a nut for craft to crack), and duplicating those elements in the comfort of your home. In that sense, creative writing can absolutely be taught. It's just that it's not literature.

He goes on to explain that literature, at its heart, is essentially the study of this messy enterprise called life. Literature is about having, first of all, a broad humanist understanding of the tradition, how vastly oppositional styles of writing have sought to grapple with the same human problems over time, how history and politics have shaped national literatures, how you can not necessarily learn--for that is too reductionist a term--but be challenged by great writers like Chekhov or Tolstoy or Kafka, to create something utterly unique to yourself.

So—okay. Fine. Craft is about the nuts and bolts of writing—the how-to, the steps—whereas literature, according to Mr. Shuvani, seems to be about how we can create something that both speaks to and transcends our specific human experience. Using your particular filter as a writer to imagine something that goes beyond what’s come before you, and manages to speak to the world anyway. Encapsulating how you view the world in a way that other people can respond to, and be affected by. 

I suppose his point is that too high a focus on craft puts on in danger of distilling their own particular voice—of submerging their own unique ways of seeing in favour of always checking the right boxes where craft is concerned. Do away with your adverbs, Young Skywalker. Cross out those clichés. Don’t go heavy on description, even if what you really want to do as a writer is detail the hell out of that tree, because no one reads long descriptions anymore. That simply isn’t in. (I’ll never forget the time when one of my instructors told me that the second person, as a voice, was “done”.)

All of this is fine and well and good. I do think that an over-adherence to craft can be dangerous. And I do think, from time to time, that the North American view of writing-as-a-skill, one that can be taught to anyone in much the same way as one might be taught baking, or knitting, or whatever, has a tendency to produce writing that is exceedingly competent and yet lacking in original thought. (I’m quite happy to shuffle a large degree of my own writing in here. One always hopes for improvement, of course, and prays that the gradual discovery of one’s voice yields more originality as time goes on, but I’ve definitely, in my time, produced a story or ten that sounded like every other workshopped piece out there.)

When I was studying in Scotland, my one instructor put it this way. In the UK, she said, we tend to think that artistic capability is something that you either have or don’t. It’s a question of helping people uncover what’s already inside them. She talked a lot about how the good old American dream—the idea that anyone, anywhere, can pick themselves up and obtain whatever they want in life through dint of hard work and time—had a huge part to play in the creative writing workshop boom in North America. I always found her perspective fascinating. I did find the European writing workshop experience quite different from my time as a student in North America. Workshops were much looser, if indeed they happened at all. You were mostly there to read loads of books and write whatever you wanted and take advantage of your supervisors whenever you could. That was it. In comparison to my life at UVic, where I’d had fifteen hours of workshop a week, life in the UK felt like a scary, it’s-all-up-to-you-now vacation. Of sorts.

But all this focus on workshop, and the question of whether or not adherence to craft destorys a writer's sensibility, tends to ignore one small and yet very important fact: your real growth as a writer comes after you’ve graduated. I did five years of academic training in writing—in addition to the twenty-odd years when I’d been writing little bits of nothing whilst growing up—and I think I can safely say, now, that my real growth as a writer happened once I was finally out of school. What taught me the most? Living on my own. Living overseas. Working sixty-hour weeks in Edinburgh and scribbling late at night. Never (ever, ever) having any money. Walking dogs for food. Crying in the middle of a nice café in Paris. Being lonely in Amsterdam. Being lonely everywhere. Locking myself in my apartment on Saturdays and working on my novel. Taking minutes at board meetings and thinking about dialogue. Zoning out of conferences and having imaginary conversations in my head. Spending non-existent money on writing contest fees. Moving back home with my parents. Never figuring anything out.

Etc. Etc. You get the idea.

Of course, this is only my experience. But those writers who stick with the game after workshop is over—I think there’s a pretty good chance that they’ll grow in monumental ways too. Think about it—you’re only in workshop for a small fraction of your writing career. As nice as it is to have that group around you, ready with feedback (as sadistic, yes, as the experience can be), sooner or later you have to do things on your own. You have to edit your work, by and large, on your own. Sure you’ll have a first reader, or two, or three. And eventually you’ll have an editor, too. But you also have to know, for yourself, whether it works. Writing is a solitary experience. True, finished, “graduated” writing—outside of the academic sphere, in the comfort of your own little home—is entirely self-driven. And so in that sense, yes, the workshop is artificial. In that sense, yes, one can question whether or not a workshop really helps a writer in the long run, especially if a student spends their workshop career trying hard to emulate instead of trying to discover.

But as to whether or not we’re “fucked” because of it? I’m not so sure. For every malleable student that Mr. Shuvani mourns, there will be another student who’ll take those lessons on craft and transform them into something extraordinary. (Never mind the fact that hundreds of writers get published and forge careers for themselves without ever having taken a writing class. It still happens! Gasp! Extraordinary!) Maybe it won’t happen right away. Maybe it will take this student years of “unlearning” in order to get to that point. Maybe the difficulty lies in thinking that four years of workshop can make or break a writer, when in fact what four years of workshop does tend to do, more often than not, is provide a student with tools and memories to hold onto when they go out into the writing world alone.

Plenty of people will leave workshop and leave writing altogether. They’ll probably do it gradually, but leave it all they will. But some writers will go away and live their lives and keep writing—in the early morning hours, around their regular jobs, in their crumbling little apartments. And as time goes on and distances them from the intensity of workshop craft, they’ll find their own ways of saying things. This goes for “workshopped” writers and non-workshopped writers alike. Whether they learn the ins and outs of language through school, or apprentice in another way—working as a journalist, maybe, or sitting in their living room and reading millions of books—all writers learn craft at some point. And eventually they’ll take the elements of craft that resonate most with them and grow and mature and make their stories their own. This is where the real writing happens. This is where and when and how it all gets done. There's nothing wrong with focusing on craft, as long as you understand and acknowledge that craft is only part of it. It's an important part, though.

It's absolutely crucial. Look - if you're going to build a fucking temple, first you have to know how your bricks and mortar go together!


  1. I agree with your conclusion here.

    As a writer, I think I'm just compelled to do it. I picked up skills through school and workshops, through reading, but all of that pales in comparison to going out and actually doing the work. Lots of people talk about wanting to be a writer, but they don't write. You just have to do the work. That's it.

    All of my big lessons came to me when I'm in a room, by myself, flexing all the muscles in my head and trying to make something fit together. Workshopping gave me a roomful of people to use as an audience and sounding board, but in the end I disagreed with most of them.

    In the end, I think we teach ourselves to write.