Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On Writing

Robert McCrum's column at the weekend was an interesting one. "Can you teach writing?" he asks. Note he doesn't say "creative writing", and I think it's an interesting distinction. He does mention style guides, and books such as Fowler's English Usage and a new guide from Stanley Fish.

But the main thrust of the piece is how reading the greats can help you with your writing. I'm not sure if he's ever sat in on a creative writing course but certainly at Masters level, I don't think the aim is that you are being "taught writing", though the proliferation of courses these days may mean that there's an element of that. Certainly when I studied on one, there was an expectation that you could already write; the course - workshop led - was more about enabling you to write. I suppose I was quite surprised that there weren't some formal lessons on style and structure, and I'm sure a poetry course would include more of this kind of instruction than a fiction one. However, based within the Academy, creative writing courses are also creative reading courses, and this I found invaluable. We read classic novels, interesting novels, and novels that had recently been successful. Even from bad novels you can learn good lessons.

McCrum's list of good exemplars is a fascinating one, though every writer will have their own. Struggling with a particular issue on my novel, my tutor Richard Francis suggested I read Don DeLillo's "White Noise", and it was a fantastic suggestion. It wouldn't have been appropriate for most of the writers on my course, but that's the beauty of such examples. I'm always a little suspicious of the "extract" school of reading, where an extract from a well-known novel is given as an example of how to do something; writing isn't like quadratic equations where you can remodel based on a particular example - you need to read the whole work, and from that you can take what resonates.

For me, what I learn most from studying novels are more to do with structure and style than particular formal approaches. Fitzgerald remains supreme for me in setting a scene and visualising a world, yet he's not the writer to go to for structure (in a novel), or rather his novels are pieces of experimental architecture, that are not entirely satisfactory - writers who followed his example completed the building. I'm fascinated by more unusual approaches to telling a story. I love how Philip Roth tells the story of Levov the Swede in "American Pastoral" through his regular narrator Zuckerman; reminds me of the Russian doll structure of "Wuthering Heights" with a story within a story. And what about Thornton Wilder's wonderful "Bridges of San Luis Rey" where a series of character stories use a framing device? More recently, Michael Cunningham and David Mitchell have layered their stories deliberately. For short stories, I love the connected collections of Brett Easton Ellis's "The Informers" or Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg Ohio." These are all deliberately structured books, but its fascinating reading more traditional narratives and seeing how the narrative drive takes place. I remember (and would recommend) John Grisham's "The Firm" for not missing a beat. Its interesting reading his earlier "A Time to Kill", how his structure is messier, and hasn't quite got the narrative pace of his breakthrough book. Other books are deliberately slower, sometimes frustratingly so. Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go" or Colm Toibin's "Brooklyn" are sometimes glacial in their pace, and rely on the accumulation of detail; the pay-off coming much later in the books. With so many books being published every year, its rare that you come across something entirely new, but the best books, the ones that last, rarely seem to follow a simple template.


Jim Murdoch said...

For someone to learn something does there necessarily have to be a teacher present? Can you not learn by doing? No one taught me to write but I nevertheless learned. I think Larkin’s remark in his Paris Review interview is pretty much spot on: “Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvellous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn.” I’ve always been slightly embarrassed by my lack of academic qualifications but perhaps that might have done me more harm in the long run. I read, I learned.

Adrian Slatcher said...

I wrote pretty much continuously for 8 years (and regularly before that) before I did my M.A. What it gave me though was a peer group (I'd never even MET a published writer before I decided to do a masters) and the time. The problem with having Larkin and whoever as your teacher is that it's never going to be a two way conversation. I'd say that Kingsley Amis and the other poets he met at Oxford were (at least as)equally as important to Larkin as reading Yeats or whoever. Actually, Larkin probably had one of the most supportive peer groups of any 20th century writer. As for studying poets, I guess a writer does study poets, but in the way a magpie looks for glints of gold.

Anees Khan said...

I believe writing cannot be taught to the person who doesn’t have aptitude for what a good sentence or story is. However, if one learns the concepts early, it certainly helps him appreciate fiction better and identify what are the gaps in his writing. If I know what a good dialogue or well rounded character is, I will certainly try to write like one. I enjoy reading classics more after I know the concepts of fiction and literature. In absence of this learning, I will have to put double or triple efforts to see the same thing; and, perhaps I will appreciate a work of fiction, without knowing why; and I will be disappointed, without knowing why.

Isabel Doyle said...

In the discussion following the Guardian article the idea that a creative writing course provides a group of readers/commentators was raised, and surely having interested readers is a very important part of learning the craft of writing. What can't be taught I would hazard is inspiration. Perhaps there are techniques that can be shared, in how to recognise a potential idea and develop it?
Certainly having guidance in who to read specifically, when one is struggling with managing complex storylines, or some other technical problem, would be a boon.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Anis, writers need to be readers, but its interesting when you get a different kind of influence, how it can change writing. Bruce Chatwin, for instance, was an expert in antiquities and a great traveller, he read Hemingway; I'm sure his reading was different than most late 20th Century writers, and his books have something new as a result.

Isabel, the debate after McCrum's piece was interesting but very wide ranging. I'd make a distinction between masters level courses as these have a particular intention, and the idea of a creative writing "class." Even there, you'll find that people have chosen they want to write (rather than learn guitar or paint), and an interest in using words imaginatively seems a good thing in itself. Whether that leads to anything more, depends on the person, and, yes, the nature of their inspiration.