Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Nigel Cox on creative writing courses

The 20th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the May 1994 issue.

The intro read:
Creative writing courses are springing up all over the country. Can they really teach you to write? And how qualified are those who set themselves up to teach you? Nigel Cox investigates a new growth industry.

“I don’t think you can teach people to write, you can only teach them to read,” the writer Anne Kennedy asserted recently at Writers and Readers Week in Wellington. But creative writing courses are described by Claudia Bell, who organises them for Continuing Education in Auckland as a “a massive growth area”. So, you pays your money – and thousands are – but what do you get?
In fact, on the best courses, money alone isn’t enough. Bill Manhire’s acclaimed course at Victoria University accepts only 12 applicants from a list of something like 100 hopefuls each year. You have to submit some of your work, and pray. The same is true of Albert Wendt and Witi Ihimaera’s course at Auckland University, and Owen Marshall’s 20-week fulltime course at Aoraki Polytechnic in Timaru. So, some may ask, do you have to be able to write already?
Well, no. But the tutors agree: you can’t teach everyone to write, only the talented. Owen Marshall seems to speak for them all when he says, “I think writers are born, in a sense, rather than made. But their development can be accelerated.”
Bill Manhire says, “The main thing that I persuade them of is that it’s possible to think of yourself as a writer, that that can be the thing that guarantees your life to you, you know: ‘I am a writer.’ It may be that you’ll earn your living doing something quite different, but the thing that galvanises you and gives some point to your existence is the writing you do.”
Manhire is worth listening to on this subject because, of all the courses in the country, his has been particularly effective, having encouraged writers as successful and as various as Elizabeth Knox, Anthony McCarten, Jenny Bornholdt, Dinah Hawken, David Geary, Barbara Anderson and Forbes Williams, as well as, more recently, a less widely known but soon to be celebrated group which includes Emily Perkins, Lauren Holder, Paola Bilbrough, James Brown and Chris Orsman – a list which suggests that if writing really can’t be taught then Manhire is astonishingly astute at picking writers in embryo.
So what are the hopefuls looking for when they apply for a creative writing course? “Well, aside from the obvious hopes and ambitions,” Manhire says, “I think one thing they’re after is the experience of an audience. If you publish a poem in Sport or Landfall, there’s far less experience of a readership than if you go to a workshop group, give everyone copies of what you’ve written, read it aloud, listen to what they’ve got to say for five or 10 minutes – you probably get much more feedback, much more sense of people there, paying attention, than you do if you publish a novel with Penguin.”
The technique of having everyone discuss everyone else’s work is an idea that all the tutors seem to use, but it’s one that’s not available to those who take the course run by the New Zealand Institute of Business Studies, since their instructions come to you by mail. The Institute runs advertisements on the books pages of the nation’s newspapers headed, “Short stories, novels”, saying that for $885 you can “learn how at home by correspondence”.
Its prospectus promises that, “Once you become an accomplished writer, it’s comforting to know that any time when you need extra cash you can rattle off another story then wait for the cheque to come back in the post.” Hmmm. But when principal Brian Morris is asked who we might have heard of that has completed the course, he says, somewhat defensively, “Well, it depends on who you’ve heard of, doesn’t it.” Try me, Brian. At which he offers the pleasing story of Gordon Wood, of Edendale in Southland (pop 562), father of four, unem­ployed for two years, who, after completing the course, was able within six months to pay his church back the money he’d borrowed to cover his course fees, and “is now writing regularly for eight North Island publications about rural affairs in the South Island – sustaining his family on it”.
The Institute has provided instruction for students as widely separated as the lighthouse keeper at Cape Reinga and a man on Stewart Island. The students are set assign­ments, which are returned to tutor Graham Adams, where they are graded and annotated with instructional comments. Morris looks over the work too, adding his own remarks. After 16 “tutorials” designed to give “you a steady diet of reading, consideration, pondering, focused thinking, personal evaluation and writing”, successful graduates are awarded a diploma and turned loose on the world.
“But we follow their progress,” says Morris. “I run a graduates club, which keeps them topped up with little success stories, information about competitions, and job opportunities.”

Overseas, the teaching of creative writing has a noble pedigree. Students at Cambridge could submit a manuscript of original composition towards the tripos – Sylvia Plath, for example, submitted a book of poems. In the 1970s Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro emerged from a course that Malcolm Bradbury was running at the University of East Anglia to be included in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists; both went on to make the shortlist of the Booker Prize, which Ishiguro won.
To an earlier generation of writers, in­struction of this sort produced in the likes of William Golding a rarefied despair – especially when it took place in America. In an essay on lit-biz “over there” collected in The Hot Gates, Golding describes a class he attended as visiting lecturer. “A choleric crewcut is reading his story in a harsh monotone. As the story goes on the lecturer finds his ears not so much burning as singing, with a high nightmare note. He does not know where to look. He broods to himself. I am not tough enough for this game.”
Golding argues that “we live, not by the work of ten thousand adequate writers, but by the work of a few dozen at most,” and suggests that creative writing classes pro­duce “talented professional writers” – clearly, in his view, a body we could live without.
Despite his Olympian disdain, the teaching of creative writing in America has survived and flourished. In recent years, writers as well-known as Richard Ford, Jayne Anne Phillips and Raymond Carver (himself a graduate of a class run by John Gardner) have, in return for large salaries and lots of time to write, lent their names and cachet to courses apparently highly successful in producing interesting writers. Which would seem a win-win-win situ­ation: the writers get a stable income, the university gets famous tutors, and the students get inspired.
Nevertheless, some of the courses sound in their own way as alarming as the one Golding reported on. Damien Wilkins, for example, was subjected to what sounded like confrontations with both God and the Devil in the classes he took with the American novelist Stanley Elkin at Washington University in St Louis. Elkin taught by telling stories (“great stories,” says Wilkins) which you were to grasp instruction from, made psychoanalytic comments about students, and was merciless in exposing what he saw as inadequate work. But if Wilkins’ outstanding first novel, The Miserables, largely written on the course, can be taken as evidence, yes, Elkin’s methods work too.
In this country the teaching of creative writing seems to have begun in 1975 at Victoria University, but has only developed to any significant degree in the last 10 years. Michael Morrissey thinks that his original Summer Writing School on Waiheke island, established in 1983, was the first course of this type in the country. Those who enrolled got an island holiday, the company of kindred spirits, and encouragement from a published and enthusiastic writer.
“I started teaching writing because I thought I might earn more per hour than by cleaning toilets,” says Morrissey. At its height, attracting up to 35 students, the Summer School ran until 1992, when its founder moved on to other pursuits. Morrissey still teaches writing, however, at half ­a dozen schools, under the Continuing Education umbrella.
Also working as CE tutors are writers like John Cranna, Alan Loney and Margaret Blay; Mike Johnson has just completed a stint that extended over a number of years. Fiona Kidman, Michael King and Francis Cherry have at various times offered courses through Wellington Polytechnic or University Extension, as has Kevin Ireland in Auckland.
So, is creative writing providing, as in America, a valuable new source of income for our writers? “It’s a modest cottage industry,” says Cranna wistfully, “not significant enough to live on,” though it is a welcome addition to “the rag-bag portfolio of incomes” the New Zealand writer must put together to survive.
Owen Marshall says he teaches for the money he earns, as well as “the contact with interesting people”. But Morrissey seems typical when he talks of “a side-line income”, and it’s hard to avoid the impression that these courses are at least in part yet another sign of writers’ barely-recompensed contribution to the art-form they are devoted to.

So how, when you attend one of their classes, do these devotees induce the magic to flow in you? Perhaps understandably, some of the tutors were a little reluctant to divulge their techniques. Most offered one example. Morrissey, among other methods, uses a story of Owen Marshall’s called “The Paper Parcel”. “A boy going to his first ball, needs a partner, so there’s the little drama of finding him one. Then his mother dresses him as a parcel, which becomes unravelled at the ball. I explore with them how this story works, then get them to tell a similarly embarrassing moment from their own lives.”
Morrissey, who uses complete stories as models, as examples of form, began with writers like Hemingway and VS Naipaul but these days finds that many students want to be taught from the work of local writers. Cranna has his beginners take something they’ve written and tell it from the point of view of another of its protagonists: “Many of them, used to writing autobiographically, find this very difficult.” Albert Wendt has them “write a poem of not more than 10 lines” which he xeroxes for them to take away, and “next week we discuss it”.
All the tutors stress the importance of discussion. Good talk, about what and how you’re reading, what films you’ve seen, how these books and films work, seems as important as any specific insights that are passed on. There are, apparently, no “secrets”, a point reinforced by Doris Lessing during Writers and Readers Week. “Very often” she said, “all writers get asked something which amounts to, ‘I believe you’ve got some kind of trick – please tell me what it is.’ But I have yet to meet any writer anywhere in the world who hasn’t worked extremely hard, and nearly every one of them has gone through a period of tearing their work up, before they got started.”
But perhaps there are some tricks in the teaching. Bill Manhire ran one of his workshop exercises past the listeners to Alison Parr’s Sunday morning show on National Radio recently, when established writers like Owen Marshall, Barbara Anderson and Cilla McQueen were invited to work on an exercise typical of those he offers his students. The writers were to create a story which was to include a child standing in water, a broken typewriter, a map of the world, a book of Janet Frame’s on top of a ladder, and someone claiming to be a friend of Rachel Hunter.
Talking about techniques of this sort in the book In The Same Room, Manhire says, “It’s surprising how, when people are faced with a set of constraints, they become astonishingly inventive and powerful in the way they use language, much more so than if they’re simply given a sheet of white paper and told to get creative and imaginative and deeply meaningful.”
Before the established writers had their turn, listeners were invited to write their own versions and send them in. As if determined to underline Claudia Bell’s assertion about the teaching of writing being a growth industry, over 400 did. The best stories, which were broadcast, were excel­lent. Which makes you wonder what might come through if Manhire were to set exercises for all – wannabe and otherwise – of the nation’s writers.

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