A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 16 March 2014

How To Write

In a recent essay in the Guardian Review Hanif Kureishi called creative writing courses 'a waste of time'. I have some sympathy with the view that you can't teach people how to write. But you can definitely learn how to improve your style and technique. Yesterday's follow-up article gave some great advice from different author-teachers. I particularly liked Jeanette Winterson's sage and pithy contribution.

1) I don't give a shit what's in your head. By which I mean if it isn't on the page it doesn't exist. The connection between your mind and the reader's mind is language. Reading is not telepathy.

2) I don't care whether you like the texts we study or you don't. Like or dislike is a personal thing and tells me something about you, but nothing about the text. If you don't think something is well written, convince me. If you do think so, convince me. Learn from everything you read and understand how to learn from everything you read. And above all read! My classes use texts I am pretty sure they won't know because I want them to see how wide is the world of books and thought and imagination. I am trying to reposition them in relation to, in response to, language.

3) Writing is a love affair not a solitary pleasure. You can write about anything you like but there must be a connection between you and the material.

4) Do not take any 'advice' on how to write from anyone who has not written and published a significant piece of work. (Ezra Pound was right.)

JEANETTE WINTERSON (in her role as professor of creative writing at Manchester University)


The Weaver of Grass said...

I think these comments are brilliant Robert. I read a huge amount but, other than my blog I only write a small amount. What I do with every book I read, though, is look at the style of writing. At the moment I am reading a novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard - a writer I particularly find readable - it is interesting because of the plan she uses for developing the plot - there are so many different ways of doing this - some work better than others. All such observations help to develop one's own style.
I do belong a writers' group and we meet once a month. I go more for the social aspect than for anything more meaty.

Ruth Mowry said...

This sounds just about like everything Diane Wakoski taught. It is all very important.

However, I'm not sure I agree with her on #4, though with all the writing advice out there, you might as well draw the line somewhere.

Nick said...

Sorry, but I'm not much in sympathy with this kind of obsession. A concern with 'writing' per se is little more (forgive me for this) than climbing up your own arse; and inevitably it's dark up there. The communication is, or can be if there's something valuable to be communicated, enlightening; the process by which it's achieved isn't - as I've learned, often to my cost, during forty-plus years as a professional 'writer - which merely means I did it for money(as well as love).

James Lomax said...

Indeed: Winterson's observations there are short, sharp, and astute. I'm writing prose fiction myself and it's both fascinating and hard work to see how remote the process is from anything you learn on a literature degree. Difficult, not intrinsically so but because it requires a particular approach, a certain mind set, which you have to get used to.

Rubye Jack said...

I like her advice although I am not a writer and really have no hopes of becoming one. Meanwhile, I think writing is good for the soul and there is something quite magical in how others can give us meaning and reveal inner truths in such a seemingly easy manner. And, how I can find myself and overcome my fears by writing for myself.

The Solitary Walker said...

I like the way you consciously analyse style and how a book is put together, Pat. I really wish I'd tried to do more creative writing in my life, but careers and families and earning a living tend to make one put it on the back burner. You do need a lot of dedication, and it can be disillusioning when the writing isn't going well. I do write poems, and odd essays and travel pieces, but I'd like to do a lot more.

The Solitary Walker said...

Ruth, I think I agree with the spirit of what JW is saying in (4). It's very easy to be misled and wrongly encouraged/dispirited by uninformed or mischievous criticism. The problem is that advice/praise from some friends/strangers may be prejudiced in so many ways: compromised by flattery, envy, lack of imagination, lack of knowledge, a desire to please and so on. At least if critics have their own literary credentials you can be more assured they know what they're talking about.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks Nick, James and Rubye for your comments.

'And how I can find myself and overcome my fears by writing for myself.' I think that kind of writing — as therapy and self-discovery — is so beneficial, Rubye.