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Promises but doesn't deliver
on 25 July 2014
This is a slim volume in the Guardian “masterclass” series but it is certainly no shrinking violet. The preamble boldly states “our writers will take you through every step of the creative writing process”. By creative writing they mean novels of the Booker prize shortlist variety - there’s nothing here about poetry or drama and precious little about different genres.
Unsurprisingly, the text fails to live up to this ambitious promise. Setting aside the question of whether the creation of a piece of writing can be reduced to a series of seemingly arbitrarily chosen steps (to be fair, some of the contributors do ask that question) - the eager reader seeking enlightenment from “the masters” is going to find the content decidedly thin.
The format is one of short contributions from published authors interspersed with exercises from ‘The Writing Book’ by Kate Grenville.
So far as the exercises go I admit I can’t comment too much other than to say they didn’t really inspire me to set pen to paper (shades of long ago memories of English Language O level). Probably they are more intended for a classroom setting than the solitary writer at his or her desk. I did find myself wondering about statements such as “improvisation is all about hearing the voice of the unconscious …improvisations are likely to be your own ideas and your own natural language rather than secondhand thoughts and language borrowed from other books …” Hmm. I’m not convinced that somewhere deep in the recesses of the brain there is an aquifer of pure inspiration which we can tap into more or less at will. Scrabbling after the chimera of originality is more likely to result in a piece of unreadability. And if someone regards a blank sheet of paper as “the enemy”, (as it is described in the first workshop) and has no idea what to write about, then really, what is the point? There are plenty of other creative activities to enjoy.
So what about the contributions from these published, prize winning authors? It wouldn’t be too difficult to precis most of them down to a few sentences: Mark Billingham on suspense - ‘make the reader care what happens to the characters’; Geoff Dyer - (who baldly says he has no interest in plots or stories) - do what you’re already good at because you’ll never get any better at the other stuff; Andrew Miller - strong characters are at the heart of literature and how they emerge is a bit of a mystery; MJ Hyland - expect to have to write lots of different drafts. And so on, though I should give an honourable mention to DBC Pierre who contributes a down to earth piece on writing dialogue.
The contributions from Rachel Cusk and from Meg Rosoff are intriguing although not in the way you might expect. Rachel Cusk, ostensibly writing about points of view, declares that great writers spend most of their time thinking about truth and in order to construct a point of view the writer must first determine “what is not a matter of opinion, what is true”. Which would seem to be a tall order indeed and likely to send you back to that idiot’s guide to philosophy which you never actually got round to reading. And in a similarly challenging vein, Meg Rosoff warns that the writer’s ‘voice’ should be an expression of “your mind, your heart, your soul” and that you need the depth of self knowledge which will allow your work to come from “the deep dark corners of your subconscious mind”.
And here’s me thinking most readers were just looking for an author who could tell a good story.
PS: As I’m never going to make a living from writing I thought I might put on a workshop - “How to write a scathing book review”. £1000 per person sounds about right, don’t you think? After all, I went to Oxford* and I once spoke to a best selling author at a book festival.
*not the University of that name