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Real Authors Need Death

And then I got cancer. Death threatened, if merely statistically. Suddenly I left the dishes undone, let the washing pile up, declined social invitations, turned my back on my husband in the evenings, ran to the computer to write the second my child was asleep. I completed scenes as I waited for chemotherapy, scribbled plot outlines in the radiotherapist's waiting room, wrote dialogue on the tram, jotted down two-word ideas in a notebook while my car idled at the traffic lights. I wasn't sure where it was taking me, but in the fourth month, on a holiday to give me relief from the relentless treatments, I had an epiphany: it didn't matter to me if I was any good as long as I wrote. The realisation was like a starburst in the dark of a hot, sleepless night in Thailand, and it hasn't left me since.

Because you're not a real writer unless you're dying, obviously.

The article above was written by Jenny Sinclair, a 'real' writer who spends her article telling people that writing courses won't make you a writer, and that you should stop going to them, and they should stop being run. She's currently enrolled at the University of Melbourne and doing an honours year in creative writing.

But of course, unlike her fellow students, Sinclair is not like them! No! She's won a minor literary prize, which, near as I can tell, is in fact the Haddow Stuart Short Story Competition for this story, 'Fourscore'. Winning a competition isn't like winning a literary prize, really, but maybe I'm wrong; that Sinclair's bio lists publications in 'several leading Australian literary journals', but mentions no names, means that one can probably argue that she hasn't done very much indeed. In fact, Sinclair is probably just like the majority of University students involved in creative writing courses, and that is rough, full of shit, and struggling to find a voice that can be called her own. Given that she has spent her time as a journalist, she probably thinks that she has already evolved beyond this, especially because, as she says, "Writing can only be taught up to a point."

Please. Fuck off with that. It's not a valid excuse for anything. It ignores the fact that this is the case for everything. You can only teach cooking up to a point. You can only teach music up to a point. You can only teach to a certain point, and then a student, in whatever field, had to be able to take over for themselves. There's no great secret to that. Inevitably instruction or mentoring or whatever it is that you want to call it will stop being useful. That this happens in literature doesn't make it any kind of special form that must be free of courses, or instruction, or people testing it out, and writing a little and then passing it off. I mean, really, who came up with this I'm-Special-Cause-I-Write-Thing. Writing is just like any other thing you can learn out there--and at the moment, I think People-Who-Can-Surf are special, because sure as shit I can't do it, and there are people who make it look like an art, because they can. But no one is suggesting that surfing shouldn't be taught, and that it should be placed in a secured little tower, and only the blessed few let in.

Besides, you can teach people how to appreciate good fiction in these courses, and then maybe authors like Matthew Reilly will die the literary death they deserve. See, me, I'm not against people wanting to write, or wanting to try it out, or even doing it, no. What I'm against is that banality and sheer stupidity is successful. I say open the doors to everyone! Train them to recognise good material! Train them to reject boring writing!

In short, train them to love what I do.


Jan. 31st, 2007 08:32 am (UTC)
I enrolled in a CW subject last semester, mostly to get my units up because I figured, being published already, it'd be an easy bludge subject.

It pretty much was. But I found that the majority of students were mature age people and journalism students, who are in love with the idea of writing, but really not knowing how much work is actually involved in it.

Some of my fellow students stuff was very average, some of it was woeful. I put this down to one simple fact, which I discovered by questioning these people; they do not read enough.

CW classes can teach you the basics and all, but I think it is imperative that a writer reads as well as writes. If you don't know what has come before, you end up reinventing the wheel, or more likely, a poorly imitation of the wheel.

You can train as much as you like, I think, but if you are not in love with words (which is to say, you like to read them AND write them), I don't think you can be a serious writer.

The mistake CW pedagogy makes (in my admittedly limited experience) is that it assumes that people already like to read, that they are familiar with literature and a wide range of writing, when this is plainly not the case.
Jan. 31st, 2007 09:37 am (UTC)
But I found that the majority of students were mature age people and journalism students

that's not the case at all unis, fwiw.

i've been teaching creative writing probably longer than you've done the one course, and i've found that most of the people in it do read, and read a lot, but they don't read as a writer, which is different. one of the sad little truths about writing is the further you get into it, the less you can enjoy fiction in the same way that you did in the beginning. so why i find people do read, and often a lot, and often they're intelligent people, they're just not very critical in how they do it.

the truth is, creative writing courses depend on who is running it, and how good a teacher they are to how successful they are for you. since you found it a bludge, i can only assume you had a bad teacher, who didn't engage you, or didn't alter the stance on you so that you would have to push yourself more. but in the end, a creative writing course is just a workshop--and in that fourteen weeks, you may produce one short story, or half a dozen little bits. it's just a tour of it--you can neither take away if someone will be successful or a failure from it.
Jan. 31st, 2007 09:54 am (UTC)
well, i won't name the teachers, but one was a journalist who wrote a book or two and the other was a fantasy/sci-fi writer. it was a bludge for me because I had been writing a lot prior to doing it and i learnt nothing i didn't already know. i feel i have learnt more by constantly writing since i was a teenager, reading voraciously and getting feedback in workshops.

though there are things i take issue with in that article (mostly the arrogant tone) the crux of it, that you're a writer if you absolutely NEED to write, isn't so wrong, is it?
Jan. 31st, 2007 10:11 am (UTC)
if you didn't find them useful, say who they are. it's no skin off my nose. but if it was a bludge, part of that might have indeed been yourself--learning is not an environment where one sits back and has information beamed into their skull. you have to rise to it. you have to work with it. but, you know, there's a whole heap of reasons to do with that--those tutors could've just plained sucked.

as for the need to write... that has just always annoyed me, when people come round and say that. if you have to have a NEED, why not have the NEED to solve poverty, or to go out and work for charity organisations? there's this sense in art--in all art--that NEED makes it somehow more precious, and more meaningful, when it might be more truer to say that it's simply something you enjoy, and it makes you happy, and alla that. that's where i come from: i enjoy writing, and it's why i do it, but i don't need it. i just really enjoy it. all of it.
Jan. 31st, 2007 10:32 am (UTC)
well, maybe need isn't the right word. passion, perhaps? some people do have a need to solve poverty and work for charity organisations, otherwise those organisations wouldn't exist.

this is no less selfish than enjoying writing, since in both cases, the practioners are obviously getting something out of it.

i happen to think enjoyment (in whatever form) is indeed a necessity. not a necessity like food, water, shelter or oxygen is, but it's still something we need (ick, there's that ugly word again) to live well.
Jan. 31st, 2007 10:14 am (UTC)
i guess what i'm saying is that art seems to have this conflict between a selfish desire--the want you to have to do it, and the knowledge that you could be out there, contributing more to society (ignoring the fact that you fulfil valuable parts of society anyway). this idea that you NEED it, that you HAVE to do it, is almost an attempt to ignore the selfish motivation: that of enjoyment.
Jan. 31st, 2007 10:35 am (UTC)
ok, well the whole "community service" thing isn't where i'm coming from either. i am totally with you on the enjoyment, selfish side of things, but i meant a necessity as in more personal terms. it has very little to do with anyone else, at least for me.