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This article first appeared as
the introduction to Mutes & Earthquakes: Bill Manhire's
Writing Course at Victoria (Victoria University Press,
Wellington, New Zealand 1997)
NZ$34.95 plus postage (please specify sea or airmail) from Victoria University Press, fax: 0064-4-496 6581, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
|A couple of pieces of
1. Write what you know, and
2. Write what you don't know.
Write what you know is easy. If you want to write a novel set in an Icelandic fish factory, you had better know something about Iceland and fish factories. Write what you don't know is a bit harder, but much more rewarding. I started teaching writing at Victoria University twenty years ago. I had no idea what I was doing.
The course began in 1975 as a sort of undergraduate thesis paper, giving recognition to students' own writing 1. There were no formal classes, but the students - who had to be third-year English majors to enrol in the first place - were able to submit a folio of original writing and receive credit towards their degree.
The next year, the students who were enrolled in the course, half-a-dozen of them, began to feel lonely and I was asked by the department chairperson, Stuart Johnston, to arrange some informal meetings where they could share problems and discuss their work. It proved a good place to be, the shabby prefab room where we all gathered. To start with, everyone actually wanted to be there, which was never something you could safely say of tutorials on Richard III or the nineteenth-century novel. And the students were interesting, too. They talked about literary texts, their own, without having to worry about what the approved, time-honoured judgements might be.
Somehow or other the idea of exercise work began to develop. It was interesting to see what each writer did with the same set of challenges, and as we went along I began to get adventurous. I introduced cranky constraints, strange systems of chance. For instance: 'Write a haiku using only the words you can find on the racing page of the Evening Post.' And so, in 1977, Helen Gabites wrote this:
A tamed life moored in
shifting dark horizons, this
My memory is that we were all surprised by the quality of the work this exercise produced. But of course we shouldn't have been. New Zealand's best words are there on the racing page: much of the nation's most strenuous creative endeavour has gone into the task of naming horses. We were beginning to enter the gaming halls of the imagination. Soon I was asking people to make large cardboard dice, write words on them and throw short poems:
Stones in distance, or
just blue stones. As you touch them
they attach their wings.
Then I was asking students to 'find' poems and bring them to class. I was asking for riddles, for spells.
By the early '80s I began to have some sense of what was going on. I didn't know what I was doing; but somehow I did know, sort of. The course had changed in certain ways. It had moved to 200-level, and was available not just to English majors but to anyone. The prerequisite was now 'any twelve credits', along with something even vaguer: 'a required standard of writing'. This was simply a way of coping with admissions. There was space in the workshop for twelve students only, and many, many more were applying. Students submitted poems and stories, as samples of their wares. By 1996 there were over 150 applications for the course each year, and we were turning away large numbers of talented writers.
Still, the exercises had become more formal, a key part of the early stages of the course, and I had begun to understand more clearly what I was doing with them, and just how they might be useful to new writers meeting in a group. Creative writing workshops depend on their members behaving in certain ways. They have to read their work aloud; they have to be willing to listen to a dozen other people making comments on it. In turn, they have to be willing to make comments on the work of everyone else in the workshop; they have to be honest (or honest enough) without being damaging, and they have to be encouraging without being false or fatuous. Students also have to let their work be published. By this I mean that they bring a dozen copies of their work to class, then two or three hours later watch the other members of the workshop leave the room, taking copies of all the poems or stories with them. This can be a hard moment. Not only have you had to listen to comments a little less gratifying than those your mother might offer, you also have to watch your work departing into the universe. Now anyone might read it.
For a range of reasons like this, it helps if the first pieces of course work produced are exercises - and, in some respects, the sillier the better. If you are forced to write a story that somehow incorporates a child standing in water and the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, and several people express disappointment with the second-to-last paragraph, you needn't feel personally hurt or deflated. After all, it's not the heartfelt poem you wrote about your last disastrous love affair, or the meditation on your pet budgie's death, that evocative piece which mattered so much to you but you never quite got right. So the exercises give us conversational practice. People learn to talk about one another's work in - I hope - civilised ways. Eventually we move on to discuss the 'real' work that people have been getting on with, and which will be in their end-of-course folios.
Of course, the exercises are real work, too, and often the results find their way into course folios and, in many cases, into books and literary magazines. For me, one of the great satisfactions of the Victoria workshops has been to see, year after year, the amount of surprise and pleasure people get from producing work that copes with - and often transcends - the arbitrary demands of an exercise idea. Our culture has inherited the dangerous assumption that the only work which matters - and, by extension, can be any good - is the stuff which is sincere, which springs from something deep within the writer, which is, indeed, somehow inspired. But how can you be inspired or sincere when you are made to write an exercise?
Well, Stravinsky is supposed to have said that inspiration is what happens when you are working really hard. I'm sure this is true for writers. The hopeful writer who waits for inspiration may end up waiting forever. This is one of the big reasons why writers should write what they don't know. If you know too much before you begin, you won't find your way to characters or stories which you yourself find interesting, or - especially if you are a poet - you will write in the stale phrases we've all heard somewhere else, rather than letting the words be instruments of exploration, part of the actual process of discovery. The need for creative ignorance is something which all kinds of writers seem to agree on. Poems are like dreams, says the American poet, Adrienne Rich; in them you put what you didn't know you knew. Or, as the Australian novelist David Malouf says, 'You have to fall out of that part of your mind where you know too much, into an area where you don't know anything before the best writing can happen.' And here is the great New York short-story writer, Grace Paley, making the same case:
Lucky for art, life is difficult, hard to understand, useless and mysterious. Lucky for artists, they don't require art to do a good day's work. But critics and teachers do. A book, a story, should be smarter than its author. It is the critic or teacher in you or me who cleverly outwits the characters with the power of prior knowledge of meetings and ends.
Stay open and ignorant.
Exercises are a way of encouraging new writers to stay open and ignorant, to write what they don't know. Constraints seem to prompt inventiveness; we use our imaginations because we need to solve problems; we don't simply put on paper the things we knew we knew already. And, in the Original Composition exercises, quite a bit of genre-jumping goes on. Poets are made to try prose fiction, fiction writers, poetry. (It's the fiction writers who get most anxious about this.) There is another advantage here. Writers who are made to jump the tracks imaginatively can develop a broader sense of what they might be able to do. Occasionally a poet walks into the course, and a novelist walks out - or even a playwright. 2
I get a perverse pleasure from the range of things some of the Victoria graduates are able to do. Vivienne Plumb has published highly successful fiction and poetry, as well as drama. Anthony McCarten isn't just the co-author of Ladies' Night; you can also find his poetry quoted admiringly in the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature, while a collection of his short fiction has been published in both the UK and New Zealand. Barbara Anderson was writing poems and stories when she did Original Composition; then she became a successful writer of radio plays; now she's a novelist.
My greatest pleasure comes, however, from watching new writers find and begin to explore their own voices. This is a slightly different thing from finding the genre that they write best in, though that can be part of it. Voice is simply the unmistakeable, distinctive sound that a writer makes on the page: an almost unanalysable combination of effects - tone, cadence, texture - of language and of subject matter. We each have our own voice as a writer, just as we have our own voice on the telephone or tape recorder. The problem is to find that voice, and to speak in it, in a world filled with noise. 3
Creative writing is big business in the United States. There are over 400 degree courses, and they say that some American publishers can pick 'the Iowa voice' or 'the Stanford voice' when a new manuscript thuds onto their desk. The implication is that teachers of writing busy themselves producing clones. I can see that this is a danger, but an even greater danger would be for a workshop teacher simply to keep quiet, and avoid expressing opinions. I'm pleased by the variety of voices and writing styles which can be heard on the far side of Victoria's Original Composition course. Elizabeth Knox does not sound like Chris Orsman who does not sound like Forbes Williams who does not sound like David Geary who does not sound like Gabrielle Muir who does not sound like Jenny Bornholdt who does not sound like John Macdonald - and so on.4
One explanation for this is my decision to keep my own workshop role separate from the assessment process. There are three examiners for each end-of-course folio (a little like publishers' readers); they write reports, which often differ from one another and which may or may not make individual writers happy. Equally, students simply pass or fail: there are no grades like B- or C+ or straight A. All this means that I am free to say what I think in workshop sessions. No one need feel pressured - at least in terms of grades - to take particular account of what I say. If they have found what they can do, they can go on doing it. Voice shouldn't be confused with originality, another of those big ideas like inspiration and sincerity. We all learn to speak by mimicking the adult figures around us. We hear a noise and copy it. We are shown approval, or not. When we grow up we can hear our parents inside the sounds we make, and yet we are still ourselves - distinctive, and distinctively different from the voices which shaped us. The writing voice is like this, too.
This is why imitation can be very useful for a writer. You find your way to your voice by being influenced, by copying. The twelve-year-old Frank Sargeson started copying out Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe into an exercise book, which is going a bit far; but the idea has a strange sort of merit. Poets, especially, can be silly about this. I have met plenty who declare that they never read other poets: their own pure, original voice might somehow be contaminated. People who talk like that aren't writers. They simply like the idea of calling themselves writers. If you read a hundred poems by Seamus Heaney and write in his influence for a month or even a year or two, that's fine. It may be part of the process of finding out what to do. I don't imagine there are many aspiring screen writers who decide not to go to films on the grounds that the experience may destroy their art. The only person who will never become a writer is the one who doesn't read. Concert pianists listen to music. Great chefs like to eat.
So I encourage people to read widely. We talk - sometimes formally, more often informally - about the people we are reading. We recommend writers to one another the way some people recommend restaurants. Have you tried Lorrie Moore, Raymond Carver, Beth Nannestad? Carol Duffy can make a good night out; or Donald Barthelme, if you're in the mood.
I hand out sheets - thoughts by writers about writing. I pass around an essay by Ursula Le Guin, called 'Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?', which emphasises the importance of fantasy and the imagination. Or I distribute a sheet of advice from Grace Paley, which includes various pieces of genuine wisdom. There is the piece about ignorance quoted above. Or this:
Literature has something to do with language. There's probably a natural grammar at the tip of your tongue. You may not believe it, but if you say what's on your mind in the language that comes from your parents and your street and your friends you'll probably say something beautiful.
It's possible to write about anything in the world, but the slightest story ought to contain the facts of money and blood in order to be interesting to adults. That is - everybody continues on this earth by courtesy of certain economic arrangements, people are rich or poor, make a living or don't have to, are useful to systems, or superfluous. And blood - the way people live as families or outside families or in the creation of family, sisters, sons, fathers, the bloody ties. Trivial work ignores these two FACTS and is never comic or tragic. May you do trivial work?
I also have a sheet I occasionally distribute called 'Two Works of Art'. This contains Homer's astonishing description of the shield of Achilles from Book 18 of The Iliad:
Next [the artist] depicted a large field of soft, rich fallow, which was being ploughed for the third time. A number of ploughmen were driving their teams across it to and fro. When they reached the ridge at the end of the field and had to wheel, a man would come up and hand them a cup of mellow wine. Then they turned back down the furrows and toiled along through the deep fallow soil to reach the other end. The field, though it was made of gold, grew black behind them, as a field does when it is being ploughed. The artist had achieved a miracle.
and Wallace Stevens's deliberately flatfooted poem, 'Anecdote of the Jar', whose opening suggests the way in which a work of art can bring the messy natural world to order:
I placed a jar in Tennessee
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
Then there is a sheet containing poems by children from Elwyn Richardson's wonderful book, In the Early World:
The Tea makes you funny as can be
It is a hush tea; it goes for you
Hush a bye on the tree top,
Makes yourself as good as gold,
The gold is a wonderful thing;
It is a happy gold.
Gold go to sleep.
He bites all the little dogs' feet.
In the far away distance
I can hear the telephone wires
Singing in churches
The frightening of a flower:
Bees' muscles singing.
The idea with poems like this is to indicate a standard that we might all aspire to. If we can do half as well, we'll be doing extremely well. But in fact I don't discuss this sheet or others like it in class. They simply get carried home in the writers' bags. But my hope is that they will supply contexts and points of focus which will help students as they set about their work.
Most writers I know have had the experience of recklessly answering the question, 'What do you do?' with the words, 'I'm a writer', only to be faced with the follow-up question, 'Yes, but what do you really do?' Aspiring writers enrol in workshops for a range of reasons, but one reason must be that a workshop legitimises the desire to write; at last that novel can be given priority, and not simply be the thing you are going to do 'one day', when everything more pressing is finally out of the way. Workshops make you write, too. There are regular deadlines. If you don't produce work week by week, you are failing in a social obligation, one you may also be paying for. Writing is a solitary business - you work in what Eudora Welty has called 'a kind of absolute state of Do Not Disturb' - but all the same you belong to the curious community of the writing group, and you have responsibilities within it. After a while, you also begin to feel that you belong to a larger community of writers. Some of them, like Maurice Gee or Patricia Grace, actually visit the workshop, as do figures from the literary marketplace, from radio, film, television, magazine and book publishing. Some of them, like Ursula Le Guin and Grace Paley, live elsewhere; others, like Homer and Wallace Stevens, are dead. But everyone is somehow in the same big house of words. Maybe this, rather than mere self-absorption, is what the poet Richard Hugo means when he says that 'a creative writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters'.
A sense of community, if it is achieved, can be a key factor in whether students persist as writers. Whatever gets taught in workshops, I have never been much interested in describing it in terms of 'course objectives' or 'pedagogical outcomes'. It would be possible to teach the short story entirely in terms of technique: a workshop on beginnings, one on point of view, one on characterisation, one on dialogue, and so on. There are useful things to be learnt, of course, and learning them can save a lot of time (sometimes years). It helps the budding poet to be told plainly how disastrous it can be to fill poems with adjectives, or with abstract language, or with dozens of '-ing' words (which in practice are just adjectives trying to sound a bit poetic). It helps an aspiring story writer to be warned off all those elegantly various verbs which signal direct speech. Contrary to what they used to tell us at high school, it is a very bad idea to write like this:
'Darling, I'm home!' called Odysseus cheerfully.
'Just a moment,' Penelope fluted from the bedroom.
'I hope there's plenty of beer in the house,' snorted Odysseus, picking his way past the loom.
'I've brought all the blokes back for a drink.'
A formal understanding of technique will only take you so far. As Flannery O'Connor (whose thoughts I sometimes distribute to the class) says: 'Discussing story-writing in terms of plot, character, and theme is like trying to describe the expression on a face by saying where the eyes, nose, and mouth are.'
So technical things matter - just as taking the right creative risks or acquiring the right work habits matter - and we deal with them as they come up, in relation to exercise or folio work. But they do not constitute a set of goals or course objectives. I suppose the course objectives appear in what students go on to write after they have taken the Victoria workshop - in poems, stories, novels and plays, in the works which the course itself may never have contemplated. A pretty good sampling of those works is printed in Mutes & Earthquakes. The anthology sets out to celebrate achievements, and I have chosen work to represent both the quality and the range of what has come out of the workshops at Victoria. However, I have made no attempt to choose the best piece of work by each individual writer (though I guess some contributors have been luckier than others). There is work here from a range of sources - from books published well after the course's conclusion, from end-of-course folios, from exercise pieces produced during the course, even (in the case of Eirlys Hunter) from the portfolio of work submitted with an entry application.
If this book is a celebration, it is also meant to be useful. I hope it will work as a stimulating prompt book for anyone who wants to write. Alongside the poetry and fiction and drama, there are commissioned essays on creative writing by Joy Cowley, David Geary, Dinah Hawken, Fiona Kidman and Damien Wilkins, who have generously included a number of their own exercise ideas. A few secrets are being shared. There is also a chapter which outlines many of the exercises used in the Victoria course. Most of these exercises are cross-referenced to particular poems and stories. Thus the book itself behaves a little like a workshop. Writers present their work, while I link and interrupt and perhaps hold forth a little. If you read Mutes & Earthquakes, dipping in and out, flipping to and fro, you will find yourself eavesdropping on a busy conversation. And if you are prompted to do some writing of your own, you may find you are participating in it.
* There are many names missing from these pages. There are writers I didn't have room for, some whom I haven't kept track of, others whose work has mostly been for stage or screen, and others who haven't (to my knowledge) carried on writing. I have not included writers like James Belich, Jane Westaway and Simon Wilson who took the course in its very early days when it was still, as it were, under construction; nor one or two, like Jean Watson, who were fully formed writers before they ever enrolled. To try and take credit for any of their achievements would be pretty cheeky. But then, to try and take credit for any of the writers in this anthology would be to get the emphasis wrong. Original Composition is something that everyone here did along the way to becoming a writer. For some, the experience of an audience, there in the room, will have been what made the difference; for others the workshop will have sped a few things up. It is not modesty, however, which makes me feel that none of these writers needed the workshop. People learn to be writers, and a little bit of teaching can be part of the learning process. But sitting down and reading your way through the whole of Dickens, like the young Maurice Gee, might work just as well. Reading and writing, and then reading and writing, and keeping on going - that in the end is what makes the difference.
* Many people have helped with the Original Composition course since 1975. Professor Don McKenzie was the prime mover in setting it up, and a long line of English Department chairpersons has encouraged and fostered it. Most of the university's writers-in-residence have visited the workshop, and there have been a large number of other visiting writers; Patricia Grace and Maurice Gee, especially, have been frequent and generous contributors. Radio New Zealand (particularly Fergus Dick and Carol Dee) and Learning Media (especially Brent Southgate) have been very good friends of the course. Folio readers have included Tony Bellette, Bede Corrie, Charles Ferrall, Linda Hardy, the late Frank McKay, Brian Opie, Colleen Reilly, Harry Ricketts, Heidi Thomson, Kim Walker, Lydia Wevers, Peter Whiteford, Damien Wilkins (who convened the 1995 workshop) and - in particular - Fergus Barrowman and Kathryn Walls; I thank them all for their often anonymous work in keeping the course afloat. Thanks also to Marion McLeod, who has had to live with the course and its various demands for rather a long time; to Rachel Lawson and Margaret Cochran for their work on this book; and to the Department of English for its grant to support publication.
1 In fact the teaching of creative writing began at Victoria in 1969, with Christine Cole Catley's University Extension workshops, which were also conducted by Michael King and Fiona Kidman.
2 I am puzzled by all the playwrights - Jeff Addison, Allen O'Leary, Vivienne Plumb, Ken Duncum, Kerry Jimson, Jo Randerson, Anthony McCarten, David Geary and Evan Watts among others - who have passed through the Victoria workshop. How on earth did that happen?
3 Oddly enough, Alison Glenny's story, 'Mutes & Eathquakes', which gives this book its title, takes up the question of finding a voice in several ways.
4 If I'm to be honest, I think that a couple of things which I emphasise are sometimes apparent in writers who have attended the Victoria workshop. One is the element of play to which Dinah Hawken refers. The other - which may spring from the diversity of exercise work - is hybrid writing which hovers (like the contributions here from Louise Wrightson and Paola Bilbrough) somewhere between poetry and prose, or texts which explicitly mix poetry and prose (as happens in the work of writers such as Jenny Bornholdt and Emily Perkins).