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How to become, and remain, a writer

Vesna Goldsworthy

This piece is featured from this year’s Worlds festival. Also on site, from the provocations we have: Lucy Hughes-Hallet’s ‘The Art of Life-Making’ and Sigitas Parulskis’ ‘The Street Without a Name‘.

Autobiographia Literaria (with apologies to Coleridge and Frank O’Hara)

“Between the ages of four and twenty-four I wrote poetry every day. It is debatable how far one could divide the days into good and bad as regards the production line, but on some I wrote as many as four hundred lines of verse – running up to ten separate poems – while on others I polished a couplet until it had not a single word in common with the original version, and then back again. I am not at all sure where all that poetry came from.” (VG, Chernobyl Strawberries)

My father wanted me to become a doctor. I grew up in the socialist Yugoslavia of the 60s and 70s where this kind of parental ambition was not unusual. The most valued professions offered respectability, a secure income, kept you away from politics, and provided a “craft”– albeit not in the sense in which we now talk about “transferable” skills at British universities – but one which fitted the much more calamitous and impoverished world my parents had grown up in; a world which saw wars and revolutions, internal and external exile, and where freedom of speech was at worst non-existent, at best, “measured out with coffee spoons”. Whether knowing how to stitch a hem of a coat, or an open wound — handicraft fed you more reliably than knowing how to compose a sonnet.

My father did not see studying medicine as necessarily conflicting with my desire to write. My poetry was something that he was proud of, in some ways too proud. Until I grew old enough to know how to avoid the dubious honour, I was often summoned to the drawing room to recite a poem to bemused family friends. Some of his favourite writers – Chekhov and Bulgakov, Celine and Maugham – were doctors. He himself had obeyed his parents’ wishes in his choice of study. He was a keen historian at school but had studied mathematics.

Outwardly, his life seemed boring. He wasn’t allowed to talk about his work. During most of my teens and early twenties, I had very little idea of what it entailed. I barely noticed the lacuna at the time. It turns out he had studied language as keenly as I have ever done. He had spent his career as a code-breaker in the General Staff of the Yugoslav Army. Has father regretted his original choice of study? He claims not. Does he regret mine? He has apologised for trying to influence me. He thinks I did the right thing.

I opted for the university course which was most commonly pursued by poets when creative writing did not exist as an option. I studied literature. The only way to study writing as a craft would have been to do dramaturgy at the Faculty of Dramatic Art, but that was an option open only to half a dozen people, and I wasn’t interested in writing plays anyway. Such academies were part of the university system, like here, but they had strict entry quotas determined by perceived need rather than demand, and even then the “need” was arguably overinflated: which small state “needs” six playwrights a year, or six film directors, or twelve painters?

Was studying literature helpful to my becoming a writer? Without setting out to do so, my particular degree course, Comparative Literature, produced as many writers as some of the best creative writing schools. Even its first-ever graduate was a writer, one of Yugoslavia’s finest, Danilo Kis. None of those writers were full time authors – Kis included: he taught Serbo-Croat as a lector in French universities.

Those four years of undergraduate study remain in many ways the happiest, and intellectually the most exciting, years of my life. At first I wrote more poetry than ever. By year three, however, things began to change. I wrote less and less. I translated and published Jonathan Culler’s On deconstruction. I wrote book reviews in which “there was nothing outside the text”. I wanted to be a critic and an academic and I had a sense that I couldn’t be both. The company of poets became, almost, embarrassing.

I may have had the talent, but I was also too conventional in some ways, too keen to excel in the tasks before me, and those tasks did not include writing poetry. Here’s an excerpt from J.M.Coetzee’s Youth that I find evocative:

“What is wrong with him is that he is not prepared to fail. He wants an A or an alpha or one hundred per cent for his every attempt, and a big Excellent! in the margin……If he were a warmer person he would no doubt find it all easier: life, love, poetry. But warmth is not in his nature. Poetry is not written out of warmth anyway. Rimbaud was not warm. Baudelaire was not warm. Hot, indeed, yes, when it was needed – hot in life, hot in love – but not warm. He too is capable of being hot, he has not ceased to believe that. But for the present, the present indefinite, he is cold: cold, frozen” (J.M. Coetzee, Youth)

I am talking about myself, but I see this story as a template of a particular moment, a template which the option to study Creative Writing may have altered for good. Nor is the template necessarily rooted in the specific ideology of the state I grew up in. Many of my fellow English literature academics in British universities were once would-be writers. At school, English meant both composition and interpretation. University required just interpretation.

Without setting out to be so, literary study, if pursued seriously enough, can be unhelpful to creative writing, simply by standing in the way. The knowledge you gain through it is useful, but also axial: I will be facetious and compare it to preparing to be a jockey by qualifying as a vet.

I believe I am not wrong in claiming that before creative writing “invaded” the University, often growing from within the English Department, as a more seductive younger brother, there used to be a wall between the two worlds – creative and critical – which suggested that an ability to operate in one eroded your competence in the other. A few academics wrote creatively, but they seemed almost suspect and remained defensive about that other activity, as though creativity was bound to render brains mushier, as though – in ways which are difficult to pin down – it remained essentially childish (and, most famously, the main audiences of the two great Oxford dons who are sometimes now brushed aside with embarrassment by those who take themselves a little too seriously, Tolkien and C S Lewis, were of course children). To be creative is indeed in some ways to be irresponsible, unable to “put away childish things”.

Leap forward a few decades and today you find a fair number of critics and academics working on novels or poetry collections, revisiting those early aspirations the way people search for their first loves on Facebook after failed marriages. Many retire with the dream of renting a small place in Paris or Prague, where they will write that debut novel. Unlike the violin and tennis, writing forgives a late start.

What is the best way to be a writer? It might well be preferable to be able to write full time from the beginning, but that has never been an option for more than a handful. The figures are stark, and they would be even starker if you removed the less visible forms of subsidy from those who claim to write full time: spousal incomes, inheritances and trust funds, lodgers. Novel writing in particular often looks like a middle class lottery: the ratios between the numbers buying tickets and those winning are roughly the same. In the case of former Yugoslavia, a country of twenty two million people where I first thought of writing as my destiny, it was even harder to win: there was only one full-time writer, and he was a Nobel Prize winner. If you wanted to be a writer, you had to be something else too, and full time. Would studying medicine, in the end, have been so different? It might, almost, have been easier to retain your native belief in the power of your writing that way.

Academics often complain about increasing burdens of teaching and university administration, but they tend not to complain about the amount of time the university sets aside for their research, other than to suggest that it is insufficient. For the many creative writers who enter university to teach, even that small amount of time is a first: to be paid to write what they want, one day a week, is more than any other career path would offer.

If I had the necessary control groups — one Vesna who was a full time writer, one who was a full time GP, and one who was a full time academic – I could compare their creative outputs at particular stages and reach more reliable conclusions for the purposes of this talk. I do know that the arrival of Creative Writing in my university English department ten years ago was good news for me: enabling me, for the first time, to write creatively yet find that it “counts” in terms of career progression, and to teach not just writing but also literature in the way I like to teach it – more focused on literary form, less parcelled out, less confined by the boundaries of period and nationality. As the “specialisms” in English literature became narrower, I found the syllabus of Creative Writing liberating: if I was working on short story with my students, we could read short stories translated from any language and any epoch.

At the heart of Creative Writing is love of literature, the written word, an affection that is now all too often lacking in the politicised and highly theorised study of literature itself. At Belgrade, I studied Marxism for two years – a required subject – while at the same time taking the history of aesthetics as an elective. I would not have believed then that the former would turn out to be more useful for my academic career than the latter. I don’t dodge identity and ideology – on the contrary, I have published some highly political studies – but I remain interested in ideas of beauty and literary merit, which an English department seems no longer to know what to do with, yet which are the focus of Creative Writing. We talked about death of the author thirty years ago, little suspecting that the critic was going to die first.

So, Creative Writing was, on balance, good news for me and many of my colleagues, and it is, I assume, even better news for British universities or they would not have embraced the discipline with such enthusiasm.


But is it good news for the students?

Here’s a short excerpt from an article in the Guardian, published a year ago:

Creative writing courses are a “waste of time”, according to the novelist – and creative writing teacher – Hanif Kureishi, who says that “a lot of my students just can’t tell a story”.

Kureishi, whose debut novel The Buddha of Suburbia won the Whitbread first novel prize, was speaking at the Independent Bath Literature festival on Sunday. He was made a professor at Kingston University last autumn, when he said it was “truly an exciting time to be a part of the creative writing department”, but on Sunday Kureishi told the Bath audience that, when it came to his students, “it’s probably 99.9 per cent who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent”.

“A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can,” said Kureishi, according to the Independent, which sponsors the festival.

But Jeanette Winterson, who teaches at Manchester University, disagreed with Kureishi. She told the Guardian: “My job is not to teach my MA students to write; my job is to explode language in their faces. To show them that writing is both bomb and bomb disposal – a necessary shattering of cliché and assumption, and a powerful defusing of the soul-destroying messages of modern life (that nothing matters, nothing changes, money is everything, etc). Writing is a state of being as well as an act of doing. My job is to alter their relationship with language. The rest is up to them.”

A spokesperson for Kingston University told the Independent that Kureishi’s course was “extremely demanding and valuable”, and that the author, playwright and screenwriter “is employed for his thought-provoking, inspirational contribution which he provides through supportive masterclasses, tutorials and PhD supervisions. Students consistently praise him and benefit from his advice.”

The article offers a familiar scenario. The setting is a literary festival sponsored by a newspaper. The main character is a literary “name” with a reputation for delivering good value if you are a journalist in search of copy. “Creative writing degrees are a waste of time”, may not be as exciting as “calling for euthanasia “booths” on street corners where [old people] can terminate their lives with “a martini and a medal” (a “provocation” delivered by a rival author) but it is a gift that keeps on giving, particularly when spoken by someone who draws a pay-cheque from the activity he finds so pointless. It’s certainly more newsworthy than discussing most novels. It touches on many shared anxieties about the purpose of university study, and the endlessly looming spectre of the so-called Mickey Mouse degrees – in their time English literature, sociology, media studies.

It is not the first of such utterances by Kureishi. Eight years previously, while a research associate on the creative writing course at Kingston, he said the following at Hay, “One of the things you notice is that when you switch on the television and a student has gone mad with a machine gun on a campus in America, it’s always a writing student. The writing courses, particularly when they have the word ‘creative’ in them, are the new mental hospitals. But the people are very nice.”

At this point, it is worth observing that, while the British broadsheets are driven by the need to produce provocative copy, they also have a vested interest in defending the ‘teachability’ of creative writing: some are involved in the business. Selling journalism is no longer enough.

Thus, in the spirit of journalistic objectivity, the “waste of time” thesis is usually followed by an antithesis – a statement for the opposition – preferably an equally big “name” who frequently defends the discipline in a way which seems almost designed to prove the validity of the attack in the eyes of Joe Public (“My job is not to teach my MA students to write; my job is to explode language in their faces”).

The synthesis comes with the institutional stamp – prefabricated components of corporate communications assembled by a press office engaged in damage limitation – “extremely demanding and valuable”, “challenging and thought-provoking”, etc, etc.

The article as a whole makes me happy that I work at a British university: it is still a place of relative freedom, particularly compared to the corporate world outside it. In other places of work, rubbishing your own product as joyously and publicly would be unthinkable, although one has to concede that Hanif does enjoy the protection of a famous name. Even Writers Centre Norwich might not be as supportive as my erstwhile university was if one of its most famous employees pronounced at a literary festival that the work she is doing is essentially pointless. I don’t happen to agree with Hanif, and I don’t necessarily think that he agrees with himself, but I still like the fact that he can deliver a provocation and keep his job.

Second, I like the un-academic quality of both the attack and the defence, the quality of “outsider art” in both the “waste of time” and the “explosion of language”, which reverberates with un-corporate shock in a corporatized place, although it makes me wonder if either of them really know it. How many exam boards have they had to sit through? Have they had to take their modules through to validation? Ensured that their educational aims are mapped to their outcomes in ways that are reflected in the assessment process?

The creative writing proletariat, the army of those who deliver most of the teaching and whose festival appearances, when they manage to write something between marking and exam boards, seldom feature in national newspapers – might have formulated things differently. In other respects, the conversation is eerily – perhaps drearily – familiar, although it is not always easy to understand why it manages to grab headlines decade after decade. If the value of creative writing degrees is based on the number of full time writers they produce, then most disciplines in the humanities could be subject to similar scrutiny.

Is it because of the astonishing rise and rise of Creative Writing in spite of repeated claims about their dubious value? I recommend Andrew Cowan’s article “The Rise of Creative Writing”, both for its arguments and its hard data.

Or is it that so many journalists are penning novels in their spare time, often with the same dream of throwing away their day jobs, shared by a substantial proportion of Creative Writing students, even when both groups know better than to admit to it? Why writing seems so much more appealing than the dream of constructing a bridge, working in an office, or teaching in a primary school is beyond the scope of my twenty allotted minutes. We live in a celebrity culture and it is hardly surprising that people notice the celebrity – and wealth – of some writers.

The strange fact is, although there was some displeasure with Hanif’s pronouncements among the students – very few of whom would have been personally implicated (his work was, when he spoke, concentrated on a supervision of one PhD student and some Masters dissertations), and although the University would not have seen it thus at the time the article was published, the impact on recruitment was probably nil, or perhaps even positive. Students come to Kingston to study creative writing in large numbers, and many say explicitly that they want to work with Hanif. Perhaps it is in the nature of writers, when hearing that 99% are talentless, to assume that they are the 1%? How could you keep going otherwise?


Poeta nascitur non fit: What is Talent?

“The style of how we play is very important. But it is omelettes and eggs. No eggs – no omelettes! It depends on the quality of the eggs. In the supermarket you have class one, two or class three eggs and some are more expensive than others and some give you better omelettes. So when the class one eggs are in Waitrose and you cannot go there, you have a problem.” (Jose Mourinho)

Was I born a poet, or have I become one? I am not, of course, paraphrasing Simone de Beauvoir, but playing with a maxim often attributed to Horace.

The history of poetics and autopoetics, from Plato to … oh, I don’t know, Dave Eggers… has struggled to define ideas of inspiration and gift. In relation to creative writing, the meaning of inspiration, the meaning of individual talent and – further up the ladder – genius – is in many ways at the heart of the many vexed debates.

The Greeks went into furor poeticus, poetic madness, through which they were given the gods’ or goddesses’ own thoughts to write down. The Romantics saw themselves as Eolian Harps, “tuned” to the divine or mystical dimensions. Kant saw genius as the talent that gives the rule to art – and art rather than science had the quality of genius: Newton was not a genius because he could demonstrate the steps that he took to reach his discoveries. No Homer or Wieland could show how their ideas originate.

Nowadays, we tend to speak of genius as scientific – Einstein or Stephen Hawking – built in an equal measure of education and boundless intelligence. Shakespeare might have had some of that quality, but few writers, post-enlightenment, would be described in those terms. We are understandably uncomfortable with the idea of natural inequality (even in antenatal classes we are encouraged to think that every child is a genius, you only need to discover the gift), and just as uncomfortable with the idea of the inexplicable. Were Homer and Wieland to submit their outputs to the REF they would not have been allowed to get away with it.

To the Horatian “poeta nascitur non fit”, Jonson and Lewis Carroll replied “poeta fit non nascitur” [distribute the poem]. Creative Writing veers on the side of agreeing, and it is arguably in its interest to do so. Craft is teachable. It can be learned by imitation. It can be honed by repeated exercise. Yet there remains that at the heart of it which may not be in our gift to impart – a certain facility, a gift. It is not easy to recognise, but then neither is it easy to recognise in budding literary critics or historians – they could be just as tone deaf – why do we worry about it so much more than the academics in those fields?


And why do the students still come in such numbers?

They dream of creative lives lived to the full, as I did, yet they also think it more easily and instantly achievable than I did. They believe in vocational training in the way I did not: their schools and their society as a whole encourage them in that. They are not wholly wrong. If you desire to be a writer, then learning how to compose, structure, edit and publish seems more useful than learning Latin declensions or the causes of the First World War. They get a lot of individual attention; their writing is looked at more thoroughly than in other humanities degrees, and is much less likely to be infected by jargon. They also get a lot of solid, formal literary study. In time, a few will become writers, many will become teachers of creative writing, most will find other jobs where often there will be scope for disciplined creativity, and write for themselves, if the desire does not die, at weekends.

You could, of course, restrict the numbers to suit the perceived needs of the British economy, as the Yugoslav universities once did, but that is not the way British universities – or any universities anywhere – work anymore. On the contrary, they encourage creative writing departments to expand, to bring more and more future writers – and fees — in.

Paradoxically, I finally return to the question of talent: that which Kureishi identified as standing roughly at one per cent, in the group which had already been sifted by university admissions. This is the responsibility I find the most difficult to deal with as a teacher – the pressure to recognise it and nurture talent while knowing that even among the talented the majority will ultimately fail — if success is being able to realise your full potential in writing — as I have failed, as most writers fail. It may be easier to help the talentless realise their full potential than it is to cultivate the gift.

Vesna Goldsworthy, 2015

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