Monday, February 05, 2007

Wannabes beware, writing isn't a matter of staying the course

Jenny Sinclair
* January 27, 2007

EVERYWHERE I turn, it seems, I see advertisements for writing courses, writing workshops, writing weekends, writing holidays. All of them promise to help participants polish their prose and carve out their characters.
It should be stopped. The only people writing should be those who must write, I scrawl in a notebook as I sit on the side of the running bath while my young son makes duck noises at me.

There is no shortage of people who can, with a little encouragement, write. There are lots of skilled craftspeople. Even more say they want to write, and many of those find their way into university courses, adult education or privately run seminars on the novel, genre, short story and importance of plot. Some can write like angels from the outset, others can't write at all, as I've heard for myself in classes I've attended.

This multiplicity of courses promises a way forward, a way into print, possibly even that chimera, a writing career. But desire and training don't equal genius or that je ne sais quoi that allows a writer to connect, to slip refractive glasses over a reader's eyes, to say, "see this". They don't give the writer something to say that can be said in no other way.

What they do is provide toolboxes, and with those toolboxes the vaguely talented often turn out the equivalent of high school carpentry projects: a procession of by-the-numbers breakfast trays and carved wooden animals.

So do I expect geniuses to spring forth untrained, with no access to guidance? Not at all: researchers such as the University of Chicago's Benjamin Bloom found that many years of hard work and, most crucially, an influential mentor were the keys to unlock talents in most fields. Up to a point, writing can be taught. But that point isn't the point where the wider reading public would want to read that writing, where it would enhance and enrich their lives.

Writing is not a good in itself that everyone should be encouraged to attempt, such as cycling to work or eating more broccoli. It's a specialised art that if practised, only adds to billions of existing published words. Training and encouragement will not bring out the real writers. The threat of not writing will.

By the time I was 35, I had attended a half-dozen university-level writing classes, receiving respectable marks and enough encouragement to justify a shot at a writing career. I was already a journalist so I could spell and take editorial advice without bursting into tears (once past my cadet reporter years, at least). I wasn't fazed by producing 2000 words a day; that was what I did for a living. I thought I wanted to write, in the literary sense. I had plenty of free time, being childless and independent, and I'd even bashed out a 30,000-word document I called a novel. But I wasn't a writer.

Then I had a child and I despaired, amid piles of nappies and from under a crushing weight of exhaustion, of ever writing anything longer than an email or incoherent blog entry (usually on the topic of sleep). I spent four months mostly alone with my baby in an apartment in Hong Kong while my husband worked long hours.

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.

Two years later, I'm a writer. I've had a few stories published, won a minor literary prize, had many more pieces rejected. Hundreds of thousands of words lurk on my hard drive, or are in the post travelling to and from editors' slush piles, fulfilling my mantra of "write and send, write and send". I don't know if I'm any good but I am a writer, and the reason I'm a writer is that I was suddenly faced with not being one.

I still fight obsessively for every free minute at my computer. I baulk at time-consuming paid work, invent other activities to excuse me from invitations that might interfere with my writing; I even enrolled in a university writing course to give a socially acceptable face to my compulsion. I try not to neglect my son but I scheme and plan and look forward to my writing times, free of him. Tired, not in the mood, it doesn't matter: I sit and write and soon enough the muse pops by to see what I'm doing.

From the ridiculous to the sublime: at a seminar at the University of Melbourne last year, Gerald Murnane spoke of writing his stories standing up at the kitchen bench while family life went on around him, and of what he calls "secret writing", writing that is done without reference to the glare of publicity, the culture of big names, writing that is done because it must be done.

A recent article in The New Yorker described how Noah Webster, author of Webster's Dictionary, padded the walls of his study to shut out the noise of his many children while he worked his way through American English from A to Z.

Manuscripts worked on in secret, smuggled out of Soviet gulags or completed in the attics of Amsterdam row houses, written in exile, written in prison, written behind the backs of tyrants: these are books that have something to say.

If all writing were forbidden, the stories written in secret would be the ones we needed to read. It's not writing that should be encouraged but reading, widely and voraciously, reading the classics, reading the modern masters. That, if my university lecturers are right, is what will bring out the real writers among us. Magazine editors, publishers and writing competitions are groaning under the output of all those writing courses and I want to say stop. Stop if you can. And if you can't stop, write.


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