This time I’ll be brief.
Next month I’ll be navigating away from the pure and simple question of how to find your own voice as a writer, and I’ll be looking at examples around us, past and present, that talk to us about the maker in the head.
But first I’d like to say a little more — and make it as clear as I can — about the harmfulness of creative writing classes.
Even to suggest that they could be harmful seems absurd to almost everyone. If you take a creative writing class, you might have to withstand criticism — this is the only reservation people have, but it’s a fear rather than a disincentive. All would-be writers believe they can withstand criticism (indeed they long for it, request it, insist upon it), and they’re sure that they can either take or leave any comments they receive. In reality very few people can withstand adverse criticism, and those who can are either natural-born geniuses or people without sensitivity (or talent). But the issue is irrelevant. Criticism, harsh or otherwise, is not the harm I’m talking about. Unless you’re infernally lucky, you will have to learn to take criticism. (And perhaps to receive no adverse criticism wouldn’t be lucky at all — how else will you gauge your accomplishments?)
In any case, adverse criticism is rarely the problem, unless and until it becomes a torrent of indifference or abuse. Here’s the surprise: people who give up writing fiction soon after completing creative writing classes are drawn equally from those who are highly praised, those who receive a mixed measure, and those who receive mostly dispraise. In the reason for this equal distribution we’ll find the harmfulness of such classes.
(You could of course argue that to weed out a good many would-be writers, regardless of the reason for their looking elsewhere for fulfilment, is no bad thing. The world has room only for a modest number of published writers, compared to the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of creative writing students, plus creative writing graduates at BA and MA level, so why mourn the loss of those who couldn’t last the course? Well, indeed… although I know from long experience that some of the most distinctive and remarkable voices are lost to us after formal instruction — but let’s hope they found joy elsewhere. This much is true: the world doesn’t need more writers. It only needs to steep itself more fully in the writers we already have.)
While we’re on the subject of discouragement: most people, to judge from my forty years of observing the process, can tolerate disparagement from peers and even teachers. Discouragement by publishers is usually more grievous, and terminates many a budding career. It shouldn’t, of course. There’s no reason to assume that agents, publishers, or the readers that both employ to sift manuscripts, are any better qualified to judge your talent than your mother is. (After all: mothers, like everyone else, can be too harsh, too generous, or as objective as you please. And ‘experts,’ in the form of professionals, whether writers, publishers, reviewers or critics, are just as liable to misjudge talent — as history shows us over and over again — by overpraising what time reveals as an utter dud, or overlooking what time later declares a masterpiece.) So you shouldn’t ditch your calling, dear would-be writer, on the word of ‘professionals.’ But you will; you will credit agents, publishers and ‘managers’ (a new breed who tune up their writers for presentation to agents) with the weight of public approval, and, having ridden the rapids of friends’, classmates’, and teachers’ critiques, you will plunge into the whirlpool of rejection letters written on letterhead notepaper, throw up your arms (after half a dozen or a dozen rejections) and drown. Yes, you will; I’ve seen it countless times. You think you won’t, but you will. Of course if it is truly your calling, and not just the sweet echo of a hunting horn that you’ve been pursuing thus far, no amount of rejections will deter you. I’ve ignored fifty for one book alone, and done so more than once — in regard to work that has gone on to win acclaim and a literary prize or two.
But back to the perils of instruction. Of all the reasons people give for signing up for creative writing classes, the most certain is, What harm can it do me? Creative writing classes are so ubiquitous now that it must seem absurd to question their value. Even if it’s almost zero, this possible value, so what? (Consider, though: whereas formal instruction in painting and music is millenia old, writing classes with the imprimatur of academia are a recent invention, given us fifty years ago by American universities seeking to outbid their rivals by offering proximity to celebrities. The question of why formal instruction hasn’t been a part of literary history is one we will return to.) Creative writing students hope to maybe hobnob with celebs, receive advice on finding an agent and advice on how to proceed as a writer, get ideas on how to survive, what writing habits to acquire, and so on. Most students are pleased at having been chosen, since not all are chosen; and they’re pleased at the prospect of deadlines, much as a wild animal is pleased, when captured, by regular meals he or she doesn’t have to hunt for. Zoos, however, are too smart to release back into the wild a tiger cub rescued from the jungle and reared in captivity. The creature would have lost all instinct for survival.
Something similar happens to writers prematurely nourished on deadlines and feedback. (To be a student writer or a wannabe writer is already to be premature as far as this kind of nourishment is concerned. The only nourishment valuable to a writer in the making is misery and doubt, leavened by bursts of heady, unstable delight, unsupported by any one else’s views.) The creative writing class feedback may be delicious, and glow with praise, but the solitary slog of dredging up the pain and desire that motivated the writer in the old, early, pre-writing-class days, is just as hard for a writer to re-animate when the course is over as it is for a hand-fed wild beast to rediscover the business of hunting for food — and it doesn’t matter how rich and pleasing, or how harsh a thin gruel of criticism was their portion (man or beast) during captivity.
Many newly-released young tigers of literature, fresh from graduation, form clubs — in what they sometimes don’t yet recognize as desperation — to simulate their missing cage. But the keeper doesn’t arrive; it’s just us tigers, stroking, or critiquing, each other. Soon one of the group lands a great fat antelope of a book contract. Picture the chagrin of the rest, who eventually slink off into the underbrush to change their skin and re-emerge as a brightly plumaged lawyer or publisher.
To repeat: so what? There’s more work out there for lawyers than there is for novelists. But if you feel, deep in your tiger-bones, that all you can really do is write (and in all likelihod this is what you will need to feel in order to make a life for yourself as a writer), then here’s why you should avoid the sweet tempting cage of the creative writing class, with its savorously rotting meat tempting you inside, into that happy throng where all those other young tigers sit feasting.
The problem, as you will have grasped by now, is: appetite. Some of the most gifted writers I know either instinctively avoided the temptation of writing classes altogether and fled down their own lonely path, pursued by fears that they lacked the courage to face criticism, and yet fortified by a profound, and correct, conviction that the path is necessarily solitary; or else, like others I’ve known, they enter the cage and break out of it after a course or two, often unable to identify what it is they’re fleeing. They’re guided by sheer unmediated instinct — but not by the instinct for glory or the herd instinct that leads most young writers to seek instruction. They simply know that the way forward is through a bruising process that only living and writing guarantees, and that anything that palliates that bruising, or that offers even a hint of a short cut to writing better, is poisoned meat.
And short cuts certainly are poisoned meat. In writing, there are no true short cuts although they are what creative writing classes peddle. What else can they offer? If they denied the existence of short cuts, they might as well send their classes back into the wild. (As they should.) Remy de Gourmont spoke of education as the thing that you had to spend your life recovering from, in the hoping of extirpating all traces of it. In the writing game, the same applies. For every piece of information (short cut, trick, advice, idea about your own writing, idea about writing in general) that you ingest, you will spend years trying to mind-laser its tattoo off the skin of your talent. Good luck. In truth, your only companion on the journey of a writer’s life is your blindness.
And just as you will learn not to map out the ‘arc’ of a story, with its ‘beats’ and its shape, its narrative climaxes and all the rest of the rubbish that is either deeply instinct within you as the gift of narrative or will otherwise never emerge naturally, organically, in your work; just as you will learn to let the story tell you where it wants to go; so you will learn to let yourself develop as a writer unaccompanied by thoughts about the process — and this you will not be able to do until you have laundered from your brain the ideas you have about writing, and let writing tell you .
As long as you’re afraid to do this, you might as well be a swimmer afraid to dive into a writing life. You will never begin, except as an automaton hampered by the water-wings of instruction, which, alas, have grown attached to your body and are not like training wheels you can just unbolt. It takes decades to rid yourself of the ideas you have gleaned about writing, be they comments about your style, positive or negative, ideas about style or story-making in general, or ideas about how a writer proceeds.
Every writer proceeds differently. That is all you need to know — but you need to let go of the sides and trust this truth absolutely. The little bit of Hemingway-advice you smuggled into the pool, pretending it’s not there and hiding it at the very back of your mind, will get found out. Believe me.
Every authentic piece of writing re-formats the rules, unlearning them as it goes. To bring this off, you do not need to have mastered the rules any more than a David masters the Goliath of form by training with every known weapon. Drop your weapons; walk into the challenge — call it a jungle, call it a desert, it’s both and none (it’s all mirage, since the challenge is inside, not outside you); your ally will be your limitations: they will teach you how to overcome. The practicing that artists and musicians devote themselves to, sacrificing much of their life to its daily discipline, has no equivalent for writers. Why not? Couldn’t we sit down and practice our scales in some form or other — sit in a group as in life class, and all write a description of a person brought to model for us? But there is no basic verisimilitude in fiction-writing, no verbal photograph of reality from which to diverge, no pattern to assimilate and then to make your own. Unlike with art and music, where the threshold of form lies outside us, in writing it lies inside: writing and thinking are all too closely allied, and in order to find original form, we have to stop thinking. Stop thinking and let the muse think us. Every bit of help we might think we’re bringing to the muse’s process of instruction is in fact the wrong kind of obstacle: a formal obstacle. The good kind of obstacles lie in our nature — and these are the ones we will encounter as we begin the writer’s life.
To return to the all-important matter of appetite, and the toxicity of writing classes: the true writing-appetite is the one you experienced when you first began to write, in self-love and self-loathing. Unless you can adore (sometimes, and all-importantly so) some of what you write, and unless you can loathe some of it too, you cannot hope to progress. Between these two banks lies your course. The water you find yourself in, carrying you sometimes sluggishly and sometimes fast, is not of your making — it’s an ancient water-course, flowing since time became a part of mind. You don’t have to do, or learn, anything. You have to swim, paddle, fight to keep your head above water, and remain in the water.
You have to write: incessantly. You have to live; at any rate, it helps to live intensely, painfully and thrillingly — which can be done without leaving your room, but is more easily done in more dangerous circumstances. I mean the dangerous circumstances of passion, travel, fear, and physical danger. The purpose here isn’t to obtain external material to write about, although some of it may serve for this, but to obtain information about living and about yourself; you can’t plumb deeply into fictional characters until you’ve done so into yourself, and this you cannot do in a classroom or with a mentality derived from books or from well-meaning advice.
All this said, you will still think about taking writing classes (Oh, what harm can it do?) If so, I simply haven’t made myself clear enough or compelling enough. So once more I warn you: you will lose your feel for the utter despair and all-important loneliness of your desire to write — you think you won’t but you will, and I’m telling you now that you will, and that it’ll be excruciatingly hard to re-discover it afterwards (I’ve known it to take twenty years) — because, fatally, you will have begun to be able to think of yourself as a writer. You think you won’t; but you will. And this is the beginning of the end. It’s premature, this insidious feeling of self-worth, and like a birth too premature it will not survive. You think that when the classes are over you’ll go back to being the striving lonely writer you were before. And you’ll be briefly puzzled to find you can’t. ‘Briefly,’ because it takes no time at all to start telling yourself that you never really were a writer after all, not in your deepmost bones; that you didn’t actually have the talent — especially when you think, as you so often do, of that fellow-tiger who landed the antelope-fat 2-book contract. Whether you think the fellow-tiger depressingly worthy of it and more gifted than you are, or depressingly unworthy and less gifted than you are, will make no difference.
Shall we say: What’s more, you may be right, maybe you didn’t have the talent? (Or the will.)
But that’s all wrong. Any talent you may have — that’s to say any facility you may have — is not only the least of what you need on the journey to a writer’s life, it’s often counter-productive. The journey is all will. All desire. All appetite. So much so that a lack of facility, a lack of evident ‘talent,’ is often the best equipment. It makes you work; it makes you surrender to will; it means you can’t get by on tricks. Ask an astrologer what the most fruitful natal chart is — an easy distribution of planets, or a hard, obstacle-ridden one? Yes, it’s the latter.
So can we conclude, if you do give up writing, dear ex-tiger, that you simply lacked the will, desire, appetite? Maybe. Only maybe — because maybe you just lacked an understanding of how long and slow and patient the journey is, and lacked the understanding that allows you to realize that all of us, everyone who ever dreamed we could be a writer, or who ever wanted to write, can make that journey: if we sense how long and slow it is, and how patience, not talent, is the key. You have to be patient with your nourishing companions along the way: despair, hopeless incommunicable ecstasy, frustration, self-disgust, indifference (your own indifference to what you see you’ve put on the page). You have to work with them. You have to make your own way, a way whose lost paths and wrong paths and confusions you will never be able to bring back to provide encouragement for anyone else — except to tell them to set off into that jungle, and believe. That’s all there is. Everything else takes you back along the trail, back to the beginning to start again, because, you poor deluded thing, you tried to smuggle those smart little ideas into the journey.
Remember: it’s the journey that takes you on it . Not you who take the journey. So every time you smuggle into it the Swiss Army knife of smart ideas born of creative writing class lessons, you will be sent back all the way to the beginning — and the beginning is hard to find again, believe me — to discard it, before the Homeland Security guards of literature will allow you onto the flight of a writer’s life without a trace of any useful tool.
The journey takes you on it. Understand what that means, what that involves, and what that requires you to do (and not do!), and you’ll be a writer. You’ll always be a writer, as long as you live in that truth.
Carey Harrison is British-born, the son of the stage and screen actors Sir Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer, and was raised in America. He has divided his life between the UK and the US, writing and teaching on both sides of the Atlantic. He is currently the artistic director of the Woodstock Players theater company, and is Professor of English at the City University of New York. Harrison is the author of close to two hundred plays for stage, radio, film and television, and 16 novels; his work has won numerous literary prizes and been translated into thirteen languages.