Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Writing Gospel According To...(insert name here)

I read Steph Bowe's really interesting (not to mention useful) summation of several notable authors' rules for writing a little earlier on today. (Have a look at it here). It came along at an opportune time, to be honest, because I'm literally right in the middle of planning the course material and content for one of the units I'm teaching this semester - Introduction to Creative Writing. (And yes, I fully intend to use the material in Steph's blog in my opening lecture)

This unit is a biggie - about 200 students - and is one of the foundation units in both the writing and arts degrees here at the uni, so it's kind of important to get it right.

And as a result, writing it has been freaking me out slightly. Partly because it's an awful lot of responsibility - I remember the units I did during my first year at Uni, and how a badly planned, un-engaging unit managed to completely kill all the interest I had in one particular area of study. (thus consigning my interest in the study of History to, well, history) - and I'd hate to do that to my students.

The other reason this is playing on my mind is because, like most writers-who-teach (which, let's face it, is pretty much all of us - in one form or another), I'm finding myself a little plagued with the problem of second-guessing my own qualifications to 'introduce' anyone to 'creative writing'. Who am I to tell people how to go about writing? Just because something works for me, doesn't mean it'll work for everyone.

Take journals, for example.

Conventional 'how-to-write' wisdom generally requires writers to keep journals and diaries, and to be meticulous note takers on everything that happens to them. Textbook after textbook advises emerging or ambitious writers to note down every little event and observation in their day-to-day lives, to carry their moleskine with them at all times, and to mine their piles of journalled experiences for ideas. Hemingway apparently worked in this fashion, therefore it's what we should all be doing.

Except I don't. Never have. Never will. Frankly, keeping a diary bores the shit out of me. At the moment, my daily diary would read something like:

Got up. Fed Baby. Changed Nappy. Went to work. Came home. Changed Nappy. Played with Baby. Fed Baby. Changed Nappy. Bathed Baby. Changed Nappy. Ate. Went to bed.

Not exactly The Old Man and the Sea. (Though you could probably make a case for The Sun Also Rises)

I do use journals, but not in the 'traditional' manner - I have one journal for each major work that I've written. It's my bible for that project; filled with sketches, jottings, notes, chapter maps and plans and references, but it's very much a working document specifically targetted at a particular project. I only start my journals after I'm fully committed to a particular idea, never before.

So who the hell am I to stand up in front of 200 enthusiastic writing students and tell them that they should all keep a diary with them at all times?

Nobody, that's who.

Now, I'm aware that there's a bit of potential hypocracy involved here, given that I posted this here last year. But actually on balance I don't have a problem with writers giving tips or advice based on what works for them. I know I put my approach to writing together by listening to, experimenting with and then shamelessly stealing elements of it from Gary Crew, James Moloney, Isobel Carmody and numerous others .

I suspect its the notion of providing 'rules' that sets my teeth on edge. It's writing. There shouldn't be any rules. (well, okay, there should be at least some rules, like learn how to use apostrophes, but you get my meaning).

Basically, though, I like the idea of tips. If you try to follow religiously every single 'rule' set down by every single writer who's taken it upon themselves to set down their take on the writing process, you'll quickly write yourself out of the game, I suspect.

But if you take the ideas of said writers as a loose set of tips, or guidelines if you prefer, and then play with them, I imagine you'll end up a much stronger writer for the experience.

For my money, Stephen King summed up a very healthy attitude to writing 'rules' in the second forward to his memoir On Writing. (Which I've been re-reading today as part of the planning for this course, so it's fresh in my mind.) I'll leave you with his thoughts on the matter:

"This is a short book, because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don't understand very much about what they do - not why it works when it's good, not why it doesn't when it's bad. I figure the shorter the book, the less the bullshit."

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