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A Moment of Uplift

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A properly sceptical article by Anthony Gardner on the creative writing industry, in the latest Royal Society of Literature mag, quotes one teacher explaining that ‘creative writing schools in the US teach that a poem needs to have what they call “redemption”: something at the end which lifts the reader up.’

And you will know of course that all stories (including novels) need a beginning, a middle and an end. Also that short stories need to have a surprise final sentence, that all fiction must be written about what you know and rooted in your own experience and that paragraphs must never begin with ‘and’ or ‘but’.

But did you know about the redemption needed at the end of a poem? Obviously, scriptwriters must conform to this rule, and any book that has a downbeat ending is generally thought to be ‘depressing’ and therefore not good, but that redemptive kick in a poem is a new necessity to me, although, to the real benefit of the world, I don’t write poetry.

And this is the way my blog piece ends, not with a bang but a moment of uplift to suggest that all is wonderful fine in the best of all possible creative writing schools. Let the networking begin, let the creative take notes and let no one forget that what the reader needs from writers most of all is elevation from their lowdown existence.

One small question: what exactly have readers done to deserve this? Well, they’ve bought your book, read your poem, gone to your movie. And because you have left them feeling really warmed, endorphins tingling, they are ready to purchase more of the same.  More of the same. More of the same.

And life is beautiful.

Comments on “A Moment of Uplift”

  1. Niall Anderson says:

    I can see the point of a creative writing course more than I can the point of the Royal Society of Literature. What have readers done to deserve the RSL? How does it fulfil its remit to “excite literary talent”?

    • Jenny Diski says:

      Good point. I’m not sure what the RSL is for, either, except that there’s quite an interesting article in their magazine about creative writing courses – though it isn’t available to the general public who most need to read it. Oh, and the RSL also runs its own creative writing courses, thus making a satisfying circle, or at least an ellipse and therefore giving some pleasure to those who like that sort of thing.

  2. Christophe Riesco says:

    It’s good to know once and for all that you can find redemption just by reading a poem. Or am I being facetious? Perhaps the kind of redemption they’re talking about really is that cheap.

  3. Niall Anderson says:

    More seriously, the main value of creative writing courses is that they force people to see what kind of writers they might be. They provide a spur to effort and an atmosphere of mutual endeavour. What you make of the opportunity is up to you. In this regard they’re no different (in fact, far less expensive) than every writers’ colony you’ve ever heard of. When people start to write long impassioned articles about how everybody who goes goes to Yaddo sounds the same, maybe I’ll sit up and take the idea seriously.

  4. Camus123 says:

    My take is that these courses are not about CREATIVE WRITING and how to do it. I think that they have a more modest aim. Teach people to write good, is how one of my students put it in an uncreative writing course. We read stuff and talked about it. When I read what passes for creative writing I sometimes wonder though. The latest Auster seems to have been written by a committee of creative writing teachers. “Let’s have a low-key beginning and then slapbang into a real moral dilemma … what can you come up with – I know somebody just comes up and so our hero has to watch as …”

  5. pinhut says:

    It depends. Firstly, not all creative writing courses are alike.

    I have read through the output of some of the US schools and it is very disappointing, students write to please the professors, what emerges is a certain form of writing that tends towards good taste and realism and has rather clear structures. In many respects, this writing forms a new subgenre of its own, not a happy one, and has also birthed a short-story convention that I personally despise, that of beginning the story with the name of the protagonist (and, equally, I resort to using the word ‘protagonist’ here, as that is the kind of speak that these folks engage in).

    If a program is led by actual writers, then it can be worthwhile. I did a degree in Performance Writing at Dartington College of Arts, and the course was an introduction to the literary avant-garde, staffed by professors who were all published writers, working in a variety of forms, who demonstrated different methods of composition, etc. We did not have anybody there who only wanted to know how to be published, how to get an agent or how to write a bestseller. It worked.

    What seems to me a terrible assumption is that because writers write, that they somehow have ‘something in common’, as if writing is similar to being a baker or a lawyer, it’s not, and that they will flourish in an environment of gentle criticism but general mutual support. Where is the struggle in that? You’re going to produce writers at the end, of course, but of what sort? A Dostoyevsky is not going to be produced that way, as the academy is not a suitable site for the conflict that can produce great art, it never has been – when people think of the sites that have produced great literature, it’s usually the city – Paris, New York, Buenos Aires, during particular times, not a particular seminar room… But, if anybody wishes to refute that last sentiment and name one great novel to have emerged from the CW milieu, go ahead, prove me wrong.

    • Niall Anderson says:

      Well, I’d take issue with the idea that anything ‘produces’ great novels other than novelists. Dublin didn’t produce Ulysses. Siberia didn’t produce Crime and Punishment. What they did was help inspire those works. Hence, the idea that an author or a book is reduceable to a seminar room – let alone a country or an era – is patronising and wrongheaded in the extreme. It’s not as if people walk into the seminar room bringing nothing of themselves with them; or that they leave it cleansed of whatever personal spark they might have had.

      But you’re right in saying that not all creative writing courses/classes are the same; nor do all students take the courses for the same reasons. The convention in American universities is to have students major in a particular subject, but to allow them to dabble in as many other parts of the curriculum as they reasonably can. Lots of people with a liking for writing but no particular plans to be published take creative writing courses. Nobody and nothing is troubled by this writing, except maybe a few foolscap pages, and the “reading public” (who always seem to need defending from something, poor things) doesn’t need defending from it.

      • pinhut says:

        You’re taking the word ‘produce’ to mean something other than it was intended to, so what flows from that, including your dubbing of the idea as ‘patronising and wrong-headed’ is rather unnecessary. I don’t feel that it is wrong to identify the fact that great cities have provided much of the inspiration for novelists, the Paris of Hugo, the Dublin of Joyce, the London of Dickens, rather than creative writing programs, and that this continues to be very much the case.

        As for leaving cleansed of any spark, well, you offer no evidence for what appears quite a clear and present danger of the necessary submission to a hierarchy of academic staff. That, surely, is one of the chief differences between a circle of writers and artists, rather than the creative writing programs, that the former is established along more egalitarian lines.

        You are also wrong on the final reference to US Creative Writing Programs, as the amount of publishing that goes on, online and on paper, from these enterprises is enormous. Clearly you’re not as familiar with that world as myself.

        • JP says:

          I don’t think either cities or creative writing programs ‘produced’ those novels, rather, the writers produced the cities.

        • Niall Anderson says:

          @Pinhut

          You wrote: ‘I don’t feel that it is wrong to identify the fact that great cities have provided much of the inspiration for novelists … rather than creative writing programs’

          My point is that nobody is a blank slate. You don’t enter a creative writing programme or course and suddenly have your wider experience or accumulated wisdom (let alone talent) drained out of you. So why the fuss?

          You also wrote about the ‘clear and present danger’ of students submitting creative work ‘to a hierarchy of academic staff’, as though there’s a concrete expectation within the Academy that all – or even most – students will publish work, that there’s a recognised literary formula to maximise their success (‘Start the story with the protagonist’s name!’), and lastly – but again most patronisingly – that these pointy-headed academics are themselves blank slates, with no more discrimination or taste than a pot plant.

          But it just doesn’t work like that. The majority of college kids who take any kind of creative writing course will take it for a semester or two while they figure out what their major is. They will never trouble you with their writing, though you may see – and ignore – an anthology of student writing in a remainder store. Their professors will not push them to produce the ultimate Gordon Lish-type story, or the ultimate New Yorkerish story, or the ultimate McSweeney’s story. You’ll never hear from them. So again, what’s the fuss?

  6. JP says:

    I think Niall is right. Also it seems clear that these courses can churn out enjoyable fiction, look at the success of the UEA Ma in creative writing, alumni of which include Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Anne Enright. I wouldn’t presume to identify ‘one great novel’ that is the product of these courses, but it’s not all doom and gloom.

    • Niall Anderson says:

      I think people who blame creative writing programmes for the perceived sameiness of modern fiction are missing the wood for the trees. I don’t doubt that some creative writing practitioners (as opposed to plain old writers) are selling snake-oil to their students, and I don’t doubt that some blameless people sign on for a course and end up with nothing but discouragement and a slightly smaller bank balance.

      But without wanting to sound a total Amis about it, if much modern fiction feels thin and samey, it has to be saying something about the culture outside of the seminar room. It has to be saying something about how we process experience in a modern and multiply mediated social landscape – where our authentic or individual responses to things are anticipated by the media and gradually channelled into generally accepted narratives. Facts are more cheaply bought than ever in such a landscape, but many of us find it difficult to weigh or value our own experience in the light of those facts. And it strikes me that the old creative writing saw, ‘Write about what you know’, comes precisely out of this phenomenon and should perhaps be taken more seriously than it is. Recast it as ‘Ask yourself what you know’ and a whole field of experience and ignorance may open up for you to write about.

  7. jcclakeru says:

    I wanted badly to attend an MFA program right after undergrad. Fiction or poetry, I applied to both. Rejected from all. In the intervening years I have taken individual writer’s workshop type courses and one MFA poetry class while a grad student in Education. I am thoroughly satisfied by those former rejections. I think these programs are a waste of time (at least in the U.S.) unless you are the niece or nephew of a published writer who teaches at one of the best U.S. based programs. Then you have the name (perhaps) and the connections worthy of the bestseller’s list. I “finished” my first novel recently and now know that the only way to write a novel is to write it, read tons of literature which is reflective of the genre you are trying to inhabit, have qualified people read portions and give feedback and then rewrite as much as possible. Everything else is unnecessary torture and treacherously high hopes.

  8. jcclakeru says:

    I prefer to invest my high hopes in authonomy.com, an indie-writer’s forum to showcase work which is “run” by HarperCollins. It’s like an MFA program with the usual climbers and wannabes hawking the latest crap in vampires and hooligans but, hey, at least it’s free.

  9. outofdate says:

    The novel, meanwhile, is written as follows (I learn from an agent of many years’ experience with a presence on the Interweb): setup, first complication, second complication, third complication, first climax, second climax, third climax, denouement. Much like sex in that way, not that one likes to boast.

  10. larry says:

    and unfortunately they are simply Money Cows.

  11. patherto says:

    If you wish to visit a book without uplift, try “Trapeze” by the late Deborah Digges. It’s a collection of poems mourning the loss of her husband to a long bout of cancer. Digges was a product of the Iowa writers’ program and taught creative writing herself. “Trapeze” is a great book.
    I have just subscribed to LRB, and was looking forward to the blogs as being (at last!) worth reading. I now see from this line of thought that LRB readers are in general pompous bigots. I sincerely doubt that the “critics” above have read a book of modern poetry in their lives.

    • pinhut says:

      There are no good books by Professors who work on Creative Writing programs.

      There are no good books by Writers Program graduates, particularly Iowa.

      If you want to take up the challenge, you can cite five books by Creative Writing Program professors or graduates that are better than anything by Samuel Beckett, James Joyce or Thomas Bernhard. Not a single literary heavyweight is going to emerge from a middlebrow enterprise, just as the next Mozart is not going to burst through via Pop Idol.

  12. Cappadocia says:

    I think people who blame creative writing programmes for the perceived sameiness of modern fiction are missing the wood for the trees. I don’t doubt that some creative writing practitioners (as opposed to plain old writers) are selling snake-oil to their students, and I don’t doubt that some blameless people sign on for a course and end up with nothing but discouragement and a slightly smaller bank balance. thank you.

  13. You also wrote about the ‘clear and present danger’ of students submitting creative work ‘to a hierarchy of academic staff’, as though there’s a concrete expectation within the Academy that all – or even most – students will publish work, that there’s a recognised literary formula to maximise their success (‘Start the story with the protagonist’s name!’), and lastly – but again most patronisingly – that these pointy-headed academics are themselves blank slates, with no more discrimination or taste than a pot plant.

    I dont believe that part at all.

    • pinhut says:

      You knock one thing on the head there. See how many short stories now begin with the protagonist’s name (particularly US ones) due to the homogenising effect of the ‘wisdom’ dispensed on Creative Writing courses.

      (This comment comes to you by somebody picked out of 30000 submissions as one of the best young writers in Britain and the Commonwealth, don’t let that bother you)

  14. steve says:

    Life can be beautiful, but only because you understand and not because you “should”.

    I think it’s crazy for anyone to dictate what should and should not be, tunnel vision is never good for exploration because there is so much more.

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