Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Provocations (2): I chase my own hare.

Couldn't go yesterday as I was in London at the Nehru Centre, my task there to be distinctly non-provoking, but I do want to pick up the matter of the first session of the conference, not precisely where I left it, but a little further along.

Rukmini's session continued in the exhilarating headlong way that I described, scattering hares as it went, with the rest of us contributing, the bright phrases (we are writers after all) beginning to set light to each other. Adrian Slatcher is blogging it all properly, in fact rather excellently throughout, so my notes are impressions and extensions rather than accounts. Adrian is a very fine blogger in any case so now he is on my links (on the right) where he should have been a long time ago.

Naturally, he gives an account of Graeme Harper's provocation too. Fewer hares with Graeme, as I said before, and they run pretty straight. In fact there were two.

Graeme's first hare looks to trace the roots of creative writing - the creative act as a complement to the critical act - back to the practice of the earliest universities. It's a bold move, possibly even a clever move when it comes to arguing the value, to a potential academy, of fields like creative writing. It is, in short, a hare worth chasing but I am not sure it is precisely the hare I would have started.

I wouldn't look so far back. Instead, I would use the examples of art schools, drama schools and music academies.

No one questions their right to exist or to be part of higher education. If writing didn't happen through the universities, as it does currently, it might then move to institutions that have more in common with those that exist for music, drama and art.

Some would argue that the equivalent of a three-year degree course followed by an MA for would-be writers will produce rather uniform results, but the same might be argued in the case of the other institutions. Having a longer history of regulated practice they might be expected to be very similar. I don't hear too many complaints. A new, and still developing field like creative writing allows for considerable variation of practice, as I have seen in my years as external examiner on such courses.

I want to define an MA writing course as 'intelligent, informed conversation'. I like the idea of intelligent conversation. It is not that I have a missionary sense about the idea of this form of education but I do always feel an obligation, and sometimes (in fact surprisingly often) an enthusiasm for the people involved. I consider it a human engagement supported by a contract, not a contract that fully defines human engagement. That is how I think all institutions should work, though the times have been very much against it. Most of the time in institutions we are filling in shadow contracts, making sure we obey them to the letter (and the letters multiply, driving some writers out). But our real contracts are with the minds of those we teach by indulging in intelligent conversation. Before, at undergraduate stage, there would have to be coherent reading, of course, in preparation for that intelligent, informed conversation.

That is valuable in itself. But what of 'success'? Do we give students false ideas about the prospects of success? No more than do art schools, drama schools and music academies. Just as not every student finishes up with a three book-contract, so rather few end up with a gallery, a theatre company or a spot at the Wigmore Hall. The outstanding are, by definition, few, and there will always remain the majority who will not become famous writers. Are they failures then? Is the course a failure?

Not in the least, for two main reasons.

1.) The production of a large number of intelligent, literate, articulate, independent-thinking people is a proper contribution to society (Rukmini was arguing something similar). They constitute a civilised matrix of readers without which writers can easily find themselves detached from society. They become the agents of the imagination, its transmitters, its carriers. They have been in the engine room and understand from the inside what the composing of poems, stories and such things entails.

2) Reading is good, especially the reading of good books. But there is much to be gained from having worked in the engine room of the imagination. The reader who has spent time in the engine room is not simply being driven about by the writer. They know how the engine has got into this condition. Their own engine is turning over in the process. In this way the agents of the imagination become more mobile, more articulate, more effective.

When I ask myself what I think I am doing teaching 'creative writing' my instinctive answer follows from this. It is not cynical. I'm not 'in it for the money'. I'm in it because I think it is, in is own way, an honest living.

This post is far too long now. I have let this hare run a good way. My hare is only a little way across the field, but it is, I believe, a real field.

I will return to Graeme's other hare regarding technology and its effects as soon as I can.

1 comment:

Mark Granier said...

Very interesting. 'Intelligent, informed conversation'. Yes, we could do with more of that, always.

'Some would argue that the equivalent of a three-year degree course followed by an MA for would-be writers will produce rather uniform results, but the same might be argued in the case of the other institutions.'

Yes, it might well. As I understand it, many of the art colleges in Dublin and the UK have been encouraging conceptual-based work for a good few years, possibly over a decade. I went to a graduation show some years ago and it was AWFUL! Dull, dull, dull. Not that conceptual work need be dull in the least, but as a uniform approach, as something taught, I suspect it places far too much emphasis on mere ideas. By comparison, my old art school in the 1970s was very influenced by the Bauhaus methodology and stressed observational skills, in life-drawing, design, colour charts, etc. Lots of intelligent conversation too. All very exciting and refreshing for a 17-year old.