Monday, February 4, 2013


In my first week as an Eng Lit student at university one of the lecturers eyed us balefully and said, you're here to read and if you don't want to read, fuck off.  Another one told us that most literature was really very boring - just in case we were expecting to enjoy ourselves.  So that was us put straight.  A bit rough, but it was the early eighties, we were mainly women, used to being told like it is by men of a certain age.  As time went on, I could to some extent see where they were coming from.  I had worked for a number of years and was there on a mature student's grant.  This and the fact of no fees to be paid seems almost unthinkable now.  With a little paid work in the summer, I was well able to live on the grant.  And I loved everything about being a student.  The younger ones would often arrive at tutorials smudge-eyed, smelling of last night's party, not having read the text of whatever it was.  I was much sought-after in the ten minutes or so before a class for the quick summary that would allow them to bluff their way through the session.  I was not bored by much, except for The Faerie Queene which sits on my bookshelves unread, the portrait of Gloriana on the front still measuring and finding me wanting.  I thought Tristram Shandy boring too but persevered as everyone (even the hardened party people) seemed to think it was cool.  Later, it would allow me to bluff my way through conversations about post-modernism.

Cut to when I began teaching creative writing classes.  I suppose I could have echoed what my erstwhile tutor said but my preferred way was to give a short reading list, the first item being Dorothea Brande's 'Becoming A Writer'.  I was pleased to see that it was placed at number two of Hilary Mantel's ten rules for writers (the first being to get an accountant).  Brande had the belief that although there were varying degrees of talent, everyone could write.  I believed this too and simply assumed that everyone who came to class - even the man who said he was there because his wife insisted he get himself an interest and the art class was full - was there because they wanted to write.  And everyone did.  We began almost immediately, writing in class and reading it back.  People found that if there was no space to worry or censor, they were more brilliant than they imagined they could be.  I would set a writing task for students to do at home, which they brought back to class the following week.  Mostly they always did.

Being a writer is perhaps subtly different from Becoming - though I think we are always doing that, wherever we are on the writing road.  Being a writer means you have reached that point where you know that this is what you are for, whatever else you have to do to earn money or to meet other commitments; this is what you have to come back to.  It may be that you stop doing it for long periods because of health, lack of time or writers' block (yes, even experienced and famous writers sometimes get it and some have recovered with Dorothea Brande), but the soul is uneasy until you get back to doing it.  And then the time comes when you might have to say to yourself: you're here to write and if you don't want to write, fuck off. 

Dorothea Brande puts it more delicately.  But she does say that if after a period of time you find that the resistance to writing is stronger than the impulse to do it - then it is better, dear reader, to find something else to do. 

One of my favourite Twitter hashtags:  #AmWriting. 


Mark Mellinger said...

I wrote down some words once. Can't recall most of them but I'm almost positive that "furthermore" was one of them.

Zhoen said...

Doesn't everyone bluff their way through talking about Postmodernism?

Reading the Signs said...

Mark, Excellent - it is time that "furthermore" was rehabilitated! :)

Zhoen, isn't there a book called "Bluff Your Way Through Postmodernism"? There should be.

'tis I said...

One of these lives, I want to come back as your creative-writing student, okay? You are such an inspiring mentor. I am in no doubt whatsoever that the writing challenges and "tasks" (let alone punishments) you've set here, on-blog, have brought out my personal best in writing.

So, you know, in another life: I'll have you mentor me at your literary salon. It'll be great.

Incidentally, word ver is henheat. One does wonder what goes through their minds, one does.


Reading the Signs said...

But surely, tis you, 'tis I who should be coming back as your student in our next incarnations. It would seem only fair. I have thrown some terrible tasks at you and you have spun straw into gold. Just don't be asking me to write a Sestina! Actually, come to think of it, that should really be your next challenge. And it has been reported to the Blogistasi that you haven't posted for ages. So, you know - watch it.

(Henheat would make a great title - just saying).

'tis still I said...

Waiiiil. A Sestina?!? They're, like, really difficult, you know.

It will be some time…but you know what I'm like re your suggestions / tasks /challenges. It seems likely that one day there will be a chicken (or similar) Sestina.

In the meantime…your task…is
the length of which is your own choosing



(Please, did you like the post-modern link? I confess I adored it.)

(Oh and PS – I won't use the generator, I promise.)

Reading the Signs said...

Very crafty, tis you again - I've seen it now, and feel newly set up - all I need is some appropriate dinner parties. Sestina generator - O brave new world, what next! Actually I would be quite interested to see what might come up if you were to use that.

The novella might have to wait until the novel is completed, which at this rate may take another 20 years or so. But we have time, no?

belinda whitworth said...

Love the phrase 'the soul is uneasy'. That describes the feeling so well.