The usual line is that you can’t teach writing. That there’s no use in writing courses. Salman Rushdie was recently the editor of The Best American Short Stories series. In his intro to the anthology he wrote: “Old-fashioned naturalism was the dominant manner this year, and creative writingese, I have to say, was often in evidence. There were so many stories that were well observed, well crafted, full of well-honed phrases; so many rhythmic, allusive, technically sophisticated stories that knew when to leave matters unresolved and when it was right to bring events to dramatic climax; so many stories that had everything one could wish for in a story… except for the sense that it had to be written, that it was necessary. This was what I had expected and perhaps feared: a widespread, humourless, bloodless competence.” And all those poor fools that have studied and sweated over their flawless manuscripts, nothing but mechanical drones. Unable to find the ‘necessary’ words. The vital connection to higher cosmic lights. But I think most of us who haven’t won the Booker of Bookers don’t so easily go for the it’s just a kind of magic route.
My own view is that it’s a good thing to get to the ‘bloodless competence’ stage. From there at least it’s easier to disembark for realms higher and sublime. I was a big fan of Charles Bukowski in my teens, but it amazed me when I came across a book of his letters to other writers and friends (Screams From the Balcony). Because here was a writer whose pages reeked of the desperate life of the ‘bungled and botched.’ The authenticity of his alter ego, Henry Chinaski whispered drunkenly in my ear so convincingly, that Bukowski eruditely expounding on the merits of Dostoyevsky, Hamsun and Fante, hit me for six. I have the feeling that Bukowski would have agreed that you can’t be taught how to write. Which is only slightly different to asking the question of can someone learn how to write?
I think Nam Le had that intention when he set off recently for the world famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop. In an interview in Meanjin, No 68, Sophie Cunningham, (who puts little faith in creative writing courses herself), asks him the value of leaving the country to study for two years in Iowa. Nam Le drifts into ambiguity and ambivalence despite that colossal act of faith just a few years ago when he set off from Melbourne for somewhere out in middle America.
A few months ago, me and another writer, who recently attended the Overland Master Class with me, walked back to Trades Hall after a lunch break. We were returning to Tony Birch, who’d already told us there was no secrets he could give us. That he hadn’t found any mysteries to this art we’ve all devoted ourselves to. It was a wind tunnel on that street in Melbourne that day. Simonne Michelle-Wells and Maxine Clarke walked ahead, talking about new life and children. Warwick Sprawson and I spread out our arms and talked about the Professional Writing and Editing course we’d both done years ago. In my case, a decade previously and all the way out in Holmesglen. All four of us believed Tony Birch before he’d said a word. We weren’t looking for secrets or mysteries at Trades Hall. Warwick and I leaned into the torrent of air, and let our arms be lifted by it, feeling the city wind and the towers surrounding and rising thirty or forty floors above us, ask for elevation and altitude. But I suppose we don’t learn how to fly. We learn how to walk.