Learning to Walk


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.

Alec Patric

AS Patric is the award-winning author of The Rattler & other stories (Spineless Wonders, 2011), Las Vegas for Vegans (Transit Lounge, 2012) and Bruno Kramzer (Finlay Lloyd, 2013).

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Well written Alec. But maybe the best way to learn how to walk is to crawl off the changetable hoping to fly, and instead land on our feet? Beats hanging onto chair and table legs and bum-shuffling.

    I feel honoured to have been taught by such poetry greats as Alan Wearne and John S Scott. Wearne introduced me to Pi.O, Jas H Duke, Sterling Brown…My Creative Writing degree changed my life. The danger is for those who think it will magically give them the power to write, without reading, without slaving at it, without subjecting themselves to sometimes unbearable criticism. Without a lifetime of effort and the same commitment that would need to be applied to a plumbing or electrician’s apprenticeship. Without mastering the tools and dirtying the overalls, bursting watermains, hammering thumbs and blowing fuses.

  2. Creative writing courses are a very recent invention. One wonders how all those great writers of the past managed to become so good without them.

  3. Another interesting question Paul, is how many more ‘great’ writers might have come through those bygone ages had they been given a place where they could come and spend a few years learning their craft. I also wonder how many ‘great’ writers could have benefitted. Finnegan’s Wake could have used some workshopping. It’s just too easy to dismiss them all as a waste of time because, of course, a writer is formed before and after these courses. But these wasted years of communal studying can still be an important factor in the precarious course of a writer’s life, which is often isolated and disregarded. Another harmful perception is that writers magically appear from nowhere. That they haven’t first had to spend many years developing their craft and sharing it with other writers along the way.

  4. I don’t understand the hostility towards writing courses. Maybe it’s the fear that it will teach you not how to walk but what shoes to wear when you do.

    It’s hugely naive to think a writing course is going to teach you how to write. Anybody who approaches it in that way should not be there. Writing courses give you an awareness of things – about story, about the craft, about publishing, about your own writing – that you may not have otherwise had. You learn a few things and make of those things what you will.

    They are not tainting the purity of the artform – we’re well beyond being able to do that.

    Like Maxine, I am pleasured to have been taught by the teachers – writers – I’ve had.

  5. Everything that can be provided by an organised, formalised and paid for creative writing courses can be provided by informal networks of writers and by a lot of independent reading. They are just another brick in the wall of the institutionalisation of writing (what Barbara Jane Reyes the Poetic-Industrial Complex). Still teaching them would be nice work if you could get it, a nice little earner. The main that frightens me is how boring and conformist all the young writers have become.

  6. it is also dangerous how protective some author-autodidacts have become of the mysteries of the profession. i didn’t study creative writing but have often envied those who have had the safe space to be edited and have their work grow in an incubator. (i’m over that now and probably have more than a smidgin of that autodidact’s pride)

    i do think you need to have a life outside of the literary ghetto in order to write something interesting.

    one thing that is forgotten though is the economic incentive for people to stay in school. as arts funding withers a phd is a great way to get the state to pay you to write a novel.

  7. Yes, Paul, but how do you create those informal networks when your whole social group is not made up of arty/literary/writer types? Where do you even start as a doctor, plumber or hairdresser who wants to become a writer? Don’t underestimate the value of the nuts-and-bolts stuff taught in many courses, and the importance of learning the craft.
    I would say the great writers of the past became so good because they had a great editor.

  8. I’ve never understood the argument that you can’t be taught to write. No-one, for instance, would suggest that you can’t be taught how to play the violin. To me, it just seems pure ideology, a manifestation of a very old fashioned kind of romanticism about creativity.
    The growth of creative writing courses does throw up lots of interesting questions but most of them relate to the same kinds of issues confronting high education more generally. Who gets access to such courses? How much do they have to pay? Who sets the curriculum? What’s the relationship between education and the industry?
    Given that writing is increasingly tightly related to higher education, asking such questions seems quite important.

  9. I haven’t heard anyone suggest you can’t be taught to write Jeff (tag – rhetoric). Did you read Malcolm King in The Australian today on the commodification of creativity? I particularly liked his conclusion, “Historian’s will look back at this period in Australia’s literary life as the time Universities made large amounts of money by becoming dream factories for budding writers.”
    Note to the editor, link this debate to the mup connection.

  10. Salman Rushdie taking potshots? Whoda thunk it.
    Good writing is good writing, and its genesis is only of interest to Good Weekend journos and poor souls like me who think there might be a secret formula which provides an alternative to hard work.

  11. I did creative writing as a minor for my english degree and came out of it greatly lacking in confidence and feeling none the wiser. Granted, it was 15 years ago and I assume these courses have improved since then – if they didn’t cost so much I’d seriously consider doing another one. I’ve recently started working in my first position as a (speech) writer and learnt more in the last 6 weeks then I did in my 4 years at uni, and this time I’m getting paid instead of the other way around.

  12. Alec – very interesting topic. I started writing my novel some years ago while I was working as a programmer. When another writer friend of mine told me I should study writing, I scoffed at her remark. But I soon got to a point in my writing where I wanted to learn more – I had hit a brick wall. And no amount of reading books, or redrafting my novel would make up for a lack in education. This year is my first in the RMIT course and I am astounded at how much I’ve learned. I learn so much that when I finish a short story or a draft of my novel and I leave it for a while then pick it up, I can instantly pick up my mistakes.
    Jeff, you raise an interesting point, but I don’t think you can teach someone to play the violin if they don’t have the passion and creativity to play it. You can teach the craft, but you can’t teach creativity. Writing courses hone creativity.

  13. Yes Michael, it’s surprising. His tone is imperious. Nero like in fact. Because here’s the thing. It’s not something ‘necessary’ at all. It’s just his taste. Think spoilt market browser looking through apples rather than Roman emperor deciding life and death based on a whim.
    What I love best about the Best American series is their process. They take from the thousands of stories published in a given year from North American magazines. Obscure mags like Shenandoah to famous ones like The New Yorker. From those published pieces the series editor, Heidi Pitilor, selects 120 and gives them to the guest editor who chooses the final 20. This year’s editor was a far more humble Alice Sebold, who among other things wrote about picking up literary awards and wanting to tell everyone around her, “You know this is bullshit, right?” I don’t think anyone told Salmon though. But consider the arrogance of what he wrote one more time. Of all those stories published, selected again and again, for him they were just a rising tide of mediocrity.
    Almost as an antidote to the Emperor of the perfect apple from the previous year, I love something Heidi Pitilor said in Best American Stories 2009. In her forward she writes, “This year I read a large number of wonderfully messy, wildly plotted, and/or boldly paced stories. Stories that took risks. I was thrilled to watch so many writers quiet their years of grammar lessons and writing workshop rules about showing and not telling, the evils of emoting, that sort of thing. Let the antsy imp inside have a word or two, and then more. It was inspiring to read stories that pushed voice to some limit, that shirked subtlety and nuance and stripped naked before the reader, even if not all the stories lifted off in the end.”

  14. That’s a brilliant quote from Heidi Pitilor, Alec. But really – how dare she be so affirming and life-loving (and writer-loving) in a public forum like that? Doesn’t she know the rules? Very, very uncool.

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