I am pleased to publish today a contribution to this debate from Marcel Theroux, co-tutor of the upcoming Faber Academy course, Getting Started. Marcel is the author of four acclaimed novels including Far North (Faber) and is a winner of the Somerset Maugham Award (2002).
Thursday's very thoughtful piece by his fellow course leader Sue Gee brought a very lively response and several issues have emerged. Marcel now cuts to the chase:
I share the ambivalence that many people feel about the Creative Writing industry.
Arts coverage in the conventional media is shrinking; publishers are panicking about the future, digital sales and the end of the book; bookshops and libraries are threatened - and yet there's a mini-boom in courses in creative writing.
There are some really tough questions that need to be asked about them - particularly by the students. Is it a route to publication? (No - but I have yet to meet anyone who accepts this in their heart, and the concomitant truth that publication is not the answer to all their hopes and prayers.) Would my teacher be here if she or he had sold the film rights to their latest novel? (Probably not - and that's assuming your creative writing teacher can even get published.) Are these courses a money-making wheeze for the institutions who run them? (Undoubtedly.) Might I be better served by renting a cabin in the woods for two weeks and sitting there in front of a computer, or, better still, a typewriter? (Perhaps.) What do I want to get out of this? (Harder to say...)
In Tokyo, a few years ago, I went along to a haiku club. They are popular in Japan. They met in a park, under the guidance of a teacher who assigned them specific kige - words like maple leaf, dew, and nightingale which evoke a specific season and are intrinsic to the form. The students then spent and hour or two wandering around the park and writing half a dozen haiku. After that, they had lunch, read the poems aloud, and their teacher made suggestions about how they might be improved.
Was it a route to publication? (No.) Was it a money-making wheeze for the teacher? (Kind of - but not exactly on a par with hedge funds.) Might the students have been better served by renting a cabin in the woods for two weeks? (I doubt it, but they would have probably written a lot more haiku.) What were they getting out of it?
Well, you'd have to ask them, but I wrote a couple of haiku when I was with them, and I loved the whole experience. Oddly, the deepest pleasure of writing the poems was an ego-less one. It's the feeling of being an instrument of the words themselves, of recognizing that maple leaf, dew and nightingale have their own loveliness and it requires no authorial genius to make them beautiful. There's also something instructive about the conciseness of the form - it's what gives each one its poignance and gravity.
There is also a more egotistical thrill of knowing that, whatever the gulf in talent between me and Basho, Issa and Onitsura - haiku masters of the past - we are all just people with pens trying to describe the harvest moon or cherry blossom in 17 syllables. It's a strange thing about writing - that there really is no special equipment or secret knowledge that separates the amateur from the professional. And whether or not I've improved as a haiku writer, I read the poems with a new appreciation for the difficulty of the form.
But I think probably the most uplifting thing of all is this: last week one of my haiku got picked for the Richard and Judy Haiku Club, and now Ridley Scott has just made a huge offer for the film rights! Cancel my classes! In your face everyone!
Thank you to Marcel! Once again, readers, your own views and questions are more than welcome, and in a later post Sue and Marcel will tackle the issues raised. You can also discuss the issues on Twitter on #whywrite.