Do You Know the First Thing About Writing Fiction? (It’s not craft!)
I’ve been thinking a great deal about how creative writing is taught in the US, about its strengths and weaknesses, and it seems to me that its great strength is that we teach craft very well, so well that there has probably never been a society that turns out so many competent, professional writers. As the Poetry Editor of a national magazine told me at AWP this year, most of the submissions he receives are technically accomplished—and yet very few of them are worth reading. Or as Robert Olen Butler describes his graduate students, they know nine of the ten things that fiction writers need to know very well—but they don’t know the first thing. And what is the first thing? Inspiration. Robert Olen Butler makes it clear that however well you write, however you have mastered the craft, unless you’re writing from the “white hot center”, from the place where your dreams come from, everything you write will be worthless. So in his workshops, he doesn’t have students critique each others’ work—during the master class I took with him, he told me that would be “the blind leading the blind”. Instead he has the students work on short exercises, and then read them aloud, and as soon as he sees signs of thinking in the composition process—as opposed to vivid dreaming—he stops the writer and tells them to start over. That may strike some as autocratic, as befits an “eight hundred pound gorilla”, which is how he he described himself when I asked him how he got away with that at Florida State. And I can’t say how effective it as a method from experience. Olen Butler himself doesn’t claim anything like comprehensive success. He says that only a few of his students have understood what they need to do by the end of a semester with him.
Leaving methodology aside for a moment, but continuing to investigate the central premise, that we may be ignoring the main thing about becoming an artist in American writing programs, let’s consider how most programs are run, and what their underlying ideology is. (Because even if a teacher doesn’t hold an explicit theory of learning, we know that they are always operating on implicit theories, which are usually ones they have assimilated without much reflection from their own experience as students.) The majority of creative writing teachers in this country, and perhaps elsewhere, believe at some level that craft can and should be taught, and that the best way for apprentice writers to learn is by analysing model texts by successful writers, and imitating them, not necessarily closely, but in terms of techniques. And let’s give credit where it’s due: on the whole, we do this very well indeed. Trained as academics are in analysis, we impart our critical skills to our students, most of whom become quite adept as critics themselves. And I’m not saying this is wholly a bad thing. I enjoy good criticism, and have done a fair bit of reviewing, which is not only a useful skill to have in order to get your name out there as a writer, but also helps you to critique your own work more objectively when it’s time to revise it. So we teach students how to build stories and poems and essays more or less the way we teach mechanical engineers how to build something: by taking it apart—imagine an internal combustion engine—and examining the shape and function of each part, and then by reassembling it to see how those parts work together. I can, and do, give my students the formula which describes how 90% of successful stories work. And if they follow this formula, provided they have a reasonable grasp of the English language, and a fair imagination, then they will produce a competent story.
But that’s just the problem, isn’t it? Do we want to spend our lives reading merely competent stories and poems and essays? The literary magazines are full of them, aren’t they?
Here’s what Etgar Keret has to say on the subject, in an interview with Meakin Armstrong in 2015:
In America, where writers are preoccupied with the craft of writing, I always try to introduce this concept of the badly written good story. Turning the hierarchy around and putting passion on top and not craft, because when you just focus on craft, you can write something that is very sterile. It looks beautiful, but soulless. So I warn them that, often in writing programs, articulation and clarity are more important than what you actually say. Sometimes you have, like, New Yorker stories—there’s a couple, they’re on a cruise, he’s becoming senile, he doesn’t want to acknowledge it, when the woman mentions it to him, he becomes really angry, but in the end he admits it and they sit on the deck, she closes her eyes. And you say, “It’s so well-written, but who gives a fuck?” For certain, the guy who wrote it doesn’t give a fuck. It’s not something that has to do with his life; it’s just something well-written and illuminating, and writing is not about that. The best stories you usually hear are stories that people feel some type of urgency about.
Nobody else in the world would look at writing as craftsmanship—it’s totally this Protestant hardworking ethic. You go into this kind of infinite space of imagination and you fence yourself in with all kinds of laws. Why do we have to keep playing this strange game?
Why indeed? I’ll come back to that question.
My claim then, is that American writing programs are victims of their own success: that they teach craft so well, and in such an insular fashion, that the writers they turn out are mostly predictable and imitative. We are becoming frozen, as ancient Egyptian artists were frozen for millennia, or as Chinese art was frozen for centuries, in a stale, sterile paradigm. And for those who might object that there’s a lot of experimental or avant-garde writing going on, I’d argue that most of that is imitative too, and relies on techniques going back to the Dadaists, the surrealists and the Beats, and is just as traditional, in its way, as so-called realistic writing. I’m generalizing, of course. I’m not suggesting that there are no original voices or that contemporary American literature lacks all life. What I am arguing is that mainstream literature, and particularly literary fiction—the genre I know best—has become intellectualized without becoming intellectual—in fact, in spite of its analytical and craft-inspired roots, it lacks concern with philosophical issues or any deep engagement with ideas—and is emotional, often in a rather trite Hollywoodish way, without being truly passionate or imaginative. And much of the fault lies with the creative writing programs, for teaching students to focus exclusively on craft.
So let’s return to Etgar Keret’s question: why do we keep playing this game? And what can we do about it? If we recognize that we teach craft because we can—and I do it myself, I admit it—how do we go about teaching the other thing, inspiration?
Robert Olen Butler has no clear answer. Neither does Madison Smartt Bell, whose book Narrative Design is one of the most valuable on the craft of fiction, and yet who insists that good fiction is created by entering into a trance state. He rather vaguely suggests that he learned how to do it by going to Haiti, implying that there’s some kind of witchcraft or voodoo about it. So allow me to summarize what the experts—neuroscientists and psychologists—have to say about how we enter our most creative states.
In Hypnagogia: the Unique State of Consciousness Between Wakefulness and Sleep, Andreas Mavromatis investigates the possibility that most creative ideas, whether artistic, scientific or in other fields, come when our brains are more relaxed than usual, not engaged in logical, problem-solving activity (which produce beta-waves in our brains) but when we are drowsy or meditative. A large part of the book is devoted to creativity, and argues that most creative work, in both the arts and the sciences, has its source in this state, which is characterized by alpha waves in the brain.
So one useful tactic, recommended by many writers, is to go to your desk and start writing as soon as you wake up—certainly before you look at your email. We could advise our students to do this. Being hungover and sleep-deprived may actually prove useful!
Another way of entering the alpha wave state is to meditate. I have been meditating for some time, and it’s a much healthier way of accessing your subconscious than the time-honoured tools of writers, alcohol and drugs. (I’m not saying they don’t work: I’m saying that the price is often too high.) I have been experimenting with having students meditate in class for 5 minutes before I give them a writing prompt—just very simple meditation, observing their breathing, not trying to repress their thoughts but simply watching them without judgement and without identifying with them—and they have told me that they are more creative when they do the meditation first.
One of the other time honoured paths to accessing this state is walking. We know that the gentle rhythm is conducive to entering the alpha wave state, and no end of writers, from Wordsworth to Tolkien and David Mitchell, have used it regularly to enter their trance states. Other rhythmic activities like knitting, some say, can be very useful. So can driving—as long as you aren’t listening to the radio or using your phone or talking to anyone at the same time.
And rhythm brings us to music. A lot of students listen to music while they write—generally rock music. I don’t think this is a good idea, although I have been a lifelong devotee of blues and rock and am a musician myself. The problem with any songs in your own language is that you start listening to the words, whether consciously or not—if you’re a writer you can’t help it—and those words start infiltrating your writing. Instrumental music works much better, though of course you have to choose it carefully, because music gives us direct access to certain emotions, and they will certain colour what you’re writing. Still, in the past I have written to classical music, especially Baroque music (my taste is similar to that of milk cows) and jazz, especially the gypsy jazz of the Hot Club de France, among others.
So these are just a few ideas about how we might learn to enter our own trance states. It may be true that genius is 95% perspiration and 5% inspiration—but that 5% inspiration is vital. If we neglect it, I would argue, along with Robert Olen Butler and Etgar Keret, we are leaving out the most important thing of all. It’s far harder to learn than craft, of course—but shouldn’t we be trying?
(This is modified version of a paper I presented at the Creative Writing and Innovate Pedagogies Symposium at the University of Missouri–Warrensburg, on October 17, 2015)
Armstrong, Meakin. Interview with Etgar Keret: “We Can Try to Be Human”. Guernica: a magazine of art and politics. Guernica.com. Aug. 17, 2015. Web.
Mavromatis, Andreas. Hypnagogia: the Unique State of Consciousness Between Waking and Sleep. Thrysos Press. 2010. Print.