Teaching Writing

Tuesday 9 September 2014

To the extent I can write at all, I learned most of it by osmosis. Maybe that’s not the whole story, but it’s most of it. I’ve always been a reader and, at least as an adult, a mostly critical editor of my own writing. Writing and reading, I’ve learned, is the best preparation for improving writing. And time. Preferably decades.

Whilst you will no doubt agree with my modest prescription for developing writing, it is not necessarily good news for the teacher of writing. And, whilst it may not make obsolete the role of the teacher, it potentially diminishes the importance. With this disconcerting thought in mind, and in search of my own relevance, I recently set off on a reading journey to help me think through - not before time - how I can best help my students develop as writers. These are students who may not be passionate readers, self-aware writers, and who will not be working with me for decades to come.

I recognize, even in its nascency, that my journey may be a frustrating one.  As a point of departure I started to read Francine Prose’s New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer. Prose writes in her first chapter that writing is best done ‘one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time’. This is true, and a useful if obvious observation. I promote this notion anyway, although I am uncertain whether my frequent reiteration really helps my students develop as writers (let alone as writers of contrived two-hour exams). Deciding that the idea probably has merit, I continued to read. In the next chapter, Prose proselytizes in favour of the reading life, and quite right too. Regrettably, she uses this opportunity to select her own pick of the established canon and argue that her own medley of great writers has stood the test of time because, simply put, they are great. At this point, I booed at the fallacy and attempted to sleep.

The next day, still too cross with Ms. Prose to return to her book, I resumed my passage and turned to Google. I admit I was desperate. Half a cup of coffee and a cheese sandwich later, I arrived at a two-part Elmore Leonard inspired Guardian article - yes, the newspaper of choice amongst Language and Literature exam writers - called ‘Ten rules for writing fiction’. The article surveys famous contemporary writers, each submitting, as intimated, their own ten writing rules.

Although Prose had upset me, she was at least sincere, and in general, on larger issues, I found myself agreeing with her. Here, by contrast, were writers – some, at least – writing with fatuity about their craft. I found myself, again, in a state of dismay, failing to find amusing the pithy one-liners of expert authors. Later, however (more coffee and a syrupy biscuit) I reread the advice and this time, I believe, I understood it for what it is. To wit: Writing is, as Norman Mailer would have it, a ‘spooky art’. It is a dogged affair, often, but also sometimes exhilarating, and explaining its mechanisms is no easy matter. The writers in The Guardian, like Prose, were simply grappling to identify and articulate versions of my own problem; what constitutes good writing and how can good writing be taught?

My own reading journey continues. I hope it will be rewarding, and that my students, now and in the future, will be the main beneficiaries of what I learn. For now, let me share, below, some of the best bits from ‘Ten rules for writing fiction’. Using Francine Prose’s ‘reason’, they are the best bits because I happen to think so.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. – Elmore Leonard

Do not place a photograph of your favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide. – Roddy Doyle

Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy. – Roddy Doyle

The first 12 years are the worst.– Anne Enright

It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction. – Jonathan Franzen

Don’t wait for inspiration. Discipline is the key.– Esther Freud

The last quote follows seamlessly from the previous one…

Write only when you have something to say. – David Hare.


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