THE IDEA OF A CHAIR
Lately I have begun to question the effect Creative Writing programs could have
over time on the writing of novels, especially those undertaken within the
academy. For a start, Creative Writing has had to fight for its place in
academia, although why that should be so when other arts, such as music, are
well established and respected is difficult to understand, although that is
another story. The reason I raise it is because implicit within the argument
that Creative Writing and the academy are incompatible is the view that, unlike
musical composition, writing fiction is somehow damaging to a scholarly
institution, whereas it might well be the other way around.
This week I was listening to a writer giving a paper about the critical theory
behind a novel-in-progress. What was said was intelligent and interesting.
Everything, even the names of objects and people, was imbued with significance
that fed back into the theory, although much of this information, the writer
admitted, would not appear in the novel. Then and there I began to think about
how writing a novel is like making a chair. When the work is done, the chair
has to stand on its own legs, stand firm enough to support a sitter. In the
same way that the chair must be strong and balanced, a novel must have an
internal logic that arises out of events within the narrative. And if the work
is intended to be published and read, a contract is already in place with
the future reader, which means that the novel must hold up without wobbling, it
must not betray the reader’s investment of faith and precious time. This is
true for all fiction but especially so for novels, if only because of the hours
swallowed up by reading them.
Of course, chairs come in all shapes, sizes and colours. Some are beautiful and
some are not, but the thing they all have in common is what might be called
‘chairness’, meaning that anyone can utilise them for the purpose for which
they were made – to sit down, take the weight off. I am not suggesting that
writers should write with the sole aim of pleasing their readers, although to
seek to displease them would seem perverse. But if the novel they
write is as well made as a decent chair then readers will be satisfied, they
will understand the novel’s characters and accept its ending, even though that
may be neither happy nor uplifting nor even completely clear.
Some novels are beautiful and some are not, but to achieve something like the
‘chairness’ of a chair they must be strong and beautifully crafted. And this is
where writing within the academy may be damaging, for in trying to build
fiction within a critical framework the writer may be tempted to force events
in the narrative to fit the theory. This is like trying to sit on the idea of a
chair rather than on the solid object. The novel needs to come first, evolving
out of its own needs and logic, leaving critical theory to follow in due
The other problem with Creative Writing programs is that there is too much
talking. Writing is a lonely pastime, so writers, given half a chance, love to
chew the literary fat. The trouble is that there are almost endless
opportunities to talk, reveal, explain, and any student accepted onto a
postgraduate writing course will soon discover that explanation invariably
precedes the proper work of writing.
In Dorothea Brande’s perfect little book,
Becoming A Writer,
wordless pastimes for writers, since the unconscious mind does not distinguish
between a story told verbally and one that has been written down. To discuss a
novel before a first draft is completed
is to talk
away all the power that might have found expression on the page, and those of
us who have carelessly drifted into writerly conversations about
work-in-progress know this to be true.
So what good is the academy to a writer? Perhaps, for the novel brought to
birth in the glare of discussion and with the forceps of critical theory having
left their inevitable mark, not much. But writers have to live, and sometimes
that means teaching; the pieces of paper bestowed at graduation can be useful
when it comes to paying the bills. But once the degree is attained writers will
return to working on their fiction in solitude, and as long as they are able to
kick the talking habit, they will have benefitted from their time in the
academy in many different ways.
Perhaps the most important of these is having dwelt for a time in an
environment where their writing has been treated seriously. This can
bolster confidence for the lonely years ahead, for apart from being a solitary
pursuit the other defining feature of the writing life is that it is plagued by
self-doubt. With any luck they will have found among their fellow travellers a
trustworthy first reader. Publishing opportunities and meetings with industry
professionals may have come their way. The value of all this cannot be
underestimated, but when the time comes to write the next novel, and the next,
they must still apply themselves in
private to the art of making a novel that is the equal of a chair.
Other musings on the Writing Life ...