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 course.
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, she advocates 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.