The Pleasure and Difficulty of Writing

There’s a spectacularly stupid quote attributed to Hemingway that seems to be everywhere on the internet these days. It goes like this, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” It turns out that Hemingway probably never said this (although he may have said other spectacularly stupid things), although that has not stopped the quote appearing here and there on writing blogs with all the persistence of Japanese knotweed.  Read more

Prisoners on Tanimbar?

I got home yesterday to find an exciting package waiting for me: a small parcel from France, inside of which was a copy of a French comic dating from the 1960s. It was a copy of Akim (no. 247, to be precise), which started life in Italy as a knock-off copy of Tarzan. Akim ran from 1950 to 1967 in Italy, and had an afterlife in France where it continued to be published until 1991. Issue no. 247 dates from the French period, and the reason I got hold of it is that I’m currently writing a book on the Tanimbar islands in Indonesia, so when I saw that there was a French comic from the sixties telling an exciting tale of  imprisonment in Tanimbar (‘La Prison de Tanimbar’), as a thorough researcher, I thought I had to get myself a copy. Besides, ‘La Prison de Tanimbar’ had a magnificent cover, which I cannot resist sharing. Read more

A Tale of Two Edwards

The trouble with minor royals is that they are so hard to tell apart. I never quite know which one is Anne or Margaret, which one is Edward or Andrew, and which one is Elizabeth or Philip. They all seem to blur into one. So when somebody says “prince so-and-so” to me, I always have to stop and think for a moment to work out which one they are talking about. Anyway, this problem has presented itself to me again here in Bulgaria when I heard the news this afternoon that Prince Edward was in town.

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How Satisfied Are You With This Poll?

One evening last week, the phone rang. At the other end was a polite man who said he worked for Ipsos MORI, the market research company. He asked me if I would mind answering a few questions. Having nothing else to do, I agreed. Besides, I always wondered who this mysterious ‘British public’ was that ended up being polled; and realising that on this occasion I was one of them made me think I might as well make use of the opportunity.

The polite man on the end of the phone started asking all kinds of questions about my view of the political landscape in the UK. I answered the questions as diligently and truthfully as I could. Read more

What do you want to talk about?

It is always interesting to get reviews, even if they are not entirely favourable — or perhaps particularly if they are not entirely favourable — and so I was pleased this morning to see that my book [amazon_link id=”1441124152″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling[/amazon_link]  (the original title, incidentally, was the much nicer Troubled Tales, but Bloomsbury, alas, overruled me!), has had received an interesting, although somewhat ambivalent, review from Jeffrey Di Leo, over on the excellent Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

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Writer’s Toolkit: Writings, Travels and Tools

Tomorrow, I’m down in Birmingham at the Writers’ Toolkit day, taking part in a couple of panels. Firstly, I’ll be talking about writing work overseas, and secondly about digital tools for writers. These are rather large, rag-bag subjects, and as these are panels rather than stirring orations, I will need to keep things rather brief; but I thought that here I might present a few thoughts on both topics — both for the benefit of those who might be interested and not make it to Birmingham, and also so that I can use this blog post as a crib-sheet tomorrow, and thus not have to lug my Macbook down to Brum. Read more

Big Beasts, Little Beasts, and the Value of Creative Writing

In this week’s Times Higher Education, there is an interview with the writer Hanif Kureishi, who has recently been made professor of creative writing at Kingston University. When it comes to creative writing, universities are fond of appointing Big Beasts of literature to professorial posts, in the belief that the presence of some charismatic megafauna might add colour, sparkle and glamour to the grey halls of academia. And for the Big Beasts in question, it is an attractive prospect: after all, however big a beast you are, it is hard to make a living from royalties alone – these days, it’s tough out there on the savannah. Read more

Thoughts on Illness

Some time back in November last year, things were looking pretty exciting. I had been offered a university job in Hong Kong, my partner Elee was well on the way to finishing her PhD, and we were looking forward to a change of scenery. Having been teaching in higher education in the UK for about six years or so, I was feeling in need of a change; and being in Hong Kong seemed like a good way to move forward my growing research interests in China.

But then things took an unexpected turn. Simmering away in the background for the couple of weeks during which I was going through the interview process for the job, I was also going back and forth to the hospital with Elee as she went through various tests. Then two things happened within twenty-four hours of each other: I was offered the job, and half a day later, Elee was given the diagnosis of breast cancer.

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Brief Thoughts on Creativity

Lately, I’ve been thinking about creativity. I’ve been thinking about what it means to bring new ideas, thoughts and stories into being. And, in particular, I’ve been thinking about fairy dust.

Part of the reason for all this is that I’ve been hard at work over the last few weeks writing a paper which is due to be published later this month in National Taiwan University Studies in Language and Literature. The paper is called “Participation, Pattern and Change” and is about what I am calling participative creativity. The main idea behind the paper is that whilst creativity is still frequently seen as the intervention of something unworldly into the world—either a god, or a god-like infusion of genius into the mundane, or some kind of fairy dust—when it comes down to this, this is a pretty bad model for how we go about writing stories, composing music, painting pictures, coming up with new thoughts and hypotheses, finding new solutions to problems. So the paper explores a ‘participative’ model of creativity, drawing on my current favourite text, Liu Xie’s sixth century Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍 (“The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons”) and on Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”). My aim is to set out a model that can account for literary creativity whether in China or in the West, one that does not have recourse to fairy-dust notions of creation ex nihilo.

What is at stake here, is the question of what the conditions are that are  necessary for creativity. As a teacher of creative writing, sometimes I come across students who claim, curiously, that they are not ‘creative’; and when this happens, I wonder what it is that they think that they are missing. It is my suspicion that they are in the grip of unhelpful notions of what it means to create. There is a widespread and popular idea of creativity as something akin to fairy dust: intangible, a bit sparkly, not entirely of this world, and rather hard to procure. And this fairy-dust notion of creativity is, I think, what lies behind the brainless notion (a notion that is adhered to in the face of all evidence to the contrary) that creative writing cannot be taught. This is an idea that is so boringly widespread, and so clearly evidentially false, that it is hard to know why people still maintain it in newspaper column after newspaper column. What this particularly numbskull notion seems to boil down to is this: either you have fairy dust or you do not. And it’s not down to you, or down to whoever is teaching you, whether you have fairy dust: it is, ultimately, down to the fairies (and who knows what they are up to?).

I’ll post a link to the paper when it is published. But here I want to just mention a wonderful book by James Austin (who some visitors to this blog may know as the author of [amazon_link id=”0262511096″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Zen and the Brain[/amazon_link]), called [amazon_link id=”0262511355″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Chase, Chance and Creativity: The Lucky Art of Novelty[/amazon_link], which explores the role of chance in creativity, and which I think makes some interesting inroads into the question of what it is to teach creativity. Our relationship with chance, Austin points out, is not just a kind of victimhood in the face of blind chance. In fact, Austin divides chance into four different categories. I’ll set them out below.

  1. Chance I: Blind luck, things just happen.
  2. Chance II: Chance that favours those in motion (or, as Austin writes, “the posture of creativity is forward-leaning”)
  3. Chance III: Chance that favours the prepared mind.
  4. Chance IV: Chance born out of a distinctive personal “flavour”, out of the fact that it is an idiosyncratic individual who is engaging with the world.

What’s interesting about this is that, from the point of view of teaching creative writing (or creativity in general), although Chance I is out of our hands, chance II, II and IV are not. Chance II is a matter of keeping moving, of going out and rambling over the hills, of seeing what you turn up in libraries (I tell my students, sometimes, that they should hand around in library shelves waiting to be mugged by passing books; Walter Benjamin talks about walking down the street and being mugged by passing ideas).  Chance III is a matter of accumulating a wide store of reading and of experience on which to draw (something that Liu Xie, in particular, insists upon). Finally, Chance IV is a matter of cultivating idiosyncratic interests and obsessions, because out of these strange juxtapositions, interesting things can arise. And all of this can boil down into really quite practical advice. Keep moving and keep exploring the world. Keep accumulating experience and reading. Follow those things that matter to you, and cherish your idiosyncratic interests. It is this, ultimately, that makes creativity participative, because it is about getting involved in the stuff of the world, rather than pulling down something unworldly from a mythical location outside the world.

What it comes down to is this. I don’t believe (or I don’t think I believe) that there is such a thing as an inherently uncreative person; but I do believe that there are more or less creative practices or even forms of life. And these can be taught.

Two Tales of Horse-Training

Lately, I’ve been thinking about training horses. Admittedly, this has been more of an abstract and philosophical concern than a practical one: generally I don’t have much to do with horses, and horses don’t have much to do with me, even though I sometimes go down to the meadows out of town and admire the beasts from afar. So whilst I haven’t been planning to pack in all the writing and the academic stuff and so on, to take up the mantle of a horse trainer, I have been thinking about is the notion of horse-training as a metaphor for training more broadly.

It was a long time ago now that I first came across the Pāli text, the Bhaddāli sutta, and was charmed—or perhaps taken in—by its account of the virtues of horse training. Bhaddāli, according to the text, is a monk who is unwilling to subject himself to the monastic discipline, on account—the text tells us usefully—of being “like a fool, confused and blundering.” The Buddha then turns to him and asks the confused monk if he remembers a parable that he once told him about horse-training; and because Bhaddāli is a blundering fool (the kind of blundering fool for whom I have a natural sympathy), he has forgotten the parable, so the Buddha repeats it. Here’s an extract, in the translation by [amazon_link id=”086171072X” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Bhikkhu Bodhi[/amazon_link]. Read more

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