Creative Writing, Talent and Hanif Kureishi

Recently Hanif Kureishi has been whipping up several storms in several teacups over the (not very interesting) question of whether it is possible to teach creative writing. I remain baffled as to why creative writing is seen as the one single subject that is considered to be inherently unteachable, but there you go… Anyway, I’ve got a short piece this week in the Times Higher Education on this whole debate, and on my scepticism about the notion of “talent”. The link is here. You may need to sign up (for free) to read the piece, or you can have a look in this week’s edition of the THE.

Postmodernism? What postmodernism?

Don’t you just hate those Postmodernist writers? You know the ones… the ones who can’t just get on with telling a story. The ones who pop up all the time and say, “Hey, folks, look — this is a story!” The ones who just can’t do anything straightforwardly. The ones who like mucking around. The ones who are too clever by half…

I’m busy at the moment putting the finishing touches to my long-term project, A Book of Changes, a strange kind of novel-of-sorts based on the I Ching. And now I’m getting to the end of it, I’m realising that the book will, when it is eventually published, almost certainly annoy readers who have a distaste for this so-called “cleverness”. It fools around with mixing fiction and non-fiction, it comments on the stories that are unfolding as they unfold, it addresses the reader directly. It occasionally stops mid-story to say, “Oh, look at this…”, before moving on again. Read more

Bob Gottlieb on Editing

I’ve been thinking a whole load about editing lately. This is partly because I’m editing two book-length projects of my own, and partly because I’m in the thick of writing a book about writing, and so I’m having to step back from the process to think a bit more broadly about what it means to write. So I thought I would share what is one of my favourite pieces on editing, the interview in the Paris Review back in 1994 with the great editor Bob Gottlieb. The interview is interesting in itself, in that interviewer Larissa MacFarquhar interviewed Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, John le Carré, Cynthia Ozick, Michael Crichton, Chaim Potok, Toni Morrison, Robert Caro, and Mordecai Richler, asking them about working with Gottlieb; and then she interviewed Gottlieb himself, thereby getting both the writers’ perspectives on working with him as an editor, and his perspective as editor working with the various writers.

Here’s an extract:

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

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.

Research, One Couch at a Time

After several years of research, writing and rewriting, my second novel, [amazon_link id=”9380905076″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]The Descent of the Lyre,[/amazon_link] is now finally published by the excellent Roman Books (in the UK at least—if you are in the USA, you will have to wait until December 11th), and it’s good to see that the novel seems to be already getting a few nice reviews here and there. But I thought I’d say a little bit here about the research that led to the book. I’ve written already about research and fiction here on The Myriad Things, and also written some research notes over on Necessary Fiction; but here I want to say more about the research trip that I made back in 2007. Read more

Research, or something like it (Part I)

Every few years, here in UK academic circles, there is a curious circus known as the REF, the “Research Excellence Framework”, a bizarrely arcane ritual of humiliation where academics struggle to demonstrate that their research is not merely good (one might have thought that being “good” was a sufficiently high demand, although apparently this is not so) but is instead excellent. And because this is a rigorous exercise, scholars are asked to prove their excellence in research by submitting to learned boards of their peers a range of “outputs” that are scrutinised using the best scientific and divinatory methods, so that these works may be awarded stars. Not real stars, of course; not even the kinds of stars that are handed out to primary school children, shiny sticker-stars, but just notional stars, the Platonic forms of stars that are more true and real than any actual star or representation of a star could ever be. Read more

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