Anatomy of a Creative Writing MA, Part 1

Can creative writing be taught? This question gets asked regularly. The answer depends on what you’re selling. Yet it’s a valid response to the booming profusion, here in Oz, of how-to books, workshops, courses, degrees, writers’ festivals etc. If I were to consider it in the light of my observations at uni, I’d say that some perfectly well-spoken adults can’t even be taught to indent a paragraph. (Why were such recalcitrants admitted into a masters course? The only answer that seems to make sense is that their fifteen grand is as good as the next person’s.) Meanwhile, a few MA students taught creative writing to undergrads, despite their not having had much published – a scenario that could suggest that creative writing can be taught by anyone.

Perhaps the question should be, then, Can creative writing be learnt? Having worked at it full-time for a decade (and dabbled for seven years before that) without achieving more recognition than four Oz Council–funded mentorships and publication in a short-story anthology among well-known authors, I concluded that some structured learning couldn’t hurt. So I applied to a university with a progressive image (partly because staff returned my phone calls) and felt elated when I got in. With no HSC, let alone an undergrad degree, surely I’d made it on the strength of my work?

‘Advanced Narrative Writing’ was the first of three core subjects, though I never learned to what ‘Advanced’ referred; this was writing for dummies. I turned to the reader for diversion: the stapled slab of poor-to-fair-quality photocopies of chapters from how-to and narrative theory texts, nonfiction and novel extracts, and short stories and critical essays, which formed a basis for seminars and discussions. We also had to write short homework exercises then ‘workshop’ them in small groups chosen by a tutor I’ll call Dr C, for the grade most often found on our assignments. (Half of my MA tutors had doctorates.)

Disappointed at never getting to workshop with anyone of my choice, I once dared to question Dr C’s deployment policy. This was, Dr C explained, to combine the more vocal students with the quiet ones. And it ensured that I received minimal feedback. Dr C would cruise from group to group to supervise, reading over my shoulder each week and sometimes interrupting to disagree with me. Yet despite this close surveillance (others said they’d been bypassed for weeks at a time), Dr C returned my assignments with fewer notes than the most subdued students supplied.

If you’ve ever read books on how to write, maybe you too have wondered why use of tenses – past, present or future – rarely comes up, let alone gets covered? I waited in vain for Advanced Narrative to do the subject justice. However, at some point, each of us had to give a short seminar on some theme drawn from our reader. When my turn came, in discussing a novel with a narrator who dies at the end, I dwelt on the author’s choice to alternate between past and present tense, quoting her own comment that she’d used past tense ‘quite illogically’. In one of many interruptions, Dr C rejected present tense, ‘unless there’s a very, very good reason for it’. Immediacy, in Dr C’s view, didn’t qualify. Yet Dr C gave no example of what a good-enough reason might be.

On waking one morning that semester, I’d recorded the following dream:

‘I’ve reached an impasse on a narrow cliff edge. I’m surrounded by gorillas. They seem benign. But I can’t climb down the cliff, it’s too sheer, not enough foot + hand holds. And barring the way I’ve come looms a huge old alpha male gorilla beating a giant club against the rock as if he means business.’

That’s when I woke up. I share this dream not to explore my subconscious response to Advanced Narrative (nor even to the writing staff hierarchy) but to give an example of where present tense might feel natural. To recall a dream with any vividness is to, in some sense, relive it. The same mode often comes naturally to tellers of anecdotes: ‘So I says to him, I says … and then he says to me, he says…’ And so what happens if I convert my dream recall to past tense?

‘I’d reached an impasse on a narrow cliff edge. I was surrounded by gorillas. They seemed benign. But I couldn’t climb down the cliff, it was too sheer, not enough foot + hand holds. And barring the way I’d come loomed a huge old alpha male gorilla beating a giant club against the rock as if he meant business.’

To set down in writing that such and such happened gives it the appearance of fact. All printed news is reported in past tense. History is recorded in past tense. The Bible, much of which isn’t historically verifiable and some of which defies the laws of logic, physics etc., is narrated in past tense, and countless readers take even its most overt metaphors literally. Past tense can therefore evoke the illusion of realism. Past tense, which mimics the function of remembering, can be seen as trance-inducing. And the more conditioned the reader, the more s/he can be taken in. Yet the only thing you can know for a fact is what’s happening right now, in the present: you’re engaged in the act of reading. And to read a compelling fictional sequence is akin to dreaming; outer reality falls away as you engage your imagination.

In recent decades present tense has grown more popular, for which we can thank or blame postmodernism. A vocal fan of author James Joyce, Dr C nonetheless frowned on postmodernism (the anything-goes style and/or era of literature which the innovative Joyce did much to usher in). Besides Joyce’s Ulysses and Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, I’m currently reading a long metafictional story by David Foster Wallace, ‘Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way’, much of which is narrated in present tense by a narrator who interrupts the main action (or lack thereof) with asides about, among other things, schools of writing. Ideological conflict between ‘New Realists’ and postmodernists apparently made the eighties an exciting time for writers. The work of the new or dirty realists (such as Carver) cleaves more or less to past tense and a working-class milieu. For cutting-edge postmodernists (such as Foster Wallace) it’s as if no tense, style or subject is taboo (a bit like the difference between actors typecast as rom-com or action stars, and actors who can vanish into each new character).

Styles, as Foster Wallace makes plain (for readers who don’t find his style too intimidating), have political implications. These might be writing styles – or, as I witnessed, styles of teaching. While pushing realism (aren’t ‘doctors’ trained to argue objectively?), Dr C subscribed to a politics of control. The suppression of debate, the division of a group into small/manageable units, and the dominance of a single, biased commentary are defining features of primary school, I’d argue, not of democracy.

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