How do you teach creative writing? Martin Amis being appointed a professor at Manchester Uni. has resurrected the debate and it had a personal spin yesterday when I turned up to teach an Open University dayschool for a new batch of students to find just two out of 15 had bothered to turn up.
This was the first dayschool of the course! An opportunity for students who are meant to be spending months online sharing work with one another, critiquing it, participating in online tutorials, to meet face to face. An opportunity to meet me, their tutor, too. There are only three of these day schools in the entire course. I was astonished.
What do people expect from a creative writing course? Do they imagine they'll make money or become famous? Is it about ego or leaving something behind? Is it an attempt to fill an existential absence or to map life changes? Has distance learning become like self-help books - a formula to turn into something else? Do people think that it's that easy - you select an identity and ease your way in with a 10 point plan or a course book?
I can't answer these questions. I'm utterly bemused this morning. When I started journalism I was learning a craft on the job from great practitioners and shared desks, after work drinks and gossip with people who knew how to have a good time. When I started writing poetry again I knew that to learn I needed to go to workshops, meet other poets, read voraciously, ask people what they liked reading, listen to poets read their work live, immerse myself.
Writers, like fishermen, footballers, cooks, biologists, want to be with other writers sometimes. When I was starting out, other writers were natural company and although I still crave the company of other writers, like topping myself up, reminding myself who I am, at other times I need to be apart from them to get on with my work.
But consumer culture is promoting the lie that we can swap lifestyles as easily as paint a wall. Oh, I want to be a writer now.....I'll whack out a book. Celebrities have life stories and ghost written novels in the shops, buy their way into literary festivals and literary festivals wet themselves because it gives some saddo who's previously only taken the odd poet to the pub a chance to rub shoulders with money and glamour.
No. It's not that easy to become a writer. Generally we are hard up. We don't eat ready meals or have a new car. We don't go to lots of parties or have cupboards full of new clothes. We spend hours achieving very little. We can be very boring. We are often insecure, paranoid and bitter. One line can hold us up for days. It can make the difference between a completed or abandoned poem. We can become depressed and morose. You may be shocked by our behaviour. We do not respect taboos. You will not learn much from the contents of our shopping baskets.
What I have by my bed at the moment: Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood because it was a birthday present, Decreation by Anne Carson because I have to review it, Blake by Peter Ackroyd because of a project I'm doing and Blake's Collected Poems for the same reason, Midnight by Jacqueline Wilson because my daughter left it there, Treasure Island by RL Stevenson because I found a lovely old illustrated version in a junk shop, A Treasury of Saints because I can't escape Catholicism and I'm intriqued by the pornography of violence it manifests through their lives, Louis Gluck, also to review, Langston Hughes because he's rarely far away, the lovely man, and Lorca's Poet in New York, because he, too, is rarely far away.