May 10, 2011


(The Other) Niall

Will Self worked very briefly in advertising, followed by a stint as a (notably bad) freelance cartoonist. He has never really had a job apart from writing, and yet his bibliography is quite extensive. I wonder how he managed?

I think the real value of creative writing courses is largely environmental. Anybody who's written anything of a significant length or complexity knows that challenge number one is simply to sit down and write it, and creative writing courses are built around production: you just have to sit down and do it. There is also the fact that your peers are broadly self-selecting: they may not be especially interested in your work itself, but by definition they're going to be interested in what goes on in the background to it - even if only to wonder how you actually made yourself sit down and write it.

Of course, you can't teach talent. You can teach grammatical and structural competence, and you can perhaps (though this is an uncomfortable notion) teach taste. But you'd hope at, say, MFA level, the students are demonstrating enough talent to get in anyway.

Davin Allan

Speaking as a person who suffers from "spontaneous inspiration", being forced to sit and write for an hour does not necessarily initiate the creative juices from flowing. Creative Writing courses can teach the process in which a book is published, present the realistic endeavor of deadlines, and possibly "what not to do" while writing a novel, however, the talent, ideas, writing style, and initiative rely dependently on the writer.

The comments to this entry are closed.


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."