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She would always thank him effusively. And how rude and rare is shrugging, anyway? Your students are not, thank heaven, going to be much like you as writers. They are going to react against you with their own thoughts and creative principles.

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But a good creative writing course will produce independent-thinking, craftsmanlike innovators with critical, widely curious and energetic minds. I don't know why this goal isn't more common in universities, anyway. By which I mean if it isn't on the page it doesn't exist. The connection between your mind and the reader's mind is language. Reading is not telepathy. Like or dislike is a personal thing and tells me something about you, but nothing about the text. If you don't think something is well written, convince me. If you do think so, convince me.

Learn from everything you read and understand how to learn from everything you read. And above all read! My classes use texts I am pretty sure they won't know because I want them to see how wide is the world of books and thought and imagination. You can write about anything you like but there must be a connection between you and the material.

Ezra Pound was right.

Many creative writing students start with the belief that writing is entirely the operation of point of view; in other words, that the world only exists in so far as it is perceived by a human personality. Most of what I teach involves encouraging students to exteriorise their subjective world by fixing it to objects, instead of routing everything through the persona of Jane or John. For the reader, being trapped in the head of Jane or John, and dependent on them for every scrap of information, is the precise opposite of their own experience of existence.

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A story that starts with "Jane looked out of the kitchen window and thought about her life" — despite the fact that it may be perfectly true — will always be struggling to free itself from a basic unreality. Many students find this idea counterintuitive, but the easier and more effortless something looks, the more thoroughly it is underpinned by technique. The desire to write comes easily; writing itself is technical and hard.

I give my students exercises in which a certain object has to feature. I choose the object myself: the more alien it is to their subjective processes the better.

In A Week | Teach Yourself

The object represents the impingement of reality, and it nearly always has the effect of turning their writing inside out. Over time I've learned which objects work the best: some of the things I've used — a violin, a pair of scissors — have been too easily conscripted into the student's subjective world. Others — a lawnmower, a new pair of shoes — unfailingly make the writing more objective.

The narrative has to find a way around it, like water has to flow around an obstacle, and the result is that the whole enterprise is given form. I teach a class on the craft of fiction-writing at Yale, which is a hybrid of a literature course and a writing workshop. If a more traditional literature course has to do with why we're interested in writers like Henry James and James Joyce, my class focuses on how they did what they did, using only ink, paper, and the same vocabulary available to everyone.

If a more traditional workshop is largely based on trial and error — write a story and we'll tell you what's wrong with it — my course is based at least partly on why writers write as they do; on the basis for their decisions. I do remind my students, periodically, that fiction contains an element of ineluctable mystery along with its elements of craft, and that a great story or novel is great in certain ways we can elucidate, and certain ways in which we cannot. We don't dissect great literature in the belief that once all its organs are spread out on the table before us, we've got it figured out.

We read extensively and, each week, do our best to determine how certain effects were achieved by a different writer. How did James build his characters in The Aspern Papers? How did Joyce structure "The Dead"? The students perform writing exercises as we go along.

During the week we spend on character, for instance, I ask them to write a single paragraph that conveys the appearance and essential nature of a character. During the week on structure, I give them an impossible welter of information — seven different people, with twice that many interconnected dramas and conflicts — and ask them to sketch out a story, with the understanding that they can omit as much, or include as much, as they like.

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During the final third of the semester I simply tell my students to take what they've learned, and write a story. Any story they like. Which can be anywhere from one to 25 pages long though I encourage them to lean more toward single-digit page counts — I stress economy and precision throughout the semester. The stories they come up with are often surprisingly good. Last week we spent half an hour or more looking in minute detail at two versions of a paragraph from Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea. She seems to achieve the compression and electric intensity of her final version through minimising the connective engineering of the syntax in her sentences, taking out explanations, excising the mediating voice from around the things seen.

The students went home to work on a paragraph of their own, cutting and intensifying in that way, taking out what's flabby and banal. In the short-story class, we spent lots of time thinking about endings. Why do the endings of short stories carry so much more weight, in proportion to the whole, than the endings of novels? We wrangle over the endings of particular stories we've been reading together — Dubliners , Eudora Welty, Agnes Owens and others.

What satisfies, what doesn't? How can the writer tell when it's enough? Why has taste turned against endings that clinch too tightly, or have too much twist in the tail? The students are working on their own stories: with that reading and discussion behind them they can think with more scope and more audacity about where to go, how to sign off.

Rehearsing these things collectively loosens the tight fit of fear and inhibition, imagination relaxes. The writing course offers an audience. Everyone lifts their game in response to the exacting readers they'll face next Tuesday. Student writers are under pressure to learn to hear themselves, to hear how they sound, to make essential judgments about tone and pace and transition. Of course, all writers have always had to learn this; a good writing course just crystallises the opportunity. In the past apprentice writers practised with a coterie of friends, or with their family, or with a mentor.

Writing courses aren't free; but I'm sure they do help to widen the circle of opportunity, beyond the metropolitan and university cliques. It helps to be clean and presentable when teaching.


  1. Rien nest perdu (French Edition).
  2. Introduction to Philosophy In a Week: Teach Yourself.
  3. Student Introduction Letter To Teacher.
  4. Fragile Eternity: Immortale tentazione (Wicked Lovely - edizione italiana) (Italian Edition).

Students react to sharp odours. It can't be like the University of Iowa during John Cheever's time when you could just wander in drunk and fall asleep for two hours. Today's MFA students expect you to be awake. I also try to get students to bring in snacks because I have low-blood sugar.

Design & Teach a Course

But the snacks are really for everyone. That is what goes on. It's the non-universal stuff that is the most useful. Are you using description to cover the fact that you don't really know your characters? For me, when I'm working on a book, it's around words a day every single day. Five hundred words a day is too few. A thousand is too many.

I can't take the weekend off; if I do the book has dissolved to mush when I get back. So a teacher can talk to you about your process. Suggest different ways of working, different times, places, different rituals to get you in the right mental place for it. Again, this is very particular to the individual. You watch them blench. You say: so if you're going to do this, you have to think about how you're going to support yourself.

So you want to be a writer …

I tell my students about journalism, about other kinds of writing, about crowdfunding, about grants, about balancing the day job with the novels, and the pitfalls of all of these. Most people can't make a living only from selling their art, but almost anyone can put together a life in and around the artform they love if that's what they really want. You help them work out how to do that.

At St Andrews, we tend to teach that most problems writers encounter have already been solved by other writers: students learn to be good readers first. Often the most useful exercise is just to compare some bad writing with some good, and then learn how to articulate the difference between the two. This is most bracing when the bad writing is your own. Here's Robert Frost; here's you.


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What's the difference? I teach in three ways: seminars on poetic composition I take a fairly technical and linguistic approach, but not everyone does ; workshops, where students can hone their editorial and critical skills; and one-to-one sessions, which address the very personal business of "art practice". There are many useful textbooks that can help with the first two, though very few of those are about "creative writing" a term I try to avoid anyway.

Almost no books I've read address "practice" very satisfactorily, though many students have benefited from reading ex-marine! My classes are undergraduates only. It's as simple as that. No use of "exercises" or discussion of "technique". Novelists can afford to just start writing and see where it takes them, writers of non-fiction need to have a plan.