Forget plot, perspective and dialogue!
A level three student of mine, Jo Wells, made a simple, but valid comment in her reflective commentary recently. She had included a well-realised and imaginative scene in her assignment work, and wrote that this… came out of an exercise where a person becomes invisible… I never forget the benefit of exercises and free-write. Most exercises can be arranged to include some aspect of what is currently being written.
I asked Jo if I could share this with other students because it is so easy to forget. Once a writer has an idea, and wants to forge ahead with it, they may be irritated by being asked to take a step back and work through the course material exercises This seems especially true at levels two and three, where students have more confidence about their work. Faced with yet another mundane-looking exercise in the course materials or their ‘how to write books’, a little demon rises into the writer’s mind and whispers: you have more important things to do than this…
I personally find exercises useful as I write, alongside reading and free-writing. Exercises allow the writer to explore their work in such a random way, that anything can bubble up from the creative depths that we all possess.
I was reminded of Jo’s reflections while reading a weekend paper. Hanif Kureishi, author of The Buddha of Suburbia and the recently published The Last Word, begins his article by stating that writers should forget plot, perspective and dialogue. His premise was that it is not the technical parts of writing are the thing that makes a wonderful book (or poem, I assume). He writes that ..following the rules produces only obedience and mediocrity.
This is a bold statement, aimed, I have to point out, mostly at Master degree programmes. I concur with the sentiment wholeheartedly – imagination is the greatest thing. It also has to be the hardest thing to include in creative writing coursework and ‘how to write’ books. It’s much simpler for a tutor to explain how Point of View works or how to create a basic character sketch. In fact, can one teach originality and imaginative thought at all? I’m positive that setting out the strategies and techniques that will help the new creative writer understand the basics skills has got to be the first step on a long road, and even though, as Kureishi says in his article: These are boring questions and the answers are boring… they are still essential.
Understanding the foundations does not invalidate what Kureish is saying, though. Inventiveness and originality are the most important things, and they are devilishly hard to teach. But some of the areas of coursework that might look the most ‘boring’ might also, approached with a open mind, become the most stimulating to the imagination. Let us take, as an example a single exercise included in the level two course, Writing Short Fiction. This exercise is placed quite early in the materials, and is linked to the project that examines ‘defining the short story’.
Look at the place you are presently in and recall a single event that took place there. This can be a very minor event; it could be something that happened only moments ago, or some years ago. Write a brief account of this event, like a diary entry, concentrating on the person it happened to. If this is yourself, write in the first person if you wish. Next, introduce one further character into the writing. This person is a new and fictional development. Allow a dialogue to develop, growing out of the original event – something that might have happened. Focus on the emotions of the two characters. What’s going on in their minds? This conversation can be as trivial or as meaningful as the original situation suggests. Continue with this interaction and see where it goes.
The exercise above might, at first glance, look quite mundane; it’s asking your to write about a minor event that took place in a single location – if working at their kitchen table, the student might end up writing about breakfast a prosaic manner; like a diary. The challenge to use their ingenuity comes in the second part, where any fictional character can be introduced. This allows the writer, to quote Kureishi’s article …to think about the wild implausibility, boldness and brilliance of the artist’s idea or metaphor rather than the arrangement of paragraphs…
Who might walk into that breakfast scene of cornflakes and toast? The seedy rent man? A poltergeist? A lover? A desperate, escaped convict? A small, infra-red extraterrestrial? It’s up the writer to decide, and all that holds them back is their own approach to imagination. However – and as a writing tutor, this is a big ‘however’ in my view – if you aren’t acquiring the basic strategies of writing that work alongside creative thought, the final piece may not be readable. It certainly may not be enjoyable to read. What that requires is attention to the techniques of writing. Following the rules of plot and structure need do be part of any drafting process.
I think, to return to Jo Well’s premise at the start of this blogpost, that imagination most definitely can be helped along, within the framework of a creative writing degree. Look into the exercises that face you, and rather than worrying what they meant you write – or what your tutor expects you to write – think about what possibilities you can draw out of the exercise that will help you become your most original and inspired. The exercises are your opportunity to be inventive. As Kureishi also writes …the imagination can feel like disorder when it is in fact an illumination.
Long live disorder and illumination. It’s the world most writers and artists exist inside when they’re creating. Whereas skilled techniques are the framework they can hang their dreams and magic upon.