Monday 18 December 2017

literary greatness is really hard work

Fiction, it was once assumed, is the enigmatic by-product of finding a garret and barricading yourself in it; the fruit of unfathomable talent, and maybe just a little bit of hard toil. In the past decade, creative writing has become a much less mystical pursuit. I hardly ever come across a book without the requisite author biography stating dues paid to a certain Master's of Fine Arts in creative writing.

Where once author's biographies were there to add emphasis to the unknowable artistic process, now they seem to be falling over themselves to prove the writer has the necessary training to have written a solid, competent story, a set of skills as practical as a carpenter's or any other tradesman.

At his public interview in Kilkenny last week, the grand master of writing, Tobias Wolff, spoke about teaching the art (or craft) of creative writing, which he does in Stanford University in the US. Wolff touched on our attitudes to formal lessons in writing and how different they are to the teaching of any other art form.

Of course, across all the disciplines, nobody believes you can teach actual talent, but one can be taught proficiency and for some reason there has been a snobbishness about teaching writing, as if taking a creative writing course was an admission of failure. It suggested you were not good enough to do it on your own.

But every writer, from the very finest to the lowliest hack, says the same thing about discipline. Dorothy Parker said the art of writing was merely the art of applying one's backside to the seat of a chair and staying put until you've achieved something.

The characteristics of discipline and dedication are not to be underestimated when it comes to creative writing. In fact, they may just be more important than talent. You can have all the talent in the world but if you can't harness it by practising your skill each day where's the use in it? Someone with less talent but more dedication will almost certainly have more success.

The idea of the tortured artist is most often associated with the writer in his garret.

"When I was young," Wolff told the assembled audience in Kilkenny, "it was something you did absolutely alone to be original. You could not really learn from other people, you had to isolate yourself and, of course, be poor and yet no other art is learned that way.

"When you go to a museum you see art students sitting and copying the old masters in a way that their instructor will later talk about. And music, my God, everyone learns with teachers. Why would we have thought that writing, which is at least as difficult as any of those arts, could be learned in isolation?"

The more I think about it, the more I agree with Wolff and 'the 10,000-hour rule' as presented by New Yorker writer and pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell. He believes that if you practise your craft for 10,000 hours, you will be successful.

If you're wondering what 10,000 hours looks like, it's three hours a day for a decade or a full-time job for three years. The kind of time only the truly dedicated can find for their art.

Creative writing courses have sprung up in Ireland and the UK over the last decade, having been previously long established in America. As the college term trundles around, perhaps it is time to start thinking of writing courses in a new light.

The Stinging Fly's 'New Way To Fly' workshop is entering its third year (closing date for applications is September 2) and The O'Brien Press also operates a course in conjunction with the Author Rights Agency (now in its second year). Then there are the proliferation of night courses, along with the masters run in Trinity and UCD.

"I do think that you can't fire talent into someone's head," said Wolff, "but you can certainly help them to become a very fine editor of their own work, which is essential -- to become merciless with their own work when they need to."

Writing courses can give aspiring authors the practice of discipline, motivation and dedication. The rest is up to you.

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