Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Writing and not writing

I like to imagine that teaching creative writing doesn't replace the writing itself, but stokes it somehow. I come up with new hobbyhorses to ride, and begin to wonder 'do my students really need to hear so much of this, or am I trying to tell myself something?'
My latest, as I teach life-writing, ('Bring in the senses, bring in movement, this is life writing so make it live!') is to set your subject within his / her environment. This is clearly a residue from my own last biography of J. S. Haldane, whose guiding spirit in life was that nothing can be seen as separate from its environment. For me the environment in biography includes culture and place, and also all the other lives with which the one of your subject intertwines.
As I teach texts of late I find some anger me ... probably out of my frustration that I'm not getting enough writing time myself. What was Anne Stevenson doing in taking on Sylvia Plath as a subject? She kept slashing at Plath with the words 'spite' and 'witch', the book Bitter Fame only raging into life with its direct quotations from later Plath that showed Stevenson harumphing at nothing in comparison. (She clearly agrees and has returned since to the wellspring of her own creativity, in poetry and landscape.) And I found Blake Morrison's As If about the James Bulger child murder case insufferably middle-class and therefore adrift from many quivers of life, with literary allusions on almost every page trimming his audience to those who share his education, his quick depictions of the 'working-class' parents shallow and damning. His journey is inward, life like books reflecting the inner Morrison. He needs another subject. (Many of my students loved the book so this is quite likely my hang-up ... they didn't get the literary allusions but weren't put off by them, and felt it was grand for a middle-class guy to be writing for a middle-class audience.)It reminds me why my preference keeps shifting to American literature, shaking loose the shackles of the Great Tradition to follow Ezra Pound's 'Make it New!'
Oh well, get over it Martin. You need to write more. I'm off to run a PhD supervision in the British Library cafe today, having a separate lunch there with a writer pal beforehand, taking the rest of my time to fossick around my latest biographical subject (of which more anon) ... Daffodils sprout, and I begin to sniff the air of a writing summer which should set me to rights once again.
(It's really best not to criticize other writers while not writing yourself, for you project your own grievances. Writing, while a strain, is a balm and a cure. V.S.Pritchett did trot up his staircase every day of the week for his writing stint and so never needed to vent his writing spleen on others who had bothered to hack it. He refused to review any book about which he could find nothing good to say. Hooray for him!)


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