Essay

Hamlet in a classroom

IN MY TEENS I revered writers. I hung onto their words the way my classmates hung onto marijuana. I believed writers had the gift of clairvoyance, that they knew things about this world non-writers didn't. I thought people wrote and read books to decipher the secrets of human nature, to find meaning in their lives.

I was definitely looking for meaning. Everywhere I carried my notebook printed with red roses. On school-bus rides I read and wrote in quotes: I don't believe in God, it's an infirmity, but not to believe in God is a belief – Margaret Duras.

I grew up hoping one day to call myself a writer. I wrote in my notebook: to become a writer or disappear into a black hole.

I wrote and wrote and wrote.

I still do.

Because I simply don't know how to live otherwise.

But does it make me a writer, my endless writing?

 

I STILL RETAIN that teenage ideal of what a true writer should be – an eternal student, a wise philosopher with an idiosyncratic vision able to observe people from multiple perspectives simultaneously. Someone like Dostoyevsky.

And I still revere writers, even though the older I become, the more they multiply around me. I see one regularly at my local Starbucks: Harry Potter glasses, an island of hair underneath his lower lip and frantic fingers knocking hell out of his miniature silver notebook.

I'm becoming more and more skilled at spotting them: at the coin laundries, internet cafes, even the gym. Some are in their twenties, with the symbolic jewellery of peace and eternity, some are IT specialists or retired teachers.

Should we attribute this excess of writers to an increasing intellectualisation of our era? Ironically, we tend to read less (unless we count internet easy-reads), whereas technology makes our writing process easier, faster, ubiquitous. Our trained fingers perform a frenzied hip-hop as we email and SMS tirelessly. Writing becomes our second nature; we no longer revere words.

To edit ourselves, all we need do is insert a letter, or press a key to delete redundancies. We check facts effortlessly on the internet while writing – just as I'm doing right now, browsing through the Fiction Writer's journey website, where a certain best-selling author offers "writing coaching" on the phone, or to take you along to a writing-coaching retreat in the Costa Rican rainforest.

Central to this increasing democratisation of writing is the notion that "everyone can find his or her unique voice and write a book ... " This idea sustains an entire industry directed at aspiring writers. One of its manifestations is the abundance of best-selling books on writing. The Weekend Novelist (A & C Black, 2005) offers a 52-week program for producing a novel; another book suggests writing using Buddhist principles. John Marsden in Everything I know about writing (Pan Macmillan, 1998) includes, like many other authors, "the great feature: 600 extraordinary topics, guaranteed to have you or your students writing".

Topic 368: Describe a time when an animal you've known has shown courage, loyalty, affection.

But why should anyone be encouraged to write if they have nothing of their own to say?

Not every writer has to be Dostoyevsky, yet I cannot picture a writer without an urgent matter he or she wants to explore. Kundera was passionate about deconstructing big words that we use too casually – like mortality. Lessing wrote to understand why people get caught within big ideologies.

So should we perhaps discourage writers who have nothing urgent to write about?

 

THE MANY WRITING courses where tutors promise self-expression, painting with words, writing with five senses, understanding what the literary competitions' judges want, or information on how to compose a best-selling crime novel, are another facet of this democratisation. An article in The Guardian, by John Crace on February 18, 2003, linked the increasing number of writing courses in different institutions to increasing mediocrity in the literary scene: " ... there is a lurking feeling that many creative-writing courses are driven by market forces rather than any altruistic desire to release untapped genius".

This argument about whether creative writing can or should be taught has been going around ever since the 1930s when the University of Iowa offered the first creative-writing course. The opponents claim that writing courses or books foster uniform political correctness and produce standardised, technically smooth, but soulless fiction.

In my early twenties, I tried a writing course. My classmates were mainly middle-aged, middle-class mid-achievers – teachers, secretaries, even doctors – thirsty for a meaningful hobby. Occasionally, younger students joined, poorly read but ambitious to write the next take-it-all fantasy novel.

The ones I tolerated most were those I called "short-story-writers". Earnest, bespectacled and melancholic, they usually were experts on American contemporary fiction. Their charm expired pretty quickly. Their stories turned out to be similar: endless lyrical descriptions of remote villages, dark birds and wintry skies, despite the authors' clearly urban origins. Most annoyingly, their characters never had sex.

I cruised along, but with a vague feeling of discomfort. Finally I got it. Our tutor, and my peers, thought writing a craft rather than a vocation. We discussed thoroughly the use of metaphors, but never the reasons for needing them. We were encouraged to become aesthetes of words, but there was no debate on the meaning of writing, what it is we were trying to say and why we should bother. I could not imagine a new Rushdie emerging from our classes of "conflict checklists".

The rules were tight: never end a sentence with a preposition; don't start a new sentence with "and".

And I dropped out.

Georges Simenon said of his career: "Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness."

Yes, Monsieur Simenon, I know what you mean. I dropped out, and into the confinement of my torture chamber, my writing desk ...

THE WORLD POURS outside sweet and dense like honey on a night of stars as large as plates, of burgundy wine, of the charred smells of meat and incense. Out there people are ready to love, dance themselves away. Inside it is me and you, my latest, thinnest, bluest computer screen. You stare at me as a mirror of my troubled soul: Who is the most talented of them all? No, not you. You will never write Exodus.

So why do I write? Perhaps I am still that owlish teenager believing deep inside I have something to say, some world view to offer – but not yet. There will be many more sleepless nights before perhaps, one day, I'll unearth that gold of insight.

Oddly, in this agony I still find happiness. Happiness is this drive to devour more books, or any kind of art, to get to know odd characters, all in order to extend the borders of my little mind. The passion of the drive. Those rare hours when words flow smoothly are pure sex: blood flushes my face, head buzzes and legs tremble uncontrollably. The pleasure builds throughout my neurons. Ohhhhhh ...

True writing, just like any other art, can only be driven by passion, or a persistent vision that you feel compelled to manifest to the world. Isn't writing about being slightly mad, possessed, seized, obsessed? The legacy of a few holy fools?

Yet I have recently become a part of the over-arching incubator that breeds this surfeit of writers.

Am I like Prometheus now – believing the godly fire of talent can be passed on?

 

"CAN WE TALK about inspiration today?" Chris asks on a wintry Tuesday morning. Grey raindrops smash themselves against large windows like flies. Despite the stormy weather, most of my 20 students are in the class. Sara brought homemade lavender tea. A cheesecake sits on the long table amid sliced bananas, notebooks, pens, mandarins and tissues.

I'm delighted at Chris's request. For weeks we have been workshopping short stories, memoirs or poetry. I don't want to repeat the scenario of the workshops I studied in and would be happy with an earnest discussion about the purpose of the writing, or even reading.

Inspiration. For me inspiration is immersing myself in art, childhood memories or any other forms of the past, to emerge dripping with the colours of Botero, quotes of philosophers or jazz, any kind of jazz ... and then to jazz with my pen, improvise just like the New Orleans magicians once did. I want to spill all this out, but ... what self-indulgence. Ask your students what inspiration means to them.

Apparently what my students really mean is motivation. They want to know how to motivate themselves to write in the first place, just like the many consumers of the "self-help" books for aspiring writers. My marker screeches grimly as I write their comments on a whiteboard under the didactic heading: "What prevents me from writing?"

I don't know what to write about.

Can't be bothered writing, watch TV instead.

I don't know how to begin.

My first impulse is to dismiss the class: "Come back when you have an idea you're passionate about." If it were a mainstream writers' course, I'd probably give in to temptation. But I'm teaching creative writing within a rehabilitation service for people recovering from mental illnesses.

So what to do?

Suddenly Sara says to us: "You know, my husband keeps telling me I'm crazy and can't do anything right. I wish he'd seen me last week at that pub, reading poetry. People came to me afterwards and shook my hand."

What can I say to her? Or to my other students who gather in this room once a week, despite the drowsiness caused by medications, despite the occasional black vacuum of depression, the worries about getting a job, a permanent place to live or about keeping their kids. Despite all this and probably more, they keep coming, carrying their much treasured notebooks scribbled throughout with ideas and class notes.

Maria, who was a teacher before she fell ill, tucks the three large bags crammed with most of her possessions underneath the table. Tom storms in late with his hair pointing in various directions: he has just had an argument with the manager of his rooming house who wants to evict him. Nicole explains she didn't attend last week because her best friend overdosed and Nicole spent the week in hospital, this time as a visitor. She emphasises the last words, "as a visitor".

How can I dismiss this class?

But then, why should I teach them writing? I am also trained as a social worker and can use my other skills. How can I speak to these people about Shakespeare when some lack the basics? Who am I in this class – a social worker, an artist or a teacher? Am I here to conduct just another workshop ("Describe your pet...")? Or am I here to lead a therapy group disguised with literary pretensions?

"Soooooo..." I stretch out the word to earn more time. So many pairs of eyes on me.

"How about," the blue-eyed Nicole offers, "we light some candles to get inspired."

Yellow flowers flare up; tea billows in orange mugs; outside the rain keeps playing its own jazz and inside the heater murmurs.

But so much pain is packed within this cosiness. Pain that is urgent to be translated into words so it can be let go. Who cares whether I am a teacher, artist or whatever, as long as I can stretch my arm and help soothe these souls.

I wipe the whiteboard.

 

SADIE SMITH ONCE said: "I never attended a creative-writing class in my life. I have a horror of them; most writers' groups moonlight as support groups for the kind of people who think that writing is therapeutic." This dichotomised notion of writing versus therapy is too simplistic. My writer friend Josiane Behmoiras admits that pinning her life events to paper, while writing her memoir Dora B (Penguin, 2005) made her realise that, rather than being a failure, she is a survivor. Writing can have a therapeutic effect on writers even when they don't seek it. There is medical research to support this claim.

The therapeutic effect of writing doesn't reduce its quality if the spark of talent is there. The supposedly opposing notions of artistic versus therapeutic writing can actually co-exist.

Yet, mainly over the past couple of decades, as the therapists and social workers have been able to identify this byproduct of writing, they have also democratised and mass-produced this aspect, just as writing's other appeals (fame, prestige or even, presumably, money) have been snatched by various tutors and authors. The use of writing in health and social care expands. Writing is increasingly seen as a panacea-to-all, and used in schools, hospices, nursing homes, prisons and even support services for sex workers. The assumption behind it is that writing can improve social skills, employability or even sex life. The recent United Kingdom example, when the government sponsored a program that placed poets in residencies across many sectors, including such peculiar locations as zoos and supermarkets, epitomises this current spirit.

To be utterly cynical about this development is as false as becoming its blind follower. The British literary critic Christina Patterson wrote about the UK project: "Behind the publicity, a lot of wonderful stuff was going on. People who hadn't encountered writing or literature for years did find a great pleasure in reading, hearing and writing poems."

We often start our Tuesday mornings with poems we love. Nicole has just brought in Richard Brautigan's poetry collection. Her voice is as fragile as a dry branch, perhaps because she understands this poem from first-person experience:

The act of dying

is like hitch-hiking

into a strange town

late at night

where it is cold

and raining,

and you are alone

again.

Interestingly, Brautigan, just like many other poets (Plath, Mayakovsky – the list is long) was known to be mentally unstable; some of them ended up killing themselves, leaving the notion of poetry as panacea up in the air. Yet somehow the words of these tortured poets provide a reason for Chris – who was once a professional writing and editing student, but became obsessed with assignments and got ill – to get up in the morning. So what is writing about? Does it save lives or take them?

Perhaps this kind of question is more of a trap, just like the egg and chicken. If we never fully understand the effect of writing on individuals, one thing is sure: it enriches our lives. Writing extends our identities beyond those of parent, teacher, mental patient. Perhaps rather than try to decipher its mystery, we should simply engage in writing through trial and error. Because when it works, it brings us closer to the stars.

 

SO TRIAL AND error. Just as I turn 30, I'm back at a student desk, but this time in what Pirsig called the "Church of Reason". But I call it the "Church of Mind", because who wants to be reasonable when entering the University of Melbourne's old building – all curves, spires and iridescent leadlight windows?

I walk the faded carpets underneath arched wooden ceilings and listen to Marion Campbell teaching the "slowness of writing" in her film-noir smoky voice: "We should encourage our students to hone their critical skills and read as widely as possible across disciplines and cultures before and while they write ...", and feel like praying.

I overhear the brunette girl with eyes agile like possums, arguing in favour of French feminism against a clean-shaved peasant-looking man.

"I'm more interested in the German feminists," he responds, "because they were the ones to grow under Freud's legacy."

Ideas are buzzing in the dense air – just stretch out a hand and catch some. Where else will I meet people who read Foucault on their Queensland holidays?

Finally I'm at home.

As we learn about Lacan, Kristeva and other thinkers, I feel my brain being deep-tissue massaged. I don't think of Bachelard's The Poetics of Space at home, as my words pour and pour, flooding my torture chamber, my night ... but something new lingers in the back of my mind, filtering my life

experience and imagination through the wider contexts I have just learned.

I retreat from my computer feeling more satisfied.

So why study creative writing? Why not philosophy or linguistics?

Because I get to meet Brian Castro. He is our priest for a day, handing out

psalms by Carson and Faulkner. His sermon is concise: "Reading is more important than writing. Remember, all good writing is rewriting." He is one of those mentors whom the American novelist Rick Moody described as a person who teaches their students how to live, act and think like writers.

Yet sometimes the Church of Mind may reveal a nature based too much on reason – and then beware not to overdose, as Sallie Muirden, an author and one of our lecturers, warns: "Writing creatively in conjunction with highly theorised subjects can be detrimental to the creative, intuitive process which derives from the unconscious, not the analytical side of the brain. Schools of creative arts, rather than departments that specialise in literary and cultural theory, are the best places to teach writing, where students are surrounded by artists rather than theoreticians. Learning writing alongside dance, music and other non-analytical enterprises they remain open to the unconscious, to their dreams, their original imaginative voices and they write out of poetically inspired id, rather than the controlled domain of the superego."

In the school of creative arts, in echoing rooms framed by ancient trees and statues, I flirt with vampire-pale cinema students and stocky modern dancers. The teachers encourage us to experiment, make up our own language: "He was a spunk, so I Marlene Dietriched him all night, longlegged and cigaretted."

I feel like a character from a literary salon of the twenties. Soon Hemingway will bang open the door and pour himself a scotch. Gertrude Stein will advise him to invest money in modern painting.

I have always dreamed of being transported back to the 1920s, wondering how much of their genius those artists owed to their brief era of decadence and the superiority of minds in the cafes and literary salons.

Those literary salons gained their impetus in the mid-18th century and coincided with the rise in the status of the novel. As the complexity of writing rose, and novels started dealing with philosophical issues, their authors' status rose, but so did the pressure on them. The writers then sought inspiration among their equals in salons facilitated by female readers eager to bathe in their genius. There they drank cognac, ate exquisite meals, mixed with other artists and reinvented the art of conversation. At one such gathering, George Sand fell in love with Chopin.

This tradition, which rescued writers from the isolation of their occupation, challenged them intellectually, added glamour to their status and promoted their careers, still flourished in the 1920s. Less glamorous, such gatherings continued into the 1940s with Margaret Duras cooking sumptuous stews for her comrades. At night they argued about communism, danced and made love. Even as late as the 1970s, the salon spirit still survived in Tel Aviv bars where Yona Wallach and her fellow poets got drunk together, and in Greenwich Village in grubby apartments where beatniks took LSD and documented their delusions. The refined creativity of the early salons was gradually evaporating and now, in the new millennium, is no more.

I find a clairvoyant quality in history and believe in the cliché of it repeating itself. Even in this age of electronic beauty, quick stimulation and instant satisfaction of fingers swift on the various buttons of remote controls, mobile phones and food processors, when television and video games dominate our salons rather than conversations, we still yearn for the intellectual oases of those salons, where thoughts were cultivated like pets.

What if our contemporary obsession with writing, our desire to extend it beyond art to become also panacea and sellable commodity, is only a natural manifestation of this yearning for a space to reflect, converse, exchange ideas? The ubiquity of writing and writers, the courses and therapeutic sessions, is perhaps our attempt to find a spiritual, intellectual refuge. The democratisation of writing often reduces its quality but also nourishes us in new ways by filling the gap left from the shallowness of speed.

And what of those real writers, driven almost against themselves by the urgency of their messages? Now that they have lost their natural environments of artistic salons and communes, some gather together in the disguise of higher education. They flock to the academic creative-writing courses not for the writing exercises or elaborate theories, but for the mentorship, artistic comradeship, literary feedback to polish the diamond of their talents, even for arguments on politics – all functions the literary salons used to fulfil.

BUT NOW WE are not in a school of creative arts but in community services. What shall I do? For the first time, I offer a writing exercise: "Write down something that is constantly on your mind but you don't dare talk about. Write something that makes you blush." "Why should we?" Nicole wants to know. "Because as long as you write about what really matters to you, you'll keep writing. This is my suggestion for getting inspired." They write and write; their pens screech. "Are you ok?" I ask Tom whose eyes have turned foggy. "I'm 45," he says, "and I never had anything good to say about myself. But now as I was writing about how I first got ill, at high school, I suddenly remembered that at the same time I also won the swimming contest. I don't know how I could have forgotten it ..."

Maria falters as she reads a piece she has just written on her father who has avoided her phone calls for the past eight years. Others listen very quietly.

"Same happened with me and my brother," says Chris.

"Is this exercise too painful?" I ask, angry with myself. "Would you like to stop?"

They keep writing. The rain has ceased. The class was supposed to finish half an hour ago. Usually my dear students become restless towards the end. They take cigarette breaks; occasionally some feel claustrophobic and leave early. But today it is as though their pens and papers have expanded their space, their limits, and have transported them into a Neverland of memories shaped anew, stories rearranged. I can see the dreams reflected in their beautiful eyes.

So who knows what will happen next? Will Chris be readmitted into the professional writing and editing course? Will Sara leave her husband for a gentle poet she'll meet at pub readings? Will Nicole publish her poetry?

Who knows? I cannot solve my students' problems. But if I can invite them weekly into this literary salon, where we can admire writers together, read widely, as Marion Campbell advises, share our love for language, and most importantly, write about what is really urgent to our hearts – if I can do all this, then I will have found an aspect of the democratisation of writing I can tolerate, even enjoy. 

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