Friday, January 22, 2010

The Charmer, the Farmer and Miss Taiwan

I perch on the edge of a table at the front of the room where the whiteboards are. In front of me there are fourteen people who look at me hopefully. Well, I say briskly, here we are. Shall we get to know each other? I already know what they will say, but we go through the motions while I watch their faces, listen to their voices, note their choice of words. They tell me who they are and why they have come to a creative writing class, and I hear fourteen ways of saying that they have always wanted to write but haven't had the time, the skills or the confidence to do it.

I say, bracingly, that's what you're here for - to learn how to write. There is a murmur of agreement, but I know they are hoping that I could wave a magic wand that will turn them into writers. They look at me expectantly, nervously, challengingly. I look at them with the hope that triumphs over experience. (Who said that? Ah, Dr Johnson - only he was talking about second marriages.)

I decide to find out what these people are made of. Something simple to start with, something that they can do right here, something that will not frighten them off. I suggest they look around the room and write a short piece about an insignificant object: a doorknob perhaps, or a pencil, a light bulb or a zipper.

A man in the back row puts down his pen with a clatter and leans back. A bit silly isn't it? he says. Who wants to read about a doorknob? He is in his sixties, big, grey-haired, with the tanned, leathery face that indicates a life spent outdoors. He is a rugby-mad farmer from a small country town and he has told us that he wants to write about club rugby games for his local throw-away newspaper. He doesn't want to write stories or anything fancy like that. I explain that writing involves observation and imagination among other things, and that a writer need never run out of subjects because they are all around us. I also suggest that a lively report of a rugby game should include more than just a bald account of muddy men romping around a paddock with a ball. He looks doubtful and I wonder how much of the course is going to be relevant to this man's expectations.

Also in the back row a youngish man sprawls in his seat. His attitude says go on, show me! He has told us that he is American but the accent seems dodgy and I suspect that the nearest he's been to Albuquerque is the local Hoyt's. Ah well, perhaps he has the gift of invention, but I suspect he will turn out to contain mostly hot air. He flaps his hand to catch my attention: he has not thought to bring pen and paper (he's not the only one) but luckily I have brought plenty of both.

A grandmotherly woman with glasses on a pearly loop around her neck says that she wants to write her family history and that she has been collecting material for many years. She pats the folder which rests on the table in front of her and which bulges ominously, and I guess that later I may have to curb over-enthusiastic recitals of family trees, historical anecdotes and happy discoveries which are of interest only to the families concerned.

The woman next to her has a loud, slightly accented voice - perhaps Dutch - who says she would like to start by writing stories for children. There is a murmur of agreement through the class which she over-rides. She has lots of ideas, and her friends think she should write some of them down. And when she has learned to create stories for children, she would like to write for adults and perhaps even tackle a novel. She beams. I point out, mildly enough, that writing for children is just as demanding as any other kind of writing, that writing is hard work, and that there are no easy options. It is a message that I will repeat, one way or another, many times in the weeks to come.

The woman next to Dutch also has friends - friends all over the world who tell her that she writes wonderful letters and that she should try her hand at some stories. This is encouraging, because it indicates that this woman is productive and not afraid of putting something of herself on paper. I tell her that keeping in touch with friends and relations is a great way to exercise writing skills, and that it's also a useful strategy for working through the dreaded writer's block which, I hasten to add, is all in the mind. Saying that you have writer's block is almost as ridiculous as saying that you have been struck dumb. You can always scribble some words down; the difficulty is only in the quality of those words.

Before I am tempted to launch into a discussion of writer's block and how to beat it, I ask the next woman to tell us about herself. This one is in her early twenties and looks alert. She gazes at me intently, her notebook open on her knee and her pen at the ready. She fiddles with it as she tells us that she is a solo mother and really, really wants to get a job as a writer so she can support herself and her son. Great -I applaud enthusiasm because it generates momentum. Enthusiasm coupled with persistence gets more writing done than the latest computer, the perfect time and place, and even inspiration. Unless, I add, you can follow the example of that industrious writer Somerset Maugham, who declared that he arranged to be inspired every morning at nine sharp. There is a small gust of laughter and I sense that the group is warming up.

A middle-aged Chinese couple sit together near the front. The wife, beautifuly made up, her skin like porcelain, tells us in slow, careful English, that she would like to write about life in Hong Kong so that her New Zealand grand-children will know about their culture. Beside her, Mr Hong Kong nods and smiles but says nothing. A young man, arriving late, has slipped into a seat at the side. He apologises charmingly and grins around at the group. Several of the women smile back and forgive him instantly. He's just started at university, he tells us, he has to write essays and hasn't a clue how to start. They don't teach people how to do that at school, yeah, no. A woman near the front turns round and glares at him; it depends, she says tartly, on where you go to school. Oooops, a teacher, and defensive with it. Never mind, I say, perhaps we can give you a bit of a hand. Right on, says the Charmer.

Another woman whispers that she writes a little poetry and would like to learn how to do it properly. I remind her that the class doesn't cover poetry because it is such a personal field and it seems inappropriate for anyone else to interfere in, or attempt to guide, the particular creative process required to produce it. On the other hand, all writers can benefit from the pleasures and disciplines of writing poetry, even if the results are not destined for publication. Writing poetry concentrates the mind, and teaches descrimination, precision, and economy of style. I offer her the chance to withdraw from the class but the Poet decides to stay and see what she can learn. In the front row an Asian girl, rimless glasses perched uncertainly on her nose, says she is from Taiwan and is in New Zealand to study. She is hard to understand, and I fear she is in the class to learn English, not writing. Miss Taiwan will be wasting her time and money but, experience tells me, she will sit through the whole course and she will understand about one word in ten.

People are begining to look around the room, searching for an insignificant object to write about. The assignment has caught the interest of the group and I suggest that it is time to start. There is a scuffle of paper, a chuckle here and there, a flurry of scribbling. Except that, in a patch of late morning sunshine, next to his diligent wife, Mr Hong Kong is asleep.
The picture is "Flax" 2008
NB: These are composite characters, based on many years of teaching basic writing skills. All identifying traits have been changed.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Book Reviewing

You've heard the jingle: big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em; and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum. With apologies to my fellow book reviewers, most of whom are much grander than I, hovering as they do somewhere among the big flea brigade, I thought it might be of interest to talk about how someone whose status is nearer the infinitesimal does the job.

I stumbled into book reviewing more than thirty years ago. Qualifications? The informal, ephemeral kind. I had been reading non-stop since the day I found out that I could, and now it is a bad day if at least part of it is not spent reading. I started working in bookshops in my early twenties and treated them like libraries. It was good for customer relations because they got informed advice and opinions, and good for me because I learned the business and could read a lot. And by the way, don't let anyone suggest that working in a bookshop is a soft option. It's not about flicking a feather duster over the shelves, although that does come into it. It's hard work. Books are heavy, they arrive on the loading dock in very large boxes, and they must be unpacked and shifted around constantly. Much later I worked for the Booksellers' Association and figured out some of the politics behind the business.

When I discovered how books were made and sold, I though that the best job in the world would be as a publisher's reader. I imagined spending my days lying on a sofa reading manuscripts to decide whether or not they should be accepted. But those manuscripts made up slush piles, containing all the hopeful but hopeless efforts of too many would-be writers, with perhaps one in a hundred worth publishing. Now I have found a much better way to read all day, because other people have weeded out the dross and I get to read the ones that got through the process.

My approach to book reviewing has always been that of the general reader, writing for the general reading public. And I disagree with that old grump Samuel Taylor Coleridge who said that reviewers "are usually people who would have been poets, historians, biographers ... if they could; they have tried their talents at one or at the other, and have failed; therefore they turn critics". Some of the best writers have also been reviewers.

There is a difference between "noticing" a book, reviewing it, and doing a critique of it. A notice simply requires someone to report that the book has been published, or that there is a new edition of it, and to give brief details of its subject, style and purpose. A critique requires an in-dept analysis, including a critical assessment of the book's qualities, discussion of the author's previous work, and placing it in the context of other works of its kind.

A review is something in-between. It is more comprehensive than a notice but doesn't need a degree in literary criticism to do it justice. It requires that the reviewer knows enough about books to discuss them in print in a readable style. The purpose of a review is to tell people enough about the book to let them decide whether or not to buy a copy or to borrow it. A review should not, in my mind, be a precis of the plot, nor should it be a re-hash of the jacket blurb.

There are some unwritten rules: be honest about the book, be fair to both author and public, don't do the unforgivable by giving away any of the surprises, be objective and leave any axe-grinding to another forum, and treat first time writers gently and if possible kindly. Discuss the book in terms of what it is, rather than what you think it could or should be. And it helps to have read the book. Unlike Sam Goldwyn, that fount of cock-eyed wisdom who said "I read part of it all the way through", I always read a book from beginning to end, even if it's sometimes a bit of a scamper, before I write a review of it. It's only fair to all parties.

In Mary Ann Shaffer's engaging novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a character remarks that reading good books spoils you for enjoying bad books. I think it depends on the definition of bad books. There is bad literature that can still be a jolly good read, and good books which are worthy but dull, and a reviewer can perch firmly on the fence and give readers the chance to decide for themselves.

Approaching a new book for review is always a pleasure. And I hope that I never become jaded enough to say, as George Orwell did in Confessions of a Book Reviewer, that "prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books involves constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever". Then I would have to give it up, and even the smallest flea has to eat.

The picture is "Reef". Come and see more pictures at my exhibition at the Cloisters Gallery, Arts Centre, Christchurch, 16 - 22 March, 2010.