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.

1 comment:

  1. That is a great description of a writing class. You can really feel like you are there. :)

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