This post also appears on the website of WALES ARTS REVIEW today. The new re-vamped Wales Arts Review serves as a media platform where a new generation of critics and arts lovers can meet to engage in a robust and inclusive discussion about books, theatre, film, music, the visual arts, politics, and the media.
Half-preparing a class for my MA module ‘The Creative Process’, but actually taking time to enjoy the material – something that happens far too infrequently these days, especially in busy October – I stumble across a strange passage in Blanchot, on something referred to, perplexingly, as Tyrannical Prehension. It sounds like a stomach disorder, but is, in fact, far more sinister:
‘Sometimes, when a man is holding a pencil, his hand won’t release it no matter how badly he wants to let it go. Instead, the hand tightens rather than open. The other hand intervenes more successfully, but then the hand which one might call sick makes a slow, tentative movement and tries to catch the departing object. The strange thing is the slowness of this movement. The hand moves in a tempo which is scarcely human: not that of a viable action, not that of a hope either, but rather the shadow of time, the hand being itself the shadow of a hand slipping ghostlike toward and object that has become its own shadow. This hand experiences, at certain moments, a very great need to seize: it must grasp the pencil, it has to. It receives an order, an imperious command. This phenomenon is known as “tyrannical prehension.”’
The urgency of writing, the need to write right now, becomes pathologised. But we write, according to Blanchot, only when we have already begun to write:
‘Writing begins with Orpheus’ gaze. And this gaze is the movement of desire that shatters the song’s destiny, that disrupts concern for it, and in this inspired and careless decision reaches the origin, consecrates the song. But in order to descend towards this instant, Orpheus has to possess the power of art already. This is to say: one writes only if one reaches that instant which nevertheless one can only approach in the space opened by the movement of writing. To write one has to write already. In this contradiction are situated the essence of writing, the snag in the experience, and inspiration’s leap.’
I find among my papers some notes I took from a lecture given by Hélène Cixous at Cardiff University ten years ago. The talk was called ‘The Unforeseeable’, and I remember enjoying it a lot. Ms Cixous was extremely elegant and spoke manicured English. She said that the title of her lecture referred to the unexpectedness of what one writes, which is unforeseeable, even to oneself.
You reach the point where the book, not the author, is writing the book.
With writing you go in one direction and find yourself forced in another direction.
But paradoxically, the strength of the writer lies in his or her helplessness. Why might this be?
She cited her friend Derrida as saying: ‘The work starts by itself.’ He used to say: ‘It’s started,’ when asked about a new piece of writing (rather than ‘I have started it’).
The book is unexpected, unforeseeable.
I’m not sure what to make of all this.
In another class this week, an undergraduate nonfiction class – not the MA class in which I discuss Blanchot – a student turns in a piece about trying to hold onto a pencil, against the odds, while a force beyond her control seizes control of the hand with which she tries to hold the pencil. This is very strange. Unaccountable coincidence or tyrannical prehension? Synchronicity? Unforeseeable, certainly.
As someone who makes his living from the teaching of creative writing I watched warily as the Hanif Kureishi story from the Bath Literature Festival unfolded last week. I had really begun to think that the argument about ‘whether you can teach creative writing’ was dead in the ground, but I was wrong. And the tremors that began in the staid and elegant streets of Bath have even rippled over the South Atlantic.
This morning I receive an email from Jorge Fondebrider in Argentina with a link to Ñ, the magazine supplement to the newspaper Clarín, and the most important cultural weekly in the country. The article suggests that ‘Kureishi’s bitter declarations belong to the hateful species of writers who go to literary festivals in order to spend their time complaining about how much they hate having to do publicity for their books.’ Indeed, perhaps Hanif was bored, and wanted to get something off his chest, or just rile someone. And that’s understandable, although not very professional. But he certainly knew that his outburst would get him publicity for his new novel, The Last Word. I don’t wish to add to that publicity, but do feel the need to make a contribution, as I am getting tired of the argument he has resurrected. Kureishi has frequently been outspoken in a heavy-handed, bombastic way and he is a didactic writer – which to my mind is at odds with being a good novelist. But he has also –and this might come as a surprise to many – written extremely lucidly on the practice of creative writing.
What shocked most people about Kureishi’s rant was the sheer, brazen hypocrisy of it all. Here is someone who makes his living from an activity that he evidently despises – much as he appears to despise the students he teaches – and yet is content to pocket the salary that accompanies this fruitless endeavour, without any consideration for either the people who have paid big fees to study at the university where he teaches (Kingston) or the consequences for the rest of us in having to pick up the broken crockery after this moribund and incredibly tedious domestic turbulence, once again. I am not even convinced how much of Kureishi’s polemic was for real, nor do I really care. The fact is that we have all had thoughts like Kureishi’s on a bad day, but we get over it. The evidence, as Tim Clare’s entertaining response to Kureishi: Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Not If Your Teacher’s A Prick – is that many people get quite a lot from a Creative Writing course. From my own experience (I teach at Cardiff University) I would venture that MA students are not so naïve as to expect to make it into the upper zones of the literary stratosphere simply by gaining a qualification in Creative Writing. Most of them would accept that we, their tutors, cannot ‘teach them to write’, but that we can make them aware of certain techniques and strategies by which they can help themselves towards becoming better writers. Most of them would also accept that real talent – whatever that is – is rare (though whether the figure of 99.9% figure cited by Kureishi is relevant or not, I rather doubt: it reeks of the old prejudice about ‘genius’ and a ‘God-given gift’, or the equally defunct and baffling notion of inspiration from the muse). Those who do succeed (whatever the measure of success), and who possess a modicum of talent, begin with a strong urge to write – which often takes on the characteristics of an obsession – and they persevere through rewriting and rewriting until they get a result. Much as I suspect Kureishi did.
One of the modules on the Cardiff MA, taught by a colleague (Shelagh Weeks), is ‘The Teaching of Creative Writing’ (Module SET203). The assessment comes in the form of a 3,000 word essay, submitted after the students have spent some weeks working with aspiring writers in schools and with our own undergraduates. Here is a sample quotation:
‘Some students have considerable phantasies about becoming a writer, of what they think being a writer will do for them. This quickens their desire, and helps them get started. But when the student begins to get an idea of how difficult it is to complete a considerable piece of work – to write fifteen thousand good words, while becoming aware of the more or less impossibility of making significant money from writing – she will experience a dip, or ‘crash’ and become discouraged and feel helpless. The loss of a phantasy can be painful, but if the student can get through it – if the teacher can show the student that there’s something good in her work and help her endure the frustration of learning to do something difficult – the student will make better progress.’
In marking this, I would have pointed out the clumsy repetition of ‘considerable’. Nor do I much care for ‘the more or less impossibility’, but the argument being made seems sound enough.
In fact, the piece was written by Hanif Kureishi and published in issue 37 of The Reader (Spring 2010). Much more helpful than the Kureishi who tells us that creative writing courses are simply a waste of time.
The poster for the second Fiction Fiesta is ready.
Fiction Fiesta is an intimate but international festival, specializing in fiction and poetry in translation. The plan is to team novelists and poets from Latin America with writers from Wales and the rest of Great Britain and Ireland: the writers will read and discuss their work and answer questions from the public.
Fiction Fiesta will provide a forum for all people with an interest in international literature, from professional translators to the merely curious. Fiction Fiesta is a festival with a difference, involving readings and discussion that will bring the public into contact with some of the best writers from around the world, in a friendly and informal setting. The event is free, but each year we will be inviting guests to donate to our chosen charity: this year we will be supporting the work of Education for the Children in Guatemala.
The 2013 festival takes place over two locations: the Council Chamber in Cardiff University’s Main Building on Saturday 18th and Dempseys’ Bar, opposite Cardiff Castle on Sunday 19th May. Our guest writers and translators are listed in the poster above (squint or zoom) and include our Latin American guest Andrés Neuman (author of Traveller of the Century – shortlisted for The Independent foreign fiction prize this year), Eduardo Halfon (author of The Polish Boxer) and Inés Garland (author of Una Reina Perfecta). Both Andrés and Inés are featured in the forthcoming 100th issue of New Welsh Review, while Eduardo’s Polish Boxer is my favourite new fiction collection of the past twelve months.
You can find out more on the Fiction Fiesta Facebook page.
More to follow.
As readers of The Vagabond’s Breakfast might recall, just over thirty years ago I stood trial at a crown court in London, charged with theft and fraud. I had been working as a milkman, and in the freezing winter of 1978-9 I drove my little milk float from the depot in Dalston, along the icy roads of north London to Highbury and up the Holloway Road, delivering milk and butter and eggs and bread to the good people of Finsbury Park. Alas, from time to time my customers would be short of a few quid to pay their bill; alas, from time to time the odd few pints of milk and a half-dozen eggs went walkies from the back of the float. The outcome was, after several frozen weeks, what with my bad hand and one thing and another, I chucked the job in. A few days later I was picked up by plainclothes cops while returning from breakfast at my local cafe in Shoreditch, and hey presto, I’m in the nick being charged with this that and the other. A ‘milkman of ill repute’, quipped my arresting officer, introducing me to a colleague in the charge office of Dalston police station, before threatening me with a good kicking and telling me he was going to send me down. That I did not go down was due principally to the good offices of my barrister, a young Glaswegian with a cheeky face and a bit of an attitude by the name of Helena Kennedy. The details of the events in court are still etched in my memory, especially the way she turned one of the prosecution witnesses, effectively, into one of ours, in a moment of staggeringly inspired guesswork.
Last evening I met up with Helena again, for the first time since our appearance in court and my unconditional discharge in January 1981. I did not think for a moment that she would remember me, but – quite unaware that we would meet – she greeted me like an old friend, kissed me on both cheeks, and recited one or two details of my trial that only someone with a phenomenal memory could possibly have retained. Then she told me that mine was the only case of fraud she had ever taken on, which made me feel rather special.
Helena was in Cardiff as a guest of the University, where she delivered the Haydn Ellis memorial lecture. She purportedly spoke on Globalisation and the Individual, but in fact covered just about everything: the Human Rights Act, the erosion of democracy in our national institutions, the dismantling of legal aid, the diluting of the founding principles of the national health service, the role of workers in helping decide the salaries of corporate directors, the increasing social divide, the obscenity of the banks, and her support for the Occupy movement. It was an inspirational lecture, and for once I felt proud to be associated with the institution at which I work, for having invited her. Helena is a national treasure. If only there were more like her.
I have made a couple of references recently to The Promised Land, my favourite bar and hostelry, which can be found in Windsor Place, near the city centre, and which serves, amongst other things, the best coffee in Cardiff.
The Promised Land’s owner, Nick Davidson (pictured) set the place up in the style of a certain kind of city bar to be found in Manhattan or Madrid, places that serve quality drinks, fine wines and good food – often of a Spanish flavour – in a friendly, informal atmosphere, and which isn’t burdened by a particular social identity: lawyers, plumbers, painters and decorators, dropouts and even journalists, politicians, poets and the odd celebrity drop by and mingle, and there is a space upstairs for hire to private parties.
Which is the point I am coming to. In my other role, as Richard Gwyn, I teach on the MA in Creative Writing at Cardiff University, and our Visiting Writers’ programme, supported by Literature Wales, is hosted by The Promised Land. Every few weeks between October and April we invite writers to give a reading, answer questions and share the evening with our students and other guests. The reading is followed by an Open Mic session for Cardiff University creative writing students, often work of a very high standard. The Promised Land provides evening meals, which you are welcome to enjoy before or after the guest reading. On October 3rd we hosted the first of the series, novelist Lindsay Clarke. The rest of the programme is as follows:
24th October, poet Clare Potter
5th December, poet Peter Finch
6th February, ex-national poet of Wales Gwyneth Lewis
27th February, poet and novelist Owen Sheers
12th March, novelist Belinda Bauer
26th March, poet Douglas Houston
All events take place on a Monday evening at 7 pm and are free to the public.