Wednesday, January 10, 2007

On the Difficulty of Teaching Creative Writing

Cross-posted at Pavlov's Cat

I've been teaching creative writing on and off for 25 years and have written and spoken many, many words on the subject. But this -- from a short story called 'WritOr' in a book called Touchy Subjects by Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue, of whom I had not previously heard but of whom I most certainly expect to hear more in the future -- says it better than anything I've ever said myself, or anything I've ever read or heard. It doesn't quite cover all the bases -- but it covers most of them.

The writer considered whether to tell BJ that to print five hundred copies of his so-called coming-of-age novel was a criminal waste of trees as well as his ex-girlfriend's money. That it would never get reviewed, stocked, or bought. Instead he dragged the dog-eared manuscript towards him and opened it at random. "This sentence doesn't have a verb."

The gilt shades looked back at him blankly.

"If you don't know what a verb is, BJ, why the fuck do you imagine you can write a novel?"

Tears skidded down BJ's face. The young man tried to speak; his Adam's apple jerked. He bent over as if he'd been stabbed. There were salt drops on the writer's desk, on the manuscript.

"I'm sorry," the writer said, breathless, "I'm so sorry --"

But BJ didn't seem to hear him.


  1. Somewhere (another blog, long ago) I read someone describe attending a creative writing course where one of the attendees had written "the feeling was indescribable". To which she quite rightly retorted sotto voce: then what the f*** are you doing here?

  2. Oh I love it.

    Sadly, when one is the instructor one is not allowed to say things like that.

  3. On the other hand if there is no verb there is no sentence.It is possible to have something in a sentence which is a bit like a verb and still be able to identifty it as a sentence. It is also possible to have an understood verb e.g." This Channel 7 news report from the makers of Bloggo's Chocolate Frogs" in which case the words " is brought to you" are understood to be there but otherwise unexpressed.

    Women should not use grammar to cause grief to young men because it is probably a reportable crime as far as the Masculist Literary Society is concerned. Most of our members believe that women should not write books anyway.

    I have made a note of the woman's name and I will raise the matter of her amateurish scribble at the next meeting of our local chapter.