Rethinking the relationship between feeling and typing

February 25, 2009

Sainsbury’s is filled with surprises. Jamie Oliver’s visage smiles from most aisles. He is meant to inspire us to care, cook and consume. I must be missing something. From my perspective, he is about as useful as licking wet paint. Alternatively, for shoppers whose response to cheeky chappie is to reach for an intravenous feeding tube, bogof – buy one get one free – deals tantalise us to buy two chicken breasts, four French sticks, six pairs of stockings, eight deodorants and 12 toilet rolls.

And I only came in for a pack of AA batteries.

Clutching the stockings, rolls, deodorants, sticks and chicken (yes, I did forget the batteries), I made a surprising discovery at the magazine rack while waiting to be processed by the cashier. I also remembered why I avoid the 7am shopping trip.

There is only one woman at the checkout, and she makes me feel as cold as chicken breasts and as hard as the deodorant stick for not collecting receipts for broken bicycle charities, horses with hobbles or the dogs of WAGs that need a change of scenery or else they will suffer from terminal hairspray poisoning.

The later 8am slot is always more interesting. Senior citizens organise Shopping Olympics for the over-nineties. They elbow and barge through the aisles, beating their less nimble rivals to the chuck-out cheeses, the ailing yoghurt clinging to its expiry date and over-iced chocolate cake, which is so unhealthy that arteries contract in anticipation. To these stalwart seniors, sherry, cigarettes, camembert and gateau are primary food groups.

Waiting in trepidation for Angry Jan to sneer at my lack of charity, I saw Writing Magazine on the rack. I have seen quite a few issues over the years. It is one of those publications that never seem to have a continuity of distribution. I buy three and then will not see another copy for two years. But here in Sainsbury’s, overloaded with five grocery products that do not have the decency to coalesce into a meal, this ill-distributed but always intriguing magazine flicked into my basket. And no, I still could not make a meal out of it.

Writing Magazine transforms word production into a mystical, magical activity. The publication is filled with guides showing how to “succeed in short story serials, travel writing, radio, teen fiction and more”. In the February edition, the editorial aims to “boost your creative energy”.

Advertisements promote self-publishing, self-marketing and self-help. A letter from Derek in Macclesfield captures the agenda of the magazine: “How do I turn my life into fiction? I’ve done some fascinating things, and I’d love to write about them.” The tragedy and triumphs of writing “the first novel” or finishing a difficult transitional chapter provide a provocative sociological study of desperation, procrastination, self-belief and self-doubt.

Reading Writing Magazine is like watching a 13-year-old girl trying to get into a nightclub. The combination of desperation and pleading, nervousness and fear, courage and confusion, stutters the pages. The publication commits to creativity as if preaching the benefits of breast-feeding. Writing is built on the foundation of self-absorbed creativity, introspection and anguish.

I am being harsh. But so appropriately for our age where Jeremy Kyle provides the model for effective parenting, I can blame my father for this wariness and bias. My family grew up giggling at the pretentious blokes with black polo-neck jumpers and skinny jeans who smoked bent and crumpled roll-your-own cigarettes and drank bitter espressos.

With hair so stiff and high, they made Morrissey’s 1980s quiff look like a buzz cut. They sat and talked about art, Greece, capitalism, New Zealand – anything that stopped them actually writing. These blokes always had a girlfriend. He was not committed to her, but she listened to his ramblings about the end of the capitalist order. You know what she looked like. Long, limp hair. Thick fringe. And she sighed. A lot.

Obviously I have constructed an unfair representation of “creative types” as the sort of people who cry when Peter, Paul and Mary sing Puff, the Magic Dragon. Occasionally, though, I meet a disturbing match to my imaginings. I once worked with a creative writing lecturer and conducted a peer review of her teaching.

When I entered the classroom, it had the appearance of a coven and the atmosphere of The Oprah Winfrey Show. The 20 students in the circle were reading their stories aloud to their peers. The entire room was absolutely sobbing. I did not know whether to intervene or call a psychologist or the police. Each story became progressively more harrowing. Abuse, sexual assault, violence, bullying, self-harm, anorexia, bulimia, drug abuse: the catalogue of traumas created a triage unit, not a tutorial.

As the stories cascaded, I realised that the suffering and pain were becoming competitive. Life narratives were compared and judged for their scale of tragedy: Cheryl’s razoring of her wrists was worse than Sam’s neglectful parents. Summoning the most harrowing experience was the way to create authentic and engaging writing, punched through pain.

The whole experience seemed unhealthy and connected to my earlier – and unfair – belief that emotion and writing are not always appropriate collaborators. Must all writing – must any writing – come from pain? Do sentences drip from suffering? Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath cast a shadow over those who use words to express ideas. While noting the operatic extremes of their life histories, it is worth rethinking the relationship between feeling and typing.

The more that “creativity” is mythologised, the less we recognise the craft of writing and the effort required to draft, edit, sharpen and refine. Our students become paralysed with the notion that writing is a celestial gift that only special people are given.

As role models, I prefer the robust, angry, iconoclastic and comedic writers who do not pretend that sentence construction is more difficult than laying roof tiles. For me, Irvine Welsh is an influential non-fiction writer who, like George Orwell, accidentally wrote some fiction that made him famous. Welsh demythologised the process of writing and reading. He revealed that, “I was never a great reader of fiction, that’s the problem that I had. People make the assumption that if you work in some medium a lot of your references come from that medium as well. I think the biggest practical influence I had was through working for the council.”

Such an acknowledgement is absent from the pages of Writing Magazine. The dull and daily routines of life do not verify their assumption that heightened emotion forges profound prose.

Irvine Welsh was interviewed at the height of his fame by Steve Redhead in Repetitive Beat Generation. Not only do I know Steve through an accident of marriage, but I taught a course based around this book in 2002. When recently returning to my curriculum and notes to help a student find the language and style to present the paradoxes of emo, I was stunned at these writers’ anger and honesty.

Their “inspirations” clashed with the interiorised emotional torture and hand-wringing “creativity” of Writing Magazine. While Welsh recognised the role of working for the council, a fellow Repetitive Beat contributor Elaine Palmer, believed that, “Visual pop culture like film, TV and music videos have really cross-fertilised modern writing, undermining the whole necessity for givens like three-act structure, conventional resolution etc. But as always the places where writing is taught and the places where it’s bought have tended to lag behind.”

The disconnection of popular culture – dancing, downloading, shopping and sport – from a mode and model of creative writing is stark. For our students, if we can link their commitment to popular culture with a commitment for words, then they may relax with their writing and not use a lack of creativity as either a cop-out or an intellectual block.

Duncan McLean provided an obvious but profound truth: “You can’t write with your eyes closed.” Reading everything – including Writing Magazine – can inform and inflect our prose. But so can music, football, fashion and filming. When we limit our influences to previously published writers and invest creativity with an evangelical role in sentence construction then we not only forget much of culture, we forget most people.

Virginia Woolf changed our relationship with words, narrative and character construction. So did Irvine Welsh. If that parallel disturbs or offends you, dear reader, then you are part of the problem that will block generations of students from developing the craft of writing rather than wallowing in and suffering through the art of creativity.

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