So you got that by doing writing?

October 11th, 2008

My favourite anecdote of a writer’s life – mine – is the one about the old boy who runs the allotments up the road, who took a look at my new Landrover, and shook his head, and said, ‘So you got that by doing writing?’
Any readers out there inspired by the heady combination of this week’s Cheltenham Festival issue, and the chance to buy a Four x Four from the proceeds of their pen, might be interested in the new idea from the Faber publishing house – The Faber Academy.
This is a Creative Writing course, yes, and it is well known that I am no advocate of such things, but I am of the mind that we should always challenge our own assumptions. I was in Paris, at my favourite bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, when Patrick Keogh of Fabers asked me if I had ever thought of teaching a course. ‘Never’, said I, which was a bad start.
And so, next week, I will find myself parachuted in to a four-day course run by Tobias Hill, at Shakespeare and Company, where I will risk a couple of seminars on voice and authenticity.
I might hate it. I might be bored rigid. It might work.
Yet as I think about it, it is perhaps useful to have a writer who is in doubt. I am not arrogant about any of this – I am curious to see what the exchange can make happen. It might be my Andy Warhol moment – ‘Surprise me.’
Faber are determined to set up situations where people who want to write –or who want to write better – can get advice and practical help in places that will of themselves stimulate the learning process.
The courses will happen in different cities and in different buildings. After Paris, where I am the guest, Andrew Motion will work with Tobias Hill and Sarah Hall in London, and next year sees short courses in Dublin and Barcelona, and around the UK.
The mobile model is interesting, and very different to Arvon or the university-based courses. Psychologically, it is probably a good thing to leave a known environment to begin creative work. Language is about travelling; words move, and anyone trying to work with words needs to be aware of the inner and outer journeys that words chart. I always begin a new piece of work away from home; it starts the necessary separation of worlds. It is good for the brain to find itself in unfamiliar territory when that is exactly what is going to happen for the next months or years.
I am not sure that enough is said about the physicality of writing – Hemingway understood it, and so did Ted Hughes. The Romantics wrote their poetry as they walked. To make the body complicit in the process adds something real, tangible. There is heat. I like it that Tobias Hill is sending his students out into Paris. The work in the room is only a part of writing.
Faber intend to run longer courses, where students will have their own mentor over six months. Faber is a publishing house, so there is always the chance of a deal for anyone who is any good. As agents rarely accept unsolicited manuscripts now, and as fiction is being driven by commercial imperatives, there is a need to correct the bias of the market. If these courses can clear some ground for literature and poetry, then they are worth supporting.
Plenty of people want to write – I am not sure why, because often, when questioned, it turns out the same people rarely read. There are millions of readers who are not writers, but there are no writers who are not readers. I hope that the Faber Academy will challenge this from the start, and that reading will be central to the courses. To be able to talk about books you love is the way to understand how writing works. Nothing of any value proceeds without love. If writing is a means to an end – including buying a Four x Four – it is not worth doing. If it is an end in itself, even if it makes no money, even if it is never published, then it has value.
A long time ago, in a book of mine called The Passion, I wrote ‘Do it from the heart or not at all.’ That’s how I live and that’s how I write. Doubts or not, I know that the Faber Academy is trying to make real things happen around books and writing. So count me in.