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Saturday, May 14, 2005

Going a few rounds with the pros

My mother has sent me an essay by James Salter sbout the former head of the University of Iowa's Writing Workshop, Frank Conroy first published in the New York Times Book Review. Interestingly for the pre-eminent creative writing programme in the US, the philosophy is not that anyone can learn to write but that writing can not be taught, it can only be practiced.
Kurt Vonnegut said when he was there -- he couldn't teach people to write but like an old golf pro, he could go a round with them and prehaps take a few strokes off their game.
I tend to agree with them. At the most basic level, one must have a need, a drive to put words on paper (or on the computer screen) Between you, your muse and the blank screen, nothing can profitably intervene during that initial getting the story down stage. You must allow your muse free reign. Play the what if game. Get to know your characters. Get arough idea of the plot. It is afterwards that you can use what you have learnt and improve your writing.
The more you know about the craft of writing and I do believe it is a craft, the more you know you can learn. Any craft, whether it is writing or woodworking, requires patience, skill and the willingness to practice. Can anyone teach tennis? I know how to play tennis. I am not very good. If I practiced, I may have been great -- who knows. But I did not possess that internal drive or desire to practice. Neither do I posses the desire to take lessons in tennis. My game will therefore never progress. With writing, it is vastly different. I love writing, reading and all that goes with it. I am better person when I write. It is not a matter of having to practice, forcing myself to be at the computer because I like doing it. It is fun to plot, to wonder what if. I am also not so arrogant to think I know everything about the vast mystery about writing. I plan to spend my whole life learning.
This is where doing a few rounds with old pros comes in. Listening to them speak, reading the books they write about writing as well the prose, holding in your mind and considering things. The novel as an art form does not sit still.
No teacher or workshop leader is ever going to turn you into a best selling novelist, a Nobel prize winner, or a gold medal winning athelete. But they can give you the tools, the inspiration and the where-with-all to dig down deep within yourself and up your game.
I love speaking to old pros and young pros, and people just starting out. Sometimes a new insight can be gained. Sometimes it is simple reassurance that perhaps I am doing something instinctively right. Then instead of stumbling about in the dark, I find the light switch and turn it on.
Go a few rounds with the pros? Yup, you betcha. My writing game still needs a few strokes taking off.

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