I don’t think you’re going to like this. It’s probably going to hurt. If it doesn’t hurt, there’s a problem.
As part of your coursework, you’ll have read Flannery O’Connor’s essay ‘Writing Short Stories’.
She begins by saying this:
‘I have heard people say that the short story was one of the most difficult literary forms, and I’ve always tried to decide why people feel this way about what seems to me one of the most natural and fundamental ways of human expression. After all, you begin to hear and tell stories when you’re a child, and there doesn’t seem to be anything very complicated about it. I suspect that most of you have been telling stories all your lives, and yet here you sit – come to find out how to do it.’
As do you, here today.
‘Then last week, after I had written down some of these serene thoughts to use here today, my calm was shattered when I was sent seven of your manuscripts to read.
‘After this experience, I found myself ready to admit, if not that the short story is one of the most difficult literary forms, at least that it is more difficult for some than for others.
‘I still suspect that most people start out with some kind of ability to tell a story but that it gets lost along the way. Of course, the ability to create life with words is essentially a gift. If you have it in the first place, you can develop it; if you don’t have it, you might as well forget it.’
When, last term, I asked my students what they thought of the essay – a good, teacherly question – the first of them to speak up said, ‘Well, I think she’s a bit of a git.’
Although Flannery O’Connor had – of course – read none of this particular student’s writing, and this student was not at all being told to ‘forget it’, still this student felt compelled to take the comment personally; which, I think, is exactly how Flannery O’Connor intended it to be taken.
‘Forget it…’ – This is not the way we’re used to being spoken to, particularly nowadays. We are accustomed to being given the party line on the American Dream: ‘If you believe, you can achieve.’
Flannery O’Connor is advising some of us, some of you, to stop dreaming and forget it.
Forget it because you do not have the gift of creating life with words.
I’m going to return to forgetting it a bit later, but not in Flannery O’Connor’s way.
I should start by saying, that for much of this talk you’re probably going to think I’m a git, too.
Maybe even a bigger git than Flannery O’Connor because I don’t believe that ‘most people start out with some kind of ability to tell a story’.
I’m going to take that away from you.
I do believe that most people start out with some kind of ability to paint a wonderful, free, energetic picture in primary colours.
If you compare the paintings of three-year-olds to the paintings of thirteen-year-olds, there’s no doubt that – during the intervening years – some element of uninhibited genius has disappeared.
Adolescent art is always the worst art.
I will go along with Flannery O’Connor so far as to say that you were all gifted, at an early stage, with the ability to speak charmingly, innovatively. You will have said things, in trying to speak the world clearly, which came at it sideways and got it more right than cliched adult speech almost ever does.
But this haphazard charm of accuracy is something quite different to being able to tell a story.
And most of the time, you were probably running round shouting poo-bum-willy-fart poo-bum-willy-fart as all children do; all children who are allowed to get away with it, anyway.
Even though I’ve grown up to be a writer, I don’t feel that, as a boy, I ever had a great, free, natural ability to tell stories. But Flannery O’Connor is quite stringent, quite determinedly gittish. All she’s granting any of us is ‘some kind of ability’.
I’m going to make a number of statements to you – about writing, about good writing, about bad writing. I don’t expect you to agree with all or any of them, but I’d like you to listen to them as carefully as possible; because I am saying them on the basis of a belief that there are potentially good writers who nevertheless write badly – potentially good writers who have always written badly.
As an aside, I can imagine someone objecting: ‘You can’t just say some writing is good and some bad.’
To which I’d reply, ‘Yes, you can.’
Bad writing is mainly boring writing. It can be boring from any number of different causes. It can be boring because too confused or too logical, or boring because hysterical or lethargic, or boring because nothing truly happens.
If I give you a four hundred page manuscript of an unpublished novel – something that I consider is made up of bad writing – you may read it to the end, but you will suffer as you do.
It’s possible that you’ve ever, in fact, had to read eighty-thousand words of bad writing.
The friend of a friend’s novel.
On numerous occasions.
If you ask around, I’m sure you’ll be able to find a really bad novel easily enough.
I don’t mean by someone who is in this room, who has taken our classes.
I mean someone who has spent isolated years writing a book they are convinced is a great work of literature.
And when you’re reading it, this novel, you’ll know it’s bad and you’ll know what bad is.
The friend of a friend’s novel may have some redeeming features – the odd nicely shaped sentence, the stray brilliant image. But it is still an agony to force oneself to keep going. It is still telling you nothing you didn’t already know.
As an adjunct to this, I’d like to say one more thing:
Our tastes as readers may differ considerably, but it’s very rare that when Russell, Julia and I mark your dissertations, we disagree by more than two or three marks. And it’s almost unheard of for us to end up disagreeing as to what mark a piece should receive.
We are by no means objective judges; I’m not asserting that. But we find concensus on bad writing 100 per cent of the time.
So, here are my propositions about bad writing – which you may still not believe exists.
Bad writers continue to write badly because they have many reasons – from their point of view, very good reasons – for wanting to continue writing in the way they do.
Writers are bad because they cleave to the causes of writing badly.
Bad writing is almost always a love poem addressed by the self to the self – even, or especially, when its’ overt topic is self-disgust.
Bad writing accepts that the person who will admire it first and most and last is the writer herself.
While bad writers may read a great many diverse works of fiction, they are unable because unwilling to perceive the things these works do which their own writing fails to do.
The most dangerous kind of writers for bad writers to read are what I call Excuse Writers – writers of the sort who seem to grant permission to others to borrow or imitate their failings.
I’ll give you some concrete examples of Excuse Writers – Jack Kerouac, John Updike, David Foster Wallace, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Maya Angelou.
Bad writers bulwark themselves against a confrontation with their own badness by reference to other writers of the past and present with whom they feel they share certain defence-worthy characteristics.
In order to protect their badness, bad writers form defensive admirations: ‘If Updike can get away with these kind of half-page descriptions of women’s breasts, I can too…’ or ‘If Virginia Woolf is a bit woozy on spatiality, on putting things down concretely, I’ll just let things float free…’
If another writer’s work survives on charm, you will never be able to steal it, only imitate it in an embarrassingly obvious way. This writing will be adolescent, and adolescents lack charm – adolescents don’t value charm.
Bad writing is written defensively; good writing is a making vulnerable – a making of the self as vulnerable as possible. The psychic risk of a novel such as Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is vast – particularly for someone for whom psychic risk was so potentially debilitating and ultimately dangerous. When John Updike began writing Rabbit, Run all in the present tense, it was either going to be a great technical feat or a humiliating aesthetic misjudgement. (Excuse writers aren’t, in themselves, bad writers; not at all.)
Good writing is a hymn of praise to everything the self feels itself incapable of perceiving.
Good writing is of necessity a betrayal of the known self, of the version of the self we believe we know, and through that a betrayal of the known world – a betrayal into truth.
What are some of the direct causes of bad writing? What are some of the good reasons people have for continuing to write badly.
I’m going to suggest four mains ones – there are others, I’m sure.
- Often, the bad writer will feel that they have a particular story they want to tell. It may be a story passed on to them by their grandmother or it maybe something that happened to them when they were younger. Until they’ve told this particular story (which may be what has drawn them to taking writing seriously), they feel they can’t move on. But because the material is so close to them, so precious to them, they can’t mess around with it enough to learn how writing works. And, ultimately, they lack the will to betray the material sufficiently to make it true.
Bad writers think: ‘I want to write this.’
- Bad writers often want to rewrite a book by another writer that was written in a different time period, under completely different social conditions. Because it’s a good book, they see no reason why they can’t simply do the same kind of thing again – with the characters wearing different clothes, eating different food. They don’t understand that even historical novels or science fiction novels are a response to a particular historical moment. And pretending that the world isn’t as it is – or, perhaps more accurately, that the world should still be as it once was – pretending this is disastrous for any serious fiction.
Bad writers think: ‘I want to write this.’
- Conversely, bad writers often write in order to forward a cause or enlarge other people’s understanding of a contemporary social issue. Any attempt at all to write in order to make the world a better, fairer place – to write stories, I mean, not essays or polemics – any attempt to write world-improving fiction is almost certain to fail. Holding any value as more important than learning to be a good writer is dangerous. Put very simply, your characters must be alive before they seek justice; justice will never be achieved by cardboard cutouts or mannequins; cardboard cutouts and mannequins don’t need justice.
Bad writers think: ‘I want to write this.’
- Bad writers often believe they have very little left to learn, and that it is the literary world’s fault that they have not yet been recognised, published, lauded and laureled. It is a very destructive thing to believe that you are very close to being a good writer, and that all you need to do is keep going as you are rather than completely reinvent what you are doing.
Bad writers think: ‘I want to write this.’
Good writers think…
What do you think good writers think? – I think good writers think: ‘This is being written.’
I’d like to sidestep now. You’ve probably heard the words good and bad enough for one day. Although I’m afraid – git that I am – that they’ll be recurring later.
What I’m now going to do is quote another essay by Flannery O’Connor. This one called ‘The Nature and Aim of Fiction’:
‘In fact,’ Flannery O’Connor says, ‘so many people can now write competent stories that the short story as a medium is in danger of dying of competence. We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly. What is needed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this from a writing class.’
Competence, obviously, lies in between bad and good writing. But the territory isn’t as simply mapped as that.
Competent can be a lot further from great than awful is.
To go from being a competent writer to being a great writer, I think you have to risk being – or risk being seen as – a bad writer.
Here are a few propositions about competence:
Competence is deadly because it prevents the writer risking the humiliation that they will need to risk before they pass beyond competence.
Competence will never climb the trapeze, take a pie in the face, put its head in the lion’s mouth, transfix a raging audience through wit and will and voice. Competence will never truly entertain because it will never run away to join the circus.
To write competently is to do a few magic tricks for friends and family; to write well is to run away to join the circus.
Your friends and family will love your tricks, because they love you. But try busking those tricks on the street. Try busking them alongside a magician who has been busking for ten years, and earns their living busking.
When they are watching a magician, people don’t want to go, ‘Well done.’ They want to go, ‘Wow.’
Competence never makes people go Wow.
At worst, on this course, we will have shown you how to do some magic tricks; at best, we will have taught you how to be a good magician; beyond that, though, is doing magic – and that you will have to learn for yourself. For what we can’t show you is how to do things you shouldn’t be able to do.
By this point in your Birkbeck Creative Writing MA, you are all far more likely to be competent writers than bad writers.
You’re probably at the high-point of thinking I’m a git, now.
You didn’t take a creative writing MA in order to be told to run away with the circus.
The situation isn’t that extreme, is it?
What’s the point of saying all this if it isn’t going to help; if I’m not going to give you some way of improving, as a writer?
But that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
First, though, I’d like to take another sidestep – from the circus to high-level physics.
One of the questions that teachers of creative writing get asked most frequently, apart from ‘How do I get an agent?’ is ‘Can creative writing be taught?’
For a long time, I didn’t have a satisfactory answer to this. I would say that I believed creative writing couldn’t be taught, but that it could be learnt. In other words, that the process of going through a creative writing course could radically improve a student’s stories, even though it probably wouldn’t be the taught element which caused this improvement. I would say that the most useful thing for me, when I studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia, was to feel that I had a small audience who weren’t (unlike my friends and family) emotionally committed to me as a person. I could hand in a piece of work to the class in the knowledge that they would respond without thinking they had to spend the rest of their week, or maybe even the rest of their lives, dealing with the consequences of being negative. It’s a completely different feeling, knowing that you are writing for a small group of committed readers, rather than for the judges of open competitions, for skim-reading agents or work-experience people in publisher’s offices. This, I used to say – the provision of an audience of peers – was how creative writing was learnt.
But a while ago I came up with what I thought was a better answer. Yes, creative writing can be taught, but only in this sense: what we teach you on the Creative Writing MA is equivalent to Newtonian Physics. In other words, it’s a pretty good way to do the basic jobs of dealing with matter. If you want to predict where the moon will be at a certain time in the future, Newtonian physics will enable you to do this – at least to the extent that your telescope won’t be pointing in completely the wrong direction. Newtonian Physics, for most things you’re going to come across, gets the job done.
However, as we’ve discovered since Newton, the universe – including both the moon and the telescope and also your eye – the universe doesn’t operate according to Newtonian physics. The universe exists on a quantum level, and the rules of Quantum Physics are often in direct contradiction of Newtonian Physics. In the quantum world, things can simultaneously exist and not exist. In the quantum world, things can travel backwards in time. Quantum physics means matter can do things it shouldn’t be able to do.
Now, transfering this over to Creative Writing. What we do on the MA is, I’d say, to teach you the equivalent of Newtonian Physics. The technical stuff that we go through – point of view, use of time, narrative tone – all of this will let you find the moon, observe it, predict it. But if you want to do good or great writing – what I think of as good or great writing – you are going to have to step up to Quantum Physics. And this is where the analogy between Creative Writing and Physics starts to break down. Because whilst you can teach Quantum Physics to very bright students, it’s almost impossible to teach Creative Writing on the Quantum-equivalent level.
Because on that level it’s ceased to be Creative Writing and has become just really good or great writing. And to say anything useful about that, your tutor would have to be in your head, commenting on your vague plans and your specific choices within sentences. But commentary, at this point, is probably the last thing you need. You may not even, strictly, be conscious of what you’re doing. You’ll just be following your developed instincts as to what seems right.
Good writers think: ‘This is being written.’
To tie this in with the running away to join the circus: Newtonian physics makes the crowd say ‘Well done’; Quantum physics makes the crowd say ‘Wow’.
I’d like to turn now to the subject of this talk, which I’ve done a remarkable job of not mentioning before: Sensibility.
The reason for this is that Sensibility belongs very much to the Quantum world of writing. And, in order to reach it, I needed to pass through bad and competent writing.
And, yes, for those that are worried, I’m soon going to come to that quintessentially Quantum writer, Fernando Pessoa.
The best thing I’ve heard said about Sensibility came in an interview between the poets John Betjeman and Philip Larkin in a documentary made in 1964 for the BBC programme Monitor.
JOHN BETJEMAN asks PHILIP LARKIN:
What sort of attitude do you take to adverse criticism?
and PHILIP LARKIN replies:
Well, I don’t know [if] you feel this, but I feel it very strongly – I read that, you know, I’m a miserable sort of fellow, writing a sort of Welfare State sub-poetry; doing it well, perhaps, but it isn’t really what poetry is and it isn’t really the sort of poetry we want; but I wonder whether it ever occurs to the writer of criticism like that that really one agrees with them but what one writes is based so much on the kind of person one is, and the kind of environment one’s had, and has now, that one doesn’t really choose the poetry one writes, one writes the kind of poetry one has to write or can write.
Here, although he doesn’t say the word, Larkin is describing Sensibility. His own disappointing Sensibility.
What do I mean by Sensibility? Is it the same thing as in the title of Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen?
In a way yes, and in a way no.
It was in the mid-Eighteenth Century that the idea of Sensibility came to prominence – as much as something to be mocked as something to be proud of. Novels were full of what my father would call ‘sensitive little flowers’.
Slightly later, the Romantic poets adapted the idea of a distinctive hyper-sensitivity to the things of the world; if one had Sensibility, one would be able to react appropriately or even originally to (here’s a very common example) the sight of the snow covered heights of Mount Blanc. One might even feel moved to write a sonnet on the feelings stirred in one by the vision.
The understanding of Sensibility I’m talking about has developed from this proud Romantic notion. It’s the particularity of someone’s response to Mount Blanc that displays their particular sensibility. And, because we’re no longer Romantics, or we try to kid ourselves we’re not, this sensibility doesn’t necessarily have to express itself as appreciation of the sublimity of the natural world. W.H.Auden, for example, said: ‘Apart from nature, geometry’s all there is… Geometry belongs to man. Man’s got to assert himself against Nature all the time… I hate sunsets and flowers. And I loathe the sea. The sea is formless…’ [W.H.Auden, quotes as ‘Weston’, in Christopher Isherwood, Lions and Shadows, 1938] Here, Auden is defining himself as an anti-romantic sensibility, by aesthetically attacking the things the romantics held dearest. Where they valued mountains, he would value disused Victorian industrial machinery. And he would do this, he asserted, even before he became a poet:
‘From the age of four to thirteen I had a series of passionate affairs with pictures of, to me, particularly attractive water-turbines, winding-engines, roller-crushers, etc., and I was never so emotionally happy as when I was underground.’ [The English Auden, p.397-398]
Auden was unusual in having a Sensibility that revealed itself, to him and to others, even in adolescence. People like Auden end up being called geniuses. But I think it’s more likely that they are people who begin working on their Sensibility very hard and at a very early age – even if they are not aware that that’s what they are doing.
Which brings me, at last, to Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) and to The Book of Disquiet.
Although to call it a book is to make it appear more planned and finished than it ever was.
If you’ve researched Pessoa a little, you will have found out the unimportant facts:
– that he lived a quiet life, working as a translator in Lisbon
– that he was known in his life as a poet; in fact, as more than one poet, because be wrote in completely different styles under a series of what he called ‘heteronyms’
– that The Book of Disquiet was left unfinished by Pessoa, and that each printed Book of Disquiet we have is a version created after Pessoa’s death by editors who have tried to put his fragmented manuscripts into readable order
– that whichever edition of The Book of Disquiet you have looked at, you won’t have read all of it – and unless you learn Portuguese and become a Pessoa scholar you probably never will
So, why did I choose Pessoa as the required reading?
Well, I hope you will remember my earlier reference to the bad novel you might borrow, and the bad writer who had written it – the friend of a friend:
‘I mean someone who has spent isolated years writing a book they are convinced is a great work of literature.’
This was Pessoa:
‘Today’s dreamers are perhaps the great precursors of the ultimate science of the future, not that I believe in any such ultimate science… Sometimes I invent a metaphysics like this with all the respectful scrupulousness of attention of someone engaged in real scientific work. As I’ve said before, it reaches the point where I may really be doing just that.’
This was Pessoa, and he was right – he was writing a great work of literature.
In fact, The Book of Disquiet – in Creative Writing MA terms, in Newtonian physics terms, in some of my own terms – looks very like bad writing. It has many of the faults that the worst writing has. It centres on one isolated autobiographical character who believes, against all evidence, that they are worthy or universal attention. It hardly ever engages this character with another character. There is almost no dialogue. There are very few scenes. The character is depressed and, probably to some readers, depressing. There appears to be no chance of change within his life. There is no story as such. The writing is disorganized, repetitious, seemingly directionless. The world described is limited, drab, boring.
And yet – and this is where we flip to the Quantum world, and go beyond Creative Writing – and yet this is a great, endlessly readable, endlessly fascinating work of fiction.
The Book of Disquiet is a book which works consistently to remove anything from itself which is neither an examination of Sensibility nor an expression of Sensibility.
Take any random page and it will almost certainly contain a statement of the sort: ‘I see things like this’ or ‘I have always seen things like this’ or ‘I wish I hadn’t always seen things like this…’
I took a random page and found;
‘When I first came to Lisbon the sound of someone playing scales on a piano used to drift down from the flat above, the monotonous piano practice of a little girl I never saw. Today, through processes of assimilation I fail to comprehend, I discover that if I open the door to the cellars of my soul, those repetitive scales are still audible, played by a girl who is now Mrs Someone-or-other, or else dead and shut up in a white place overgrown by black cypresses.’
Imagine how this would be workshopped – ‘Look, this is just an inert description. How about if another girl moves in above the narrator and starts playing scales, and how about if he meets and falls in love with her mother, or with her, or with the idea of playing piano himself? Make something happen.’
Pessoa is about the removal of making something happen in order to allow Sensibility to take the happening’s place.
In this, and in other things, he is a more extreme version of other modern writers of a similar period – Franz Kafka, Robert Walser, Bruno Schulz, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf – all of whom I would recommend you investigate with Sensibility in mind.
Pessoa’s writing is great because, and only because, he has a fascinating Sensibility. It is a Sensibility he has cultivated but it is also a Sensibility that oppresses and poisons him.
The Book of Disquiet is constantly summing itself up, but here is one definition of Pessoa’s project:
‘Abdicate from life so as not to abdicate from oneself.’
This is Quantum writing – writing that has risked total humiliation in order to pass beyond competence. It is great or it is worthless. It is doing something that it shouldn’t be able to do.
So, why don’t we teach Sensibility as part of the MA?
Perhaps if we had an exclusively tutorial system and ten years with each student, we could.
I doubt it, though.
Because Sensibility is partly about rejecting those things which can be taught – rejecting those things which others believe worth teaching.
Sensibility is the difference between Creative Writing and writing – meaning good writing and especially great writing.
This is why I chose Sensibility as something worth talking about at this stage of this term. If you’d heard it mentioned in Week One, it would have become just another thing to angst over: ‘Oh God, not only is my use of point-of-view wobbly but I don’t have an original and fascinating Sensibility. Maybe I should forget it?’
Which brings us back to where we stared, that old git Flannery O’Connor. Perhaps now she seems less of a git than she did; now that I’ve become the uber-git. But I hope I’ve supplied an explanation of her words on telling stories and on competent writing.
My definition would be:
‘Competent writing is writing that lacks an interesting Sensibility.’
However, O’Connor was clearly aware of Sensibility, she just called it something else:
‘We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly. What is needed is the vision to go with it…’
I think Sensibility is a better word than Vision because it not only suggests that you need to see a different world, it also suggests that you need to inhabit and create a different world.
And I’ve already said that Sensibility is unteachable.
Does that mean that the talk is going to end right now?
Because I think that, without teaching you, I can give you some suggestions which might help you develop as a writer and, through this, develop your Sensibility.
First, you do need to forget it. Forget it and give up completely and forever.
Then, immediately, you need to start again, but not from where you finished before. Do try to forget where that was – for the moment at least.
Cease to attempt to be what you will never succeed in being. If you are Larkin, there’s no point in you trying to be (as he did) D.H.Lawrence or W.B.Yeats. A great deal of the business of developing a unique Sensibility is to do with the failure to be X or Y, the failure to be other than one is.
I repeat, slightly altered, cease attempting to become what you stand no chance of ever convincingly being.
To develop as a writer, and so as a Sensibility, there are four basic things you can do: Writing, Re-writing, Reading, Re-reading.
I wouldn’t put them in this order of usefulness, though. My ranking would go something like this, from least useful to most useful:
Here, by re-writing, I also mean intensively and honestly re-reading what you have written.
These four things should be obvious to you by this point in the course. Here are a few other, less usual suggestions:
Write a list of your obsessions. Allow it to be as short or as long as it wants to be. Add to it over the following week, whenever a forgotten thing occurs. At the end of the week, go over it once more. Take out any item you think is there to impress or in any way speak to other people. Now, who does this list remind you of? Read it. Read it again. Then destroy it. A week later, repeat the exercise. You can try to remember what was on the first list, if you like, but it’s better to return to the question, ‘What obsesses me?’ This second list, you can – if you want – keep. Perhaps it will come in useful.
Take five good but not necessarily great novels quickly, randomly, from your bookshelves. Read the opening page (just that, not a word more) – the opening page of each of them. Then read just the opening page of your most recent piece of work. How do they announce themselves to you, these other writers? And how do you find yourself announcing yourself? How, if you could choose, would you like to announce yourself?
Create a pseudonym you don’t care for, and begin immediately to write as that person. Don’t worry any longer about whether what you are writing is good or not. Just write as energetically as you can. After a week, compare what you wrote, spontaneously-as-another, with what you wrote the week before, consciously-as-yourself. How do the two periods compare? Is one truer to you than the other? If not, why not?
Choose a writer whose work you know really well. Now, write a parody of them – exaggerating every feature of their style but still applying it to the kind of subject matter they applied it to. A week later, reread what you’ve done. Where do you fail to be true to the parodied writer? Are there any gaps through which you can peak at your own sensibility? Writers always used to learn by imitating. The first thing we have by Keats is an imitation of Spenser. Because when a writer puts something forwards and says, ‘This is an imitation of so-and-so,’ the reader looks for the places where the imitation succeeds but more so for the places where it fails. And these failures are where the two Sensibilities fail to coincide. So they are places you can use to investigate your own Sensibility. If you were to do conscious imitations of a series of writers, you would learn a great deal about yourself as a writer.
After you have done the previous exercise, write another parody, this time trying to take the original writer’s Sensibility but using it to write about something they never (to your knowledge) wrote about. If it’s Hemingway, say, have your version of him write about the doings of a family of white mice or a women’s institute coach trip to London to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. If it’s Jane Austen, have your version of her write about a mafia killing or a speed-dating event or zombies.
Maybe not zombies.
Stop writing your first drafts on a computer. Even if you find your handwriting unusable (because illegible, because slow), a page of handwritten manuscript will reveal more to you of your own Sensibility than the neutrality of Microsoft Word ever will. The faults of your writing are covered over when not actually exacerbated by wordprocessing. The stage of typing up a handwritten draft – of seeing it transform from rough scribbly letters to respectable-looking text – is very clarifying. But if the words have never been rough and scribbly they will never gain those qualities. In one way, the words will always have been public. And a feeling of privacy is one of the most attractive qualities in writing.
Also, the physical labour of writing is useful; increase rather than decrease this for yourself. By doing this (handwriting) you are inhabiting your sentences, allowing them to pass through your body in a less distanced way than if you simply type them out. Don’t try to rush to the final draft; learn the difficult art of dwelling.
In all of these things, don’t be concerned at all whether you are writing badly or well. Simply try to write as energetically, as committedly, as you possibly can.
I’m going to conclude with a third set of propositions. I began by trying to define good and bad writing. Then I went on to competent writing – with some side-references to running away to join the circus, busking magicians and Quantum physics. I’d like to finish by making some propositions about Sensibility. This is on the basis that great writing is writing that displays or reveals a fascinating and unique Sensibility.
A unique Sensibility begins to find things very important which the majority of others have always seen as trivial.
A unique Sensibility will find mountains which are not mountains.
A unique Sensibility refuses not to see as still important things which the majority of others believe were last year or last decade or last millennium’s concern.
And original Sensibility is formed by encountering original obstacles. The great writer discovers a unique obstacle, just for herself. There are far fewer obstacles than styles or sensibilities.
Proust’s obstacle: to incorporate the time of a life into a book.
Joyce’s obstacle: to refer to everything all the time without a moment’s cease.
Beckett’s: to remove human referents as totally as possible without removing human referents totally.
Woolf’s: to depict idiosyncratic minds which are yet still porous to other idiosyncratic minds.
Pessoa’s: to write about no subject other than writing about Sensibility.
Where do difference is individual Sensibility stem from? This is perhaps the most tricky question.
I would say that is has something to do with time.
A person’s Sensibility stems from a person’s unique relation to time, of which we have very few maps.
There are conventional relations to time, as expressed in fiction. Genre fiction depends on conventional relations to time. Literary fiction is a kind of genre fiction.
There are also dominant relations to time, in any given literary period.
I’d say that a writer like Raymond Carver has a limiting, standardizing relation to fictional time – if you imitate him too closely. The simplification of tenses, avoiding even the past perfect, and allowing the past historic to overtake all, reduces the chances for writers to display their unique relation to time.
In other words, ‘She had…’ predominates over ‘She had had…’ or ‘She had been having…’ or ‘She hadn’t been having…’ or ‘She might perhaps have been having…’ or ‘She will have been having…’ or ‘She would have been, perhaps, having…’
I’m not trying to encourage you to write like Henry James or Proust. Just to realize that Carver’s obstacle isn’t your obstacle. His time isn’t your time.
Examine your unique relation to time and examine how you express it in words.
I have used enough of your time.
It’s time for questions.
Thank you for reading this lecture. If you enjoyed it, you’ll find some more of my critical writing in Mutants: Selected Essays.
‘Sensibility’ was first published in Body of Work: 40 Years of Creative Writing at UEA, edited by Giles Foden, 2011. It also appeared, excerpted, on the Guardian website as ‘What Makes Bad Writing Bad?’
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