By Andy Martin
“There’s no way you can teach this stuff,” he said. “It just cannot be taught. You’ve either got it or not.” Which was ironic, considering that the “he” in this case was a well-known poet/novelist and the “stuff” (meant in a good way) he was supposed to be “tutoring” was how to become a well-known poet/novelist. This was a few years ago, maybe he’s changed his tune now, I’m not sure, I’ll ask him if I see him. But the fact is creative writing is now big business right around the world.
There is a new University of Cambridge Centre for Creative Writing opening this month. Further afield, in the US, setting aside the best known creative writing MFA in the country in Iowa, keep on going west and south to Todos Santos, in Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, which will be hosting a workshop in February, at the “Casa Dracula”. A friend told me about one she had been to on a Greek island, although she admitted that consisted mostly of “singing and shagging Greek waiters”.
The question is, was the poet cited above right? Is it all pointless? Is everyone throwing their money down the plughole? Some might say so. I was once sitting in the offices of Working Title, then based in Oxford Street. Strangely enough they were pitching an idea to me. They wanted me to write a film script. Which I wasn’t sure I really wanted to do, or was even capable of doing. “I haven’t done any of those fancy screenplay seminars, you know McKee or whoever.” “That’s a relief,” says Eric Felner. “Look, you see that guy out there.” He pointed through the window at a passing nobody on the far side of Oxford Street. “He’s just as likely to write a good script as you or anyone else.” They had what he called a “casino mentality”. Which I think amounts to saying “nobody knows anything” (as William Goldman suggested).
In contrast, Midge Gillies, who has not only written a number of biographies but also books on how to write biographies, says that, “I’m loath to say that creative writing is the new religion – but I feel that it is.” The Cambridge Centre for Creative Writing, based at Madingley Hall, is designed to be like the Norwich Writers’ Centre – temples or shrines where the faithful come to seek visions and inspiration, as well as practical qualifications.
But is there a secret to the business of writing? One that can only be revealed through a creative writing course? I think there is. Let’s be clear though, nothing is guaranteed. Everything is done on a wing and a prayer. Falling flat on your face is normal. But the fact is I’ve been lucky enough to listen to a lot of great writers holding forth over the ages, and even watched one or two actually write rather than just talk about it, and the fact is every single one of them has inspired me one way or another. For good or ill. Forget the idea of writing as a solo act. It isn’t. It’s all about joining in a conversation. Or perhaps prayer.\