The isles of inspiration

Creativity can't be taught, can it? Tell that to the novelist Susanna Clarke who blossomed on a writing course. But what are the tutors' secrets? Lilian Pizzichini enrolls at the Skyros Centre, and discovers the importance of teddy bears and trauma
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Ernest Hemingway, one of the most influential prose stylists of the last century, maintained that it was bad luck to talk about writing. It takes away "whatever butterflies have on their wings and the arrangement of hawk's feathers if you show it or talk about it", he once said. But, in a confusingly contradictory vein, he went on to write pages and pages of letters and diaries - even an entire (unpublished) manuscript on the very subject. He would offer advice to other writers on good working habits and discipline. All that talking didn't stop him writing. But his reluctance to divulge the secrets contained in the art of writing and the craft of re-writing reflect the mystique that surrounds inspiration and the wearisome hard work it entails. I wonder what he would have thought of creative-writing courses. They have never been more popular. Every adult-education institute in the land offers lessons on how to write the next Bridget Jones or on how to dress our memories in exquisite descriptions, and over-lay them with ingenious incidents and keenly delineated characters.

Currently, there are two market leaders in the creative-writing sector. Well into its 35th year, the Arvon Foundation boasts Ted Hughes as its earliest patron. Every genre known to a publisher's marketing department is dissected at their residential workshops in idyllic rural settings to which anyone can turn up and experience the thrill of inspired creativity at first hand. The same goes for the Skyros Centre in Greece, which has been running its writers' courses for 14 years, and boasts tutors such as Margaret Drabble, Sue Townsend and Steven Berkoff, as well as glorious Grecian weather and a glorious Grecian beach. So when I received a brochure from the Skyros Centre, I was tempted by the idea of staying on an island in the crystal-clear Aegean. But I was reminded of an old joke about two journalists. They are sitting in a pub. "I'm writing a novel," says one. "Neither am I," says the other. There are sceptics among us who don't believe writing can be taught. You just have to sit down and slog it out with the computer. And what's worse, you have to do it alone.

I chose a course entitled "A Story of One's Own", and described as "turning our lives into fiction using narrative voice, imagery, humour and compassion". I have written a family memoir and am writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys, but, like every non-fiction writer, I yearn for fiction. The tutor, Rosie Jackson, has written both and is a hugely experienced teacher.

"Balzac once said 'All fiction is symbolic autobiography'," were her opening words. I was encouraged. However, creative-writing courses move writers in mysterious ways.

In November 1993, Susanna Clarke, who had been dreaming of writing a novel for the previous decade, enrolled on a course at Arvon for writers of fantasy fiction. "I knew that I wanted to write a novel about magic and I had a main character. But I was finding the plotting very difficult."

The tutors on her course, Colin Greenland and Geoff Ryman, are established writers in the fantasy genre. "They asked us to bring a short story. I wrote an out-take from my novel using the main character, Jonathan Strange. It was a kind of "what Jonathan did in his summer holidays" essay. But Geoff and Colin took it very seriously. They focussed on what I was doing right and what I needed to look at. In fact, I ignored their criticisms. What I needed was confirmation that I wasn't wasting my time. The fact that I got that was invaluable."

But working out a plot still came painfully - "over a number of years with many bouts of despair in between." Despair, it was becoming clear to me, seems to lie at the root of creativity. Jean Rhys - whose tear-stained manuscripts I have pored over - removed herself from society. Hemingway killed himself with his favourite rifle. It took Susanna Clarke 10 years to write her novel.

After it was finally published, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize. But what does she owe to Arvon?

"What Arvon did was to imbue me with confidence. When one of the group made fun of Jonathan and listed his faults I felt for the first time as though he had a life of his own - even if it was as the butt of someone's jokes." And it helps that she fell in love. "On the last night at Arvon Colin and I talked till four in the morning. I rang him when I got home," and they have been together ever since.

Not everyone on a creative-writing course will fall in love and write a potential prize-winner. But just being given the chance to be treated as a writer can be enough. Writer and journalist Tim Lott decided to run a workshop at Arvon showing writers how to write "non-fiction as fiction". He used The New Journalism, a collection of articles by American journalists edited by Tom Wolfe, as a starting point. Reading is key to picking up the craft of writing. "The techniques include using interior monologues and setting a scene using the third-person perspective - rather as I did in Scent of Dried Roses [Lott's family memoir]."

Lott wanted to show his students "how you construct a non-fiction narrative using the details usually found in fiction. As an exercise, I asked them to watch everyone on the course and construct characters from them and put them into scenes."

But he has reservations about what can be achieved: "All I can do is accelerate the process of others learning to write. As a self-taught writer myself I would have found it useful to be pointed in the right direction." The hardest lesson came with despatching his budding writer's new-born words. He explains, "Writing is largely about editing and cutting and re-writing." ("I write one page of masterpiece to 91 pages of shit," Hemingway told F Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. "I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.") Lott learnt from his own mistakes: "When I started writing I jealously guarded every finely constructed sentence I wrote."

So far, it's been about the craft of writing. What lies at the root of creativity, though, is a writer staring at a blank page. Lott revealed that he goes into "at least a mild depression when I being writing a new novel". At Skyros, Rosie Jackson's aim was to give her students a glimpse into the creative-writing abyss.

The sun was shining outside the writers' lab but Rosie was more interested in fostering "the darkness" inside her students. "If people aren't prepared to go into the unknown they aren't going to write well," she explains. "The best writing comes from the courage to down into the void - and them come through the other side. It's hard going there. I gave people a taste of it." What transpired was the primal-scream approach to creative writing. Rosie asked us to write stories based on memories from our childhood using a child's voice and a child's perspective.

"It gives you the chance to reconnect with the experience and the feelings it provoked, and write it out." The results were revelatory. I remembered the trauma of losing my teddy bear in a bank. I was four years old and my father had taken me there to pay some bills. As I wrote it down I was plunged into the infantile bewilderment of loss and grief. When it came to reading my story aloud tears and sobs accompanied my words. A box of tissues appeared, a hug was administered, and Rosie pointed out the significance of losing my cherished toy in a bank - "a patriarchal structure - it's about entry into the adult realm." As the group was entirely composed of women it made sense that these issues should come to the fore.

And her radical methodology is supported by theory: "We have to become what we write about," she says. "The chaos of creativity is letting yourself be inhabited by imaginative reality." The other women were similarly affected. One wrote about the vicarage in which she grew up and vicars who "violated their daughters". Another woman wrote about her childish confusion between "Our Lord who taught us" and "Our Lord the tortoise". Tears were flowing and the tissues were doing the rounds but there seemed to be a theme emerging of women finding their place in a man's world.

When Rosie asked us to say how we felt in just one word it was very clear we were all rather disgruntled. Words like "raw", "primitive", and "scared" came out. One woman blurted out "dungeon" before fleeing the room. But Rosie was asking us to do something that every writer does, to "listen to the unconscious of the writing and try to hear what that writing is trying to say.

"If people are used to writing from their heads in a controlled way and suddenly a space is opened up for the outpouring of the unconscious then some might find it hard to hold it. When people start writing their truth it can be scary. Other people find it liberating."

Heart-felt truths given shape by the logic of words is what Rosie was aiming for and it was most concisely expressed in a poem by Jan, whose son had died. "At the beginning of the course she told me she wanted to write a book about him," Rosie explains. "By the end of the fortnight she had written a neatly balanced villanelle. It contained deep feeling in a tight form and she no longer felt the need to write a book." ("Eschew the monumental," Hemingway wrote in 1932. "Shun the Epic. All the guys who can paint great big pictures can paint great small ones.")

In the context of the creative-writing course Jan said what she needed to say in the form that best expressed it. In a sense, that is all any writer can hope for. One of Tim Lott's students has subsequently written to him expressing her gratitude for "getting me over my block". Susanna Clark admits that the "validation" she received as a writer gave her the confidence to turn her dream into fiction. So the lesson seems to be that creative-writing courses do not so much produce instant bestsellers as a chance to explore ourselves; to discover if we have something inside us that will speak to others. It is this diverse community of frustrated storytellers that is flocking to creative-writing courses. And what they get is an opportunity for catharsis - the talking cure put down on the page - before the hard work begins at crafting it into literature.

'Dead Men's Wages' by Lilian Pizzichini (Picador 2002) won the Golden Dagger Award