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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Institutionalized Creativity

Russell Celyn Jones writing on his experiences teaching creative writing suggests that failure causes real emotional trauma among his students. And he compares the creative writing business to the business of psychotherapy, something Americans are more comfortable with than the British.

The trend in workshops, at least at a post graduate level, is towards the literary novel. Students like to experiment, keep their options open. They seem blissfully unaware of the crisis in English fiction. But I can’t help worrying about the one working on a six hundred page novel called Death of Meaning written all in dialogue between a supermarket trolley and a satellite dish. Who does he think is going to read that? Is it wrong to tell them to keep an eye on the market while also encouraging a climate of investigation?

19 Responses to “Institutionalized Creativity”

  1. Eli James says:

    Death Of Meaning will probably win a Booker prize, but fail to sell any more than 500 copies. 😉

    jb says: You think there are than many potentials out there?

  2. It would be sad to think that all creative writing courses were geared to producing marketable products and that the measure of success is how many go on to get published. The truth is that there won’t be a place for most students’ work in the market place, either because the writing isn’t good enough or just doesn’t fit. But some people choose to “study” creative writing as a way of opening up to creative process, to enrich their lives. In my experience as student and teacher, the best work comes out of a combination of playfulness and paying attention to how words work.

    jb says: To study creative writing but not wish to write. That’s a new thought for me, but a valid point to raise. After all it’s only another academic subject.

  3. Steve Clackson says:

    Read it? Who is going to publish it? Perhaps its time to add “Shock Treatment” to his psychotherapy analogy.

    jb says: Hi Steve. Is it a quiz, this? Who is going to publish it? Is it Mills and Groan?

  4. Jerry Prager says:

    Dear Mr. John Baker sir,
    My own novel is about a conversation between a satellite dish and a supermarket cash register. It’s a very witty satellite dish, and the cash register has a droll sense of humour. I paid $4000 for a creative writing course and my instructor said my book, The Dearth of Money, was brilliant and that his friend might be interested in publishing it, but that was ten years ago. I’m still writing it, I got it up to 50,000 pages, but I read a book about revising and so I’m trying to get it down to 45,000 pages.
    So to answer the question your post poses, I think people should write what they want, I was going to post my novel on a blog soon, but because it was so big I was told I have to save up to buy one of those whatchmacallit’s, an internet provider so I can post the whole thing at once, but now that you mentioned the other guys book I think I should go to every blog provider there is and link all my posts together, because I want to get my book out before the satellite dish/trolley guy does and I get afford to buy an internet provider until my royalties come in. Kind of like Catch-22 huh ? (the idea, not the book.)

    Aspiring Writer from Cabbagetown, Ontario
    Maybe we’re the pioneers of a new genre ?

    jb says: Dear Aspiring, good luck with the editing.

  5. Shawn says:

    I have never enrolled in a creative writing program, but if I ever did, I would do it to learn to be the best writer in I could be in an artistic sense, not in a financial sense. Finding a way to make a living is my problem. Just teach me everything you can about writing well, and I’ll worry about making the money. After all, no one told me to be a writer. And if someone wants to write a 1000 page novel in the form of an enormous palindrome about kitchen utensils debating the subtextual themes in the Dunciad, well let ’em have at it. It’s a free country (in many places, I’m told).

    With that I’ll leave you with a quote from William Gaddis (an authority on writing books that sold little more than 500 copies): “If you’re going to write a book, who asked you to? It is, in fact, quite an act of ego to sit down in a room, while others are getting on trains and subways, and put one’s vision on paper, and then ask others to pay to read it. Not only to pay, but say, ‘Isn’t he brilliant.’ It’s an act of audacity.”

    jb says: Hi Shawn. Act of Audacity, that’s what we’re after. It would make a good title, too, don’t you think?

  6. I should have used the word practice. Some people who wish to write may not be marketable. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t do it. I don’t see it as just another academic subject.

    jb says: Did I miss something? Who said people shouldn’t write if they want to. I’ve never advocated that only commercial literature is valid. Quite the contrary. I’ve got drawers full of stuff nobody wants to publish.

  7. Jerry Prager says:

    I actually regard writing as an obsessive compulsive behaviour and advise people that if they can stop, they should, as quickly as possible, if they can’t well…

    jb says: I don’t really see it as a disease, jerry. But it’s certainly got something obsessive about it. I’m not really at home in myself when I’m not writing.

  8. Steve Clackson says:

    Ah Mills and Groan…near and dear to everyone’s heart…not their brain mind you but heart. 🙂

    jb says: I’ve never actually read one. Never had the time. But I remember reading their formula for writers’ many years ago. Seemed like a straight-jacket.

  9. Jerry Prager says:

    You mean it’s a disease ? I thought obsessive compulsive behaviour was a character trait.

    As for the trauma of failure, I’m not sure there’s a way around that, except by not marrying yourself to your own words. I won’t say I enjoyed all my trauma’s or even that I wish trauma on anyone, but it does somehow seem to come with the writer’s territory. You need to perform a little alchemy on them, transform the baseness of the experience into something finer. Go through the traumas, not around them.
    People need writers who have survived the darkness, I think that’s one of the points of writing, to prove that you can separate your own shadow from the darkness and make your way towards the light.

    jb says: Interesting comments, Jerry. I’m not sure that people need writers who have survived the darkness. Perhaps they need people who have been in the battle and survived or not. Writers like John Clare come to mind, or painters like Vincent van Gogh. Their work was no less powerful or important because they had been overcome. We need writers, actually artists of all kinds to convey to us what it’s like over there, and we also need them to confirm for us what it’s like over here.

  10. Paul says:

    Your post on Wislawa Szymborska (below) has a link to a site which includes 5 of her poems. One of the poems is “The Joy of Writing.”
    I realised a little while ago that I was spending so much time, obsessing about getting published, that it had largely muted any sense of “joy” I had in writing.
    Szymborska’s poem is wonderful, and put into words so much that I had forgotten.
    Where can I find an M.A. course in the “joy of writing?”

    jb says: Hi Paul. You won’t find the course you’re looking for. And thanks for reminding us of The Joy of Writing. The link is here.

  11. Jerry Prager says:

    I suppose you’re right about assailing the darkness and not making it through, failing in that sense is not really a failure, it’s more like a form of heroic loss. If the art wasn’t attempted in the first place I suppose it would be some all-too-human form of loss, but, as you say, the attempt itself has meaning.
    Still, making it through and letting other people know it can be done, is certainly one of things that helps me forward, if only because the works of others that made it through do the same for me in the darkest hours. The promise to add to the light ends up on the list of things I gird my loins with.
    I’m fairly certain too, that joy is one of the gifts you receive when you emerge from the darkness.

    jb says: Why I search for my own answers along the paths of the old poets, is because I am drawn to ambiguity. It is the only thing that makes sense to me. And the following are not, of course, my own words:

    I believe in the refusal to take part.
    I believe in the ruined career.
    I believe in the wasted years of work.
    I believe in the secret taken to the grave.

  12. Creating The Eyes of Van Gogh

    As the director and author of this new independent film, I welcome your thoughts and questions about the process and am always interested in further exploration of van Gogh and Gauguin. Please visit my website, or my blog, or reply to this post.

    Alexander Barnett

    jb says: Hi Alexander. Good to see you here. Will we get a chance to see the movie over here in Europe?

  13. bloglily says:

    Any of those last four lines would make a terrific novel, John. I am particularly drawn to the refusal to take part, but only because George Eliot has already done such a fine job dealing with the “the wasted years of work” in Middlemarch, and I feel I have nothing as good to add. (And now I can’t help it — the secret taken to the grave: Faulkner. Isn’t all of Faulkner about secrets taken to graves and unquiet graves? The ruined career? Dreiser’s Sister Carrie?)

    But please, don’t tell me someone’s already done the refusal to take part. I want that one, because I don’t want to have to do the dish and the spoon talking to each other.

    jb says: Hi Bloglily. I’m sure someone’s done the refusal to take part. Huckleberry Finn comes to mind. Thornton Wilder? The thing is though, you’ll find that someone has done it before whatever it is you want to do. There is nothing new in the world, only new ways of seeing it. Do the refusal to take part, it’s just waiting there for you to come along and pick it up. Someone else will take care of the dish and the spoon.

  14. Paul says:

    “I believe in the refusal to take part”
    Isn’t this the same as believing in your right to be yourself, and to resist becoming the person that society/media/employers/peer groups want you to be?
    In literature is it Holden Caulfield and every hard-bitten, world-weary cop who ever trod the streets of Chicago and Oxford?
    In fiction the world empathises with these characters and eventually comes round to their way of thinking.
    But in reality, I suppose they cannot change what they refuse to participate in, except for the exceptions of course.

    jb says: Thanks for this, Paul. It’s good to have you around, comments like these force us to re-examine what we thought we knew.

  15. Jerry Prager says:

    What strikes me about the quatrain (and I’m still trying to get a hold of one of your books from my library to know for myself) is to what extent your crime fiction uses the notion of taking secrets to the grave. If you do make use of the device (fact/reality) why, or at least, as a less existential question, what does it do to an ending of a crime story that you like ?
    I should also admit to being a huge fan of British mysteries (at least on film,video.) It’s almost like the British own the genre, and I’m looking forward to reading your work.

    jb says: Hi Jerry. I can’t answer the question about crime fiction, I’m afraid. Just don’t know the answer. But I hope when you find one of my novels you’ll find something original in it, or at least an attempt at originality.

  16. Jerry Prager says:

    I’ve found The Chinese Girl as a ‘talking book’ and am about half way through the cassettes. While the use of letters is of course not in itself original, I think you use them in an original way. On a series of tapes the refrain of ‘Dear Ginnie’ has a way of driving one a little batty since the suspense of her awakening is all one is really interested in from the moment the letters start. And even though the story told in the letters becomes more and more compelling, they mercifully end so we can get on to finding out more about the Chinese Girl. Of course there is a secondary, related current of suspense in that Ginnie might wake up at any point and confront Stone about who he is and what he is doing with her letters etc. So in that way the letters intensify the suspense, even while the reader (listener in this case) is forced into and then out of Juliet’s madness, which of course creates third degree of suspense.
    By the way I thought you handled the frenzy at the peak of her madness quite well… been there, done that and so recognized the furniture.

    jb says: I have never heard the audio version of the novel. I made a decision not to listen to any of the tapes of my books, as I didn’t want to have someone else’s voice in my head if I should decide to write a sequel. But it’s good to hear that it works at least on some of the levels I intended.

  17. Dear JB,

    I would love to find a European distributor. Meanwhile, you can see a clip from the film at The DVD is also available and is playable in Europe.

    Thanks so much for your interest. My next film will be King Lear.

    Alexander Barnett

    jb says: Hi Alexander. Let us know if a European distributor comes along and we’ll watch out for it. Oh, and good luck with Lear.

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