Inspiration, Perspiration, Education

Category: Writing

I love the very notion of genius: the ultimate being; one who levitates from bed in the morning with poetry bristling in every follicle; one who, en route to their early morning cup of nectar, has only to pass by a word-processor for the perfect words, the cadenced sentences, the achingly beautiful lines to appear on the screen. This is the being to whom posterity gifts her warmest smile and preserves the safest seat.  We all love the notion of genius, don’t we? We are entranced by it, for this notion is, is it not, the very fabric of the creative process?

Of course, we hear writers bleat about how writing is x percent inspiration, y percent perspiration, where the ratio of y to x is proportional to the writer’s modesty, or, we suspect, lack of talent; for how can any work be magical, inspiring, and transcendental for the reader if its creation sounds more like breaking your back shoveling manure than plucking and presenting the pure fragrance of a rose? We don’t want to hear that writing is hard work; we want to hear that a work of art is born fully formed in a shell, cradled in foaming waves.

So, how shocked we are to hear that some would-be writers attend writing courses. That’s right, courses that teach writing. How outrageous is that; the idea of someone standing there and telling a classroom of people how to create art? That must be a combination of talentless hacks getting ideas above their station and unscrupulous organizations cashing in on their ignorance. Who taught Shakespeare? Who held Austen’s hand? Who stood behind Hemingway and leaned forward to tell him to cut the adjectives? Who on earth would actually believe that they can learn writing in a creative writing class?

That would be me. My name is Stephen and I’m a creative writing student. I’ve written since I can remember. I’ve had a lopsided love affair with literature for years, and I studied it for many of those years, tearing it down, breaking it apart, shouting about it, being overwhelmed by it. And throughout it all, for all of my life, I have thought of myself as a writer.

So why would someone who has enjoyed the gift of such an education traipse through Atlantic winds, rain and Arctic snow every Saturday morning – yes, Saturday morning – to sit for three hours in a writing class?

The answer is a shockingly obvious “because it works”. I, like many others, was haunted by the spectre of the garretted artist, the one who whispered to me that the only way to write was to stew in the works of the greats, simmer for about 10-20 years at varying temperatures, stir it all up, and a spicy masterpiece would be the result. But it didn’t happen. I wrote. I wrote some bad things. Was it my lack of talent that stopped these things from being not bad? Possibly, but how could I know? This is the problem that new writers face: they are alone.

But they have always been alone, you may very well cry. And I hear you. Writing is a solitary pursuit, but we must not confuse that with the idea of the writer as an island. One of the most oppressive ideas for the writer is that their work might never be read. This was not a problem for Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, et al. They had audiences ready to engage, to feed back, to listen.  Without wishing to make too many excuses for the modern writer, I feel that we do suffer from additional weights and pressures that our illustrious ancestors did not know. We are overwhelmed with media to the point of bewilderment; we are far more self-conscious but probably less self-aware, and we have an embarrassment of riches in a body of work that is as diverse as it is deep as it is terrifyingly good. How many of us, talentless or otherwise, can sit down to create and not feel that weight?

What a good creative writing course can do is to offer some order in the omnipresent chaos. It will let you take a breath before you stare in the mirror and say, “Right, this is the story I want to tell.” More than anything it will provide you with a critical readership; one that will tell you everything you need to know about your writing and then some.

Writing, as with any art, involves inspiration and it involves a lot of work, but we should never forget that it is also a result of craft. While very few can be great writers we can all be better writers, and it should be a comfort rather than a disappointment to learn that even those of us who don’t levitate out of bed in the morning can enjoy the process of becoming better at that craft.


Stephen Barrett

Stephen Barrett received a New Writers Award in 2010.