Plumbing the Depths

I teach creative writing. There, I’ve said it. I feel as if I have confessed to something best kept secret because sometimes I feel that there all together too many books out there and we don’t need any more. Specifically I feel that there are all together too many books out there that aren’t mine and I’m not sure why I am working to increase the competition.

At the moment I am teaching creative writing quite a lot. I use ‘teach’ advisedly because it rather suggests I know things that my students don’t know and if you were to ask me what I know about creative writing I would probably demur, hop awkwardly from one foot to the other, come over all faint, or more likely suggest we go for a drink or a coffee and hope we can talk about something else.

Of course I do know loads of things my student’s don’t know – where I put my daughter’s homework in my last crazy tidying session, how to jump start an ancient Fiat, just how awful seventies fashion really were in their original incarnation. What I know about writing is much harder to determine. Sometimes I wonder if that makes me a fraud. Most of the time it makes me focus not on what I know, but on what I know how to do.

It is easy to underestimate how much we all gain just through experience: I wouldn’t call it knowledge, which to me suggests something intellectual and rarified, more know-how – a practical – oh love, you’ve got a crack in your plot, and your characters need an oil change. kind of thing. What I offer is the writer’s equivalent of a plumber’s quick intake of breath. I rub my chin and offer a diagnosis. ‘You see ( insert student’s name) what you’ve got here is the old overloaded sentence problem.’ Pause while I look reassuring, scratch and seem to consider a tea break. ‘Not a big job to fix. Take you an hour or two tops. You need to turn down your melodrama thermostat to ‘cool’ and bleed your radiators – lose a few of those adjectives. Your kind of plot will run smoother without them.’ And of course the same problems crop up again and again. There’s the pilot light problem when the story never fires up, the blocked pipe problem when every time the story gets going the student throws a a lump of description or exposition into the works and messes up the flow. There’s the dodgy connection problem where the story set-up defies logic or starts in the wrong place and so on. When I look at it this way I see myself less as the fount of all wisdom – more of a woman with a story-spanner: not so much a teacher as word-plumber. I can live with that.