Monday, 14 November 2011

An unsuitable task for a writer? - Dennis Hamley

I'm quite glad this week is over. It's been dominated by what has now become an annual ritual. On November 5th I found a big packet in my postbox. It wasn't a surprise present: I'd been expecting it. All the assignments from my students on the short fiction module of the Oxford Undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing.

Each year I set the same sort of task for this assignment. A 2500 word story on a concept which can be interpreted in several ways - literally, metaphorically, what you will. Journey, for instance, or Flight. This year I chose Trial.

So far, my tone seems rather downbeat, as if I've at last completed a chore. Well, it's hard work: these scripts need careful scrutiny, as close a critical response as I am capable of and a detailed appraisal and advice to be as helpful to the student as I can make it. They've taken me the whole week. They usually take longer. I've tried to do them quickly this time because we are going to Germany on Monday to see my son and his family, so this morning I took them down to the Registry at Rewley House and was quite taken aback by the joy with which the girl behind the desk received them. She seemed
strangely enthusiastic: I was just relieved.

By this time you must be saying to yourselves, "Crikey, he really hates it." No, no, no. I feel invigorated. I've read some marvellous stories. I've seen the task I set interpreted in ways which would never have occurred to me. I've had one of the funniest stories I have ever read. I've had a sort of meditation on the nature of words dramatised in a way which made fascinating narrative. I always do a seminar on magic realism and post-modernism. This year's must have caught their imagination because I had wonderful examples of both. I had an unexpected reworking of Grimm. I had a very impressive pastiche of a Celtic legend which raised a lot of questions about the nature of mythology. I had a visit to a dealer in Futures which had an extraordinary outcome which was a little narrative coup which I'm still thinking about. I had a fictionalisation of an event in Nazi Germany, taken from a true experience, written with a clarity of thought and prose which made what hair there is left on my head stand up. And more, and more and yet more.

And, when they are all asssessed, classed as firsts, 2:1s, 2:2s, 3rds (there were none of them, this is a dedicated, even driven, group) , when the comments are written on the cover sheets, I put them in the envelope and seal it up - yes, I feel relief, but I also feel my own sort of joy and also a fair dash of humility. There is real talent in that group, as there is each year. They can do things I'd never even know how to start. "Why do they need the likes of me to teach them," I sometimes say to myself.

Well, I can do it because I've been there, done that and they know it. I can do it because I've reflected a lot on the business of being a writer - and much of this reflection came before I ever thought I could actually be one. Yes, it's good for aspiring writers to be with those who are more or less established (not quite such a dependable status as once it was). I believe wholeheartedly in the idea of the Writing Community.

But, God help us, these are doing it for an academic award. Many go on to Masters degrees, some on the Oxford MSt, others to Brookes, Birkbeck, Glamorgan, Bath Spa, Brunel, one or two even to UEA, where the Booker winners come from. Isn't this a contradiction in terms? Is it really a suitable thing to take someone's delicately crafted story and try to assess it objectively enough to give it a University class? What criteria do you use to assess a sonnet? What if the poem is a gem and the poet is brilliant but completely innumerate so it ends up with seventeen lines?

I've thought a lot about this over the years. Sometimes I used to think that an MA in novel writing must be a wonderful thing: it would set you up for life, publishers would come running because the letters after the name said "This person can really write." Sometimes I thought that anything worth doing was worth having a degree course to do it in: degrees give respectability. If you can do one in beekeeping, why not in writing books? But then I thought, I'm a writer, I get published but I haven't got a degree in it. I read English at University but that's a completely different thing. I've never even been a student on a creative writing course because when I started there were no such things. I did, before I was twenty, start doing a correspondence course in writing short stories but soon gave it up because even then I could see it was obviously complete rubbish. The first creative writing courses I ever attended were ones that I set up myself and tutored on.

So what is it which makes me go on teaching on the Diploma, do it with such joy and satisfaction and regret that there were no such things to do when I was young. I'm too old now, I thought (but in the first year I taught on the Diploma one of the students was, of all people, Sir Roger Bannister, then a mere 80. I gave him a 2:1).

Well, I believe it can be taught. No, you can't teach talent but you can teach techniques. You can teach the basic tools of the narrative trade: structure, point of view, pacing, all the rest of them. You can lead them into new ways of seeing narrative and watch them seize on them with enthusiasm or reject them as not for them. And then you take on the role of the mentor and lead them - if they need it; often they don't - through the thicket of problems that narrative throws up. And then, after all that, I think it is possible to say that yes, there is a little assessible nugget which can be seen. examined and evaluated well enough to be classed, trusting in our own understanding and integrity.

But then, of course, we see that future success as authors has little to do with whether they got a ist or a 2:1 in their diploma so once again you wonder what it's all about. But if you ask them, they'll tell you that yes, it's been a supremely shaping experience, it was about the best thing they've done in their lives. They feel they really have been part of a high-level writing community which looks after itself, spurs itself on, encourages itself from within, sticks together and grows as an interdependent unit.

Did you have that sort of experience? Lucky you if you did. When, forty years ago, I announced to my colleagues that I'd started writing a novel I was greeted by light laughs and pitying looks. "They laughed when I sat down to play." In the words of the late and great Bob Monkhouse, "They aren't laughing now."

But quiet and private revenge is no way to start a writing career.


Dan Holloway said...

"What if the poem is a gem and the poet is brilliant but completely innumerate so it ends up with seventeen lines?"

That perfectly sums up the dilemma of assessing most humanities disciplines (I've heard Oxford University examiners have exactly that conversation about more than one subject). I think, as you hint, the answer - sadly for our performance indicator hungry age - lies in trusting the integrity and judgement of experienced examiners.

I would have loved the opportunity to study creative writing at postgraduate level. These days even the shortest diploma or Arvon week is beyond me financially, but as a way - as you say - to gain the tools to put the talent you have to use, I think they are something people who can afford should consider.

Susan Price said...

Great post, Dennis - witty, thoughtful and insighful.
Have a great time in Germany!

dirtywhitecandy said...

What an interesting post, Dennis. I think what you give them is not necessarily the slip of paper or the magic letters. It's the confidence to explore their artform, to develop it and themselves in ways they wouldn't have if searching on their own. That's what mentors do.
What a lovely job to have read those 'trial' stories. Any chance of them appearing as an anthology on Kindle...?

Avril said...

Writing can be tough that's why we need people like you Dennis to inspire and support. I don't think we can ever underestimate the importance of good teachers/mentors in our development as writers. It's so important that writers are taught by other writers who have a passion and love for what they do.

madwippitt said...

Those stories all sound riveting ... now I want to read them!

Cathy said...

Thank you Dennis for your enthusiasm and your expertise. As one of the 'dedicated, even driven' (!), I have found this diploma course enlightening and enjoyable. I am so grateful, which is unfashionably sincere, I know, and probably slightly embarrassing, but nonetheless true. Cathy x

Anonymous said...

Having been taught by Dennis myself, and having him mark the short story assignment I can only say I learned an awful lot from him and am truly grateful for the experience and knowledge he so willingly shared. I also know that those feelings were shared by others on my course. We all had a great deal of affection for the man and the unselfish way in which he gave of himself.