A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.
— Hanif Kureishi
Dear Hanif —
I’d like you to imagine you are dreaming, a state which leaves the body sightless even as it sees. In this dream, you are skiing down a mountain, your muscles tasked with balancing your limbs and head as you swerve and slalom at breakneck speeds. This isn’t figurative language. If you’ve studied physics and know a little about center-of-gravity, how gravitational potential energy becomes kinetic energy becomes a fall’s fatality, you know the element of risk in this plot. In this dream, you are not dying of boredom.
In this dream, you are not only skiing down a mountain; you do so sight unaided. You cannot see your way down the mountain and must trust the incline of your body. A guide skis before you, calls you down through velocity to denouement. You must trust her path. Perhaps, as you ski this way, the way visually impaired athletes now ski the slopes of Sochi at the Winter Paralympics, you muse on the etymology of the word pedagogue: the servant who leads the children to their place of education.
The twist in the plot, Hanif: you are not dreaming. You are moving at speed — and let’s call it what it is, not speed but time, the passage of years by which we measure our earthly span. You are learning — hurtling too fast to pause, faster than you’d like — how to become conscious. To trust your senses and your instincts, which means, first, coming to sense you have these instincts. Your mind and body know what you yourself don’t yet know. How, perhaps, the story unfolds without the reader wasting away. How a single sentence contains the germ of a novel in the characters — yes, characters — of its letters. “Orion, you came and you took all my marbles,” writes Kira Henahan.
Hanif, please excuse my use of first names; we’ve never met, but listening to your thoughts on teaching and writing, I feel like I know you. Hanif, this skiing isn’t a metaphor, though I can see why you’d take it that way. I’m trying to help you feel what the body knows: that in the bend of the knees, in the angle of the torso, is an answer to the problem of falling, a problem that might break us. That if we don’t learn to listen to the body, which has elements we cannot know exist, we cannot be our selves.
I think of poems this way: an act of following, of having placed our faith in a guide who’ll take us somewhere, who’ll transmute — Denise Levertov’s word — experience into language. An alchemy. I hope, Hanif, though you seem not to value sentences as much as plots, you understand where I’m leading you. The subject you and I are teaching — creative writing — is so-named because the task is to body forth something where there is now nothing. Cognition works, I think, like metaphor or metonymy: we have to invent neural pathways as if building bridges to a destination we not only cannot know beforehand, but which will not even exist until the bridge has been completed. That’s the forge-work of poetry, prose, drama — and it will be shaped in workshops as much as dwelling in the individual mind.
The Alpine skier you thought you dreamed yourself to be: Does her body act as an antenna for the obstacles that might unfix her, the wayward branches of trees, the rucked divots of snowmelt? Is her body specially lent to balance, as if a gene has given to her gifts of equilibrium — supposing genes are never shaped by life, when we know they are? It might be so; I wonder, sometimes, and guess you do too, whether I could place such trust not just in other human beings but also in myself, in the data of my muscles, organs, senses, sinews.
Hanif, it’s not even you I’m really writing to. It’s the Dean of Humanities who begins to interview me for a job and asks whether creative writing can be taught. It’s the poet who cannot fathom how a workshop works. It’s the talking head who’d dismiss the MFA without having thought about the ski-slopes. Because, Hanif, I know you understand this need we writers have for our own Virgils. Yet you’ve confused masters and guides. When you say a Masters’ in creative writing “would be madness” and, instead, you “would find one teacher who I thought would be really good for me,” you’ve forgotten that our practice is a conversation — think Keats reading to and with Charles Brown; think the fraught back-and-forths sallying into the evening at Black Mountain; think of Kundiman retreats.
We’ve learnt to suspect Prospero’s mastery, to wonder whose expense it’s at, to listen for Caliban and for Miranda (and yes, for Stephano and Trinculo, poor waywards). Headlong down the slope’s not-blankness — the skier knows snow never forms a sheet, cannot be termed a whiteness — we’re both following someone else and listening for ourselves, the shape we burrow in air into our surroundings. We have, Hanif, disturbed the world, and that disturbance our senses track, just as we feel a lover’s hand next to, not quite touching, our skin.
When I started teaching, I taught alongside the late Leslie Woodard, whose writing and pedagogy I continue to marvel at, missing the shape she made in the world for friends and students alike. Nervous, I asked her, before our course’s first day, “What if I contradict something you’ve said to the students?” Her generous laugh said it all. Bring it on, it said. Let them know that there’s not a single answer, that they’ll each come via different approaches. Alpine skiing, Hanif, isn’t like bobsledding, where the goal is working out how to adhere to the fastest line down the track, a route you could calculate with algorithms. Alpine skiing is responsive work.
Responsive work, or para-work: work that happens besides, alongside, near, proximate to, surrounding ourselves and others. Robert Louis Stevenson saw writing as “play[ing] the sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne, to Defoe, to Hawthorne, to Montaigne, to Baudelaire and to Obermann.” I found that, too, shaping my own books of poetry, my translations of novels, following not just my teachers but my fellow students, those poets who hammered at anvils to make strange shoes for horses alongside me in the workshop.
Hanif, you’re busy; I’ll let you go, let you open up your eyes to stimuli strange against your eyeballs’ rods and cones. But a question for the going: why is writing the practice we insist can’t be taught? I think of my father-in-law learning the work of bronze and clay in a ceramics MFA. My yoga teacher’s knee between my shoulder blades showing me my body has a range of motion I can’t yet access, not on my own. Photos of B.K.S. Iyengar comfortably and impossibly arranged; the point is not to become him, but to learn what language my joints might speak.
I fear the answer is that we’d rather not have words be common, that some would like to master the language. I’d hope, against this, that anyone who claims to know the art (if not the mastery) of creative writing would feel more humble, less settled in the face of language: surer of their skill and stories, and surer still they have not knowledge but a means of pursuit. A way of descending, if you like.
P.S. There is, of course, an economic argument here, the rising costs of education, the salaries of professors and vice-chancellors and overheads of universities. That argument can’t pertain to creative writing alone; archaeologist and lawyer and writer alike are taught in the wake of capital’s ebb-and-flow. Paulo Freire has something to say on this. He’d remind us that we’re not teachers and students, but teacher-students and student-teachers. Who’s more important: skier or guide? I’ve begun to forget which is which.