Saturday, July 31, 2010

Writing towards Sanity

‘The Writing Life’ by author Ellen Gilchrist has interesting stories about teaching creative writing courses. She teaches in the University of Arkansas and shares her experiences making writers out of students. She describes her difficulties particularly in encouraging students from small Southern towns to expand their minds. Hers is an interesting perspective on how to grow the talent or skill in writing. She encourages her students to read the book ‘On Writing’ by Ernest Hemingway. I have not read this book but I understand it’s a collection of essays or parts of Hemingway’s works that speak of writing – plucked out and assembled in a book.

It’s arguably a good way to start with Hemingway but perhaps it’s a problem for those in small towns who have not seen the world as Hemingway has. The difficulty is seeing the world in his eyes which was distorted by his own prejudices on how one should live a true life. One may get the impression of a life of ‘moveable feasts’ in exciting cities, drinking wine and eating good food. Of adventures in wars and other cataclysmic world event that make one a man and shape his outlook in life. Hemingway is a great writer but reading his advice on how to write is like learning golf from Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus – each with his own expert bias.

One cannot step up that fast without earning one’s dues. Hemingway’s words are like a drug for the young and uninitiated. For the experienced and world wise, his works seem juvenile and infantile (i.e. bullfights, hunting in Africa, etc.) and lack seriousness. Nevertheless, he is a great writer but one has to be careful on the lessons that can be learned from him. This brings us back to Ellen Gilchrist and the creative writing course. I guess the writing seminar is meant to bridge the gap between learning how to write and being Hemingway. But perhaps it is a good start and one sees her imagination, sincerity and dedication. I have not read her works of fiction but somehow I feel it lacks the depth of vision that one looks for. It’s her fondness for Hemingway or Turgenev (a Hemingway favorite) that provides a clue.

Comparing her works with Zadie Smith’s essays on writing on the other hand is the difference between night and day. To me, Ms. Smith’s work is the true barometer of good critical writing. But she is more at a master class level as compared to Gilchrist. I guess it’s the difference between teaching over intelligent Ivy leagues students and the rest of the population. But I am ashamed to make this distinction but just stating a fact. Ms. Smith’s writes about E.M.Forster, Vladimir Nabokov and David Foster Wallace – an entirely different universe from Hemingway or Turgenev. But I like Ms. Gilchrist especially since like me, she adores John Le Carre and his master spy George Smiley and makes one understand her better. Ms. Gilchrist has also written more books than Ms Smith.

I see now that it’s the women who make better teachers on writing than men. In fact, my first epiphany on the writing craft came from Ayn Rand after spending decades under the spell of Hemingway.  Perhaps I would have done better starting with Ayn Rand than Hemingway. One wonders if it’s the father figure that he provided in the budding writer’s subconscious – telling everyone that it’s alright and one could be a writer like him but really it’s like Tiger Woods telling you that you could hit 250 yards and compete in the US Open after attending only a few weeks of training. Is golf like writing? Like golf, writing is a life long activity that one has to keep practicing to gain expertise and be in the game. One has to adapt to the aging mind and body as one makes the journey through life. Golf is also a game that one can be good at any age while one plays at different courses. It’s always a different game played in the green as the terrain keeps changing.

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