I have been teaching writing at university level for twelve years, making my own writing for around forty-five years, publishing writing of different kinds: scholarship, journalism, poetry, polemic and prose fiction for twenty-five years and reading ever since I learned how to do it on my own. The reading is the most vital part of the enterprise. It’s the only thing that I am certain I will do everyday. I feel anxious and discontented if I have done no writing for a while, but sick to the stomach if I can’t read. When he got stuck writing Flaubert plunged into his books. I think manywriters do this. We walk, drink, eat, check out our lovers when we can’t write. But above all, we read.
A large part of teaching writing is about teaching students how to read. And to read in a particular way. We are concerned not only with what the writing is about, but also with how it works on the reader and how it has been made. There is something of a debate around the question - should writing only be taught by practising writers? My answer to this would be a simple yes. Not all writers are good teachers. Some writers have no idea how they write. Some are too paranoid to share their secrets. But someone who doesn’t write won’t have the same relationship to language that a writer has, nor the same passionate urgency about making writing and telling stories. I wouldn’t want to learn how to fly from someone who had never set foot in a plane and didn’t love the danger and the risks.
I now teach writing on the MA in Creative Writing (Prose Fiction) at UEA. We have two other strands: Poetry and Scriptwriting. All our MA degrees are taught by workshop and tutorial. I use part of the group teaching time to discuss common points and problems; usually issues of plot, structure, grammar and narrative perspective. How do you construct a double narrative and ensure that the reader remains equally interested in both stories? How do you change the point of view without an alarming lurch that derails the reader? Is it wise to write an 80,000-word novel about bullying and murder in the present tense? How knowing should your child narrator be? How can you build a credible fantasy world in which the reader can be confident about the rules that govern the fiction? How do you avoid spelling out the rules in long boring passages? The students need to remember their readers - to think of themselves as readers. What are you asking the reader to do? What are you withholding from her?
The workshop can be a blunt and useless space if it is full of competitive hostility or if its members possess dramatically uneven literary knowledge and ability. If someone is well read and knows another, or several other languages, it always shows in their writing. It also shows in the workshop. If the group does not have a common analytical vocabulary and if the students are not sharply articulate about their critical positions then the workshop will not work. In my experience the workshop members must be committed to writing, to ideas, to a passionate intellectual life and to each other. Anyone who suggests that they will end up writing in the same style has clearly never taught a workshop. My students are fiercely original. The settings of their stories will give you an idea of radically different they are - the new South Africa, a chicken factory, London in the era of Punk, a fairy tale village in Bohemia, a playground and a park, an inner city farm, Dublin and the Isle of Wight, Sicily and Croatia, a feudal Japanese fantasy, and on board the USS America during the First Gulf War.
For every workshop three students will have handed in between 2,000 and 5,000 words of their own work during the previous week. I usually ask them to indicate if there is some aspect of the work that is bothering them or something specific with which they feel they need help. Then they will read three or four pages aloud. There is no substitute for the voice. I always urge my students to read every single word aloud before they hand it in. All the problems are instantly, scarily visible. If the writing is repetitive, dull or overwritten, if the pace and register is wrong, the voice, even the writer’s own voice, will tell you so. Then the student whose work is being discussed will fall silent while the writing meets its first readers.
And of course a little tact is necessary; we are in the business of choosing words with great care. When the workshop succeeds and the admiration, criticism, suggestions and objections are given and taken in a spirit of collaborative generosity, then there is no better way for writers to read and to be read. I enjoy the satisfaction on a writer’s face when their work has generated an energetic disagreement – or even a fight. All the marked up texts are handed back to the writer at the end of the workshop. Each student signs their own comments and owns their own praise and criticism. We teach writing in small groups, never more than twelve. And these workshops are backed up by individual tutorials. It is my view that one cannot work without the other. Sometimes the different advice from different critical readers can be confusing; not usually concerning what is wrong, but how to put it right.
One of my former colleagues, who did her MA at Lancaster University, told me that handing your writing over to the workshop was like undressing in public. This isn’t something that we all enjoy doing and it is my view that a writing workshop doesn’t suit every temperament. Some writers are loners who only trust one or two people with their ideas and their work in progress. They have their own personal workshop, which they keep locked. A workshop runs on commitment and trust. You have to trust your colleagues to be on the side of the writing, rather than your ego. And the danger is that as we all grow to love each other’s stories we cease to be ruthless, clear-sighted and demanding readers. I have twelve students this year, twelve different stories, styles, endeavours, twelve different sets of problems and twelve different solutions. These tales are like vintages of good wine. Some will be ready by the end of the year; some will need a few more years in the cask.
Patricia Duncker is a novelist. Her most recent book is Seven Tales of Sex and Death (Picador, 2003) She is Professor of Creative Writing (Prose Fiction) at the University of East Anglia. Her colleagues teaching alongside her on the MA are the novelists Professor Michele Roberts and Dr Paul Magrs.