Rhyme and un-reason
Singing the story

Demandingly 'wrong'-headed

I put on my flak jacket a couple of days ago, when someone on a forum started yet another thread about 'the rules'. (I'd post the link, but it was in the private part of WriteWords.)The gist of the question was: when, in learning to write, had each of us realised we were following... no, I won't say 'the rules', but established ideas of techniques that work? And in the discussion, someone posted what's apparently a Buddhist saying, that 'When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears.'

At school, and in most homes, and in most jobs, there's always a 'right' way to do things and the quicker you learn to do things 'right', the more impressed your parents and teachers are with you, the more ticks, the better the mark. There's a goal of rightness, at least implied if not stated, and you try to reach it. These days they call them learning outcomes, but it's fundamentally the same thing: goals, outcomes, products. But learning isn't as simple as that, and certainly no art can be, in that sense, right or wrong. So there can't be a right or a wrong way to do it. As I was trying to unpick in Messes, Clones and Plots like a W, what worries me about 'the rules' is that the very term implies the idea that you must learn them, in order to get your writing 'right'. And yet if you want to learn something you know nothing about, it's hard to see where else to start, other than with someone telling how to do it.

The answer, of course, is that (unless you're one of the not-rare-enough people who don't think having read a book or two is a necessary qualification for writing one) you don't know nothing about writing. You're just not aware of the body of knowledge you have, because it's built up in you by stealth. One of the most important moments in my learning about what the academics call pedagogy (only I don't because I can't pronounce it and it sounds silly) was when after twenty years of taking photographs quite seriously I did my first ever course. Suddenly I was offered a vocabulary, a structure for my intuitive knowledge: ways of thinking about what I'd always done. Yes, I was shown new things, helped towards better work. But at every turn, every week, I was mapping these new structures of ideas and techniques onto my instinctive, almost physical, certainly un-unalytical and un-analysed experience. I was ready, and the teacher appeared. And more important still was the fact that, when I was offered a guideline, a 'right' way, a rule if you like, instead of doing as I was told, I couldn't help but measure it against that experience, and accept, adapt or discard it accordingly.

Of course it's not as simple as that. With the rare exception of the farmer's child who's been driving tractors for years, learning to drive is a good example of having to learn a set of rules with little prior experience to map them on to. But driving is a very both-sides-of-the-brain activity, of the kind I was exploring in Rhyme and un-reason, and because you can only learn about driving by doing it, what you're told are the rules, and what you learn as you try to follow them, can't help but form a feedback loop, a virtuous (you hope) spiral of physical, intuitive experience and explicit knowledge.

So I don't think it's necessarily a mistake to start along the road to becoming a writer by signing up to a course. When it's well tutored, the usual structure of a series of workshops - critiquing writing done in class and in between - forms a very similar virtuous spiral. But I do think that it may not be the best way to start. Art is what you get when craft becomes the channel for an individual consciousness and personality, but it only comes about when that consciousness and personality can demand what they need of the craft. Which may well be the 'wrong' way, but if the first things you learnt about writing are not how to listen to that demandingly 'wrong'-headed voice, but how to get things 'right', then you may never hear it speak at all.