How writing works
Doing your exercises

Town, gown and its own best self

One of the questions that’s asked a lot in creative writing workshops and similar contexts is ‘Why did you do such-and-such?’ And since you’re a thoughtful writer, you have a reason – you did it on purpose, after all – so you explain, and although the fact that someone stumbled over it may mean you do a bit of fine-tuning, that will be that. You have, in a sense, rebutted the challenge and proved your point: it is the right thing to have there. So it was a shock when my editor first asked, ‘Why did you do that?’ about some aspect of The Mathematics of Love, and listened to my reason, and then said, ‘Yes. But it doesn’t work.’ The reader - or rather, the editor as my representative reader - didn't get it, and the fact that I had a good reason for everything I'd done isn’t enough to justify leaving it like that. Ignoring such feedback from a trusted reader isn't an option: I've either got to do what I was trying to do better, or do something else.

I would never say that for this reason editors in the book industry are more rigorous than teachers in the academy: it’s a different kind of rigor. My PhD supervisor is thinking about “the qualities of authenticity and innovation in the process and/or results” of my work, to quote the National Association of Writers in Education Research Benchmark Statement, (Yes, I know, but it's important if you've got anything to do with teaching or studying CW, and it's good.) And authenticity and innovation matter: workshops are about learning to write better, and good writing must always have something new and genuine about it, something which makes us think and see afresh, however traditional the story or un-boundary-breaking the language. My editor, on the other hand, is thinking about making it a satisfying read which booksellers and reviewers will like, and which will get the book groups talking, with prize shortlists in one corner of her mind. Selling books and thereby finding readers matters too. So I’m certainly not saying that commercial editorial judgement is superior: some stunning and innovative writing will never find a home in an industry which needs ever larger sales, and ever safer and more likeable bets, to survive. At the practical level, much good writing does sell but not in enough numbers to support a human being, let alone a couple of children and a serious book-buying habit. If society wants its arts to grow and change, then the academy is one place which can support writers and foster excellent and boundary-breaking work. But it's not the only way to support writers and foster excellent work.

Of course in a perfect world, workshops work as editors and editors work as workshops. A good writing workshop wouldn't let a piece off the hook just because the writer has poured forth lots of excellent reasons for leaving it as it is. (Indeed, I now know that the fiercer my resistance to change, the more likely it is that the thing needs changing - the darling needs murdering). This is not to be confused with a workshop trashing a piece: the key is that they really hear what it's trying to be, understand it, and go on pushing for it to become that thing better. A good editor will be broad-minded about what works in the context of that particular novel, rather than just making sure it ticks all the 'right' boxes and none of the 'wrong' ones: s/he, too, will really hear the book, and help it become its own best self.

Its own best self. Sometimes I think that writing a novel is entirely a matter of translating that cloudy but utterly real entity in my head into marks on the page. It has a self: words are just the language in which it must be embodied. It has a self, and I will do my best to do it justice, with a little help from my friends of both town and gown.

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