The Writing Class, by Stephanie Johnson (Vintage, 2013) 243 pp., $37.99.
‘The beauty of the novel in full sail will never be lost,’ Merle Carbury tells her creative writing class, before she adds a careful and impersonal note of disillusionment, ‘even as we choke in a plume of electronic soot.’ Anyone who teaches creative writing or mentors will recognise the debilitating swing between encouragement and dusty hope. And why do we do it? For money, as Samuel Johnson would say. For bums on seats, for anaemic English departments, for fame, for holding an audience spellbound at a festival. For Tosh, who secures a meeting at Penguin and a $3,000 advance, it is because ‘I am an Important New Voice’. Instantly Merle must speak about jealousy, soothe bruised egos, turn her lecture back to how to write an ending.
Merle, of the distinguished surname (shades of Trollope), has more than enough novel material in her private life. Her husband Brendan, an unemployed documentary maker, slopes about under their grapefruit tree in a rancid brown dressing gown; Jurgen, a mysterious German lodger, has just moved in and will later be found to have gutted the books in his room, leaving only the covers. Jacinta, one of the class, mother of twins and married to the Jewish plastic surgeon Hermann, is having an affair with Merle’s fellow tutor, Gareth. Both Gareth and Merle are writers; Gareth a one book wonder; Merle, with three novels to her name, once described the desire to write to a journalist ‘as being like feeling desperately horny and wanting it right now!! Right here! Give it to me baby!’
This is exactly how Jacinta feels about Gareth. She imagines how it will feel to be a writer in full flight: ‘Without warning or invitation, a lie will fill her heart, pulse through her veins and come to the surface: whatever story she’s pushing becomes reality’. Gareth still possesses the writer’s splinter of ice in the heart: ‘Every time he opens his eyes he sees her strength of feeling increasing, he sees her determination to possess him, he sees most of all a deep, exciting regard for him as a writer’. But he also sees that: ‘While the bodies writhe and thrust in the striated light, he might even indulge in a little meditation on the writing of sex and how to go about it’.
Methodically Merle takes her class through the rudiments, the philosophical divides. To plan or not to plan. Overwrought Coincidence. Narrative Perspective. Metaphor and obfuscation. Right up to the optimistically named Showbiz where one by one the class imagines themselves on stage at an international festival, the audience hushed, the microphone waiting. It’s like a premature reward, unlikely to be fulfilled except by Adarsh, confident of his Indian voice, or bad-ass rap poet, Tosh.
There are days when Merle thinks, for the millionth time, that ‘teaching can be pure hell’. Then she remembers ‘that it can also be inspiring and encouraging, and fill both teacher and student with wonder at what is possible, at the ideas and sensations words may convey, the subtleties and precision of expression. And for every student like her [neurotic] neighbour there are ten others who went out into the world full of hope for a career as a famous writer’.
Around the enclave of the writing class grows a rich novel to which the class contributes. First paragraphs are read out, and endings. Natasha is working on a children’s story about a purple dragon which will have fourteen sequels. Tosh (‘Bad-ass writers always use drugs) delivers a collage poem:
DO NOT CROSS IF WATER IS OVER BRIDGE
Keep Left Unless Overtaking.
Passing Lane 5 km.
Stop. Form One Lane.
Greasy If Wet.
Stop. Sheer Drop.
Stop Motherf…er Stop.
Sometimes the greatest requirement for the creative writing tutor is a poker face.
Stephanie Johnson’s writing has three stunning attributes. First, appearing as often as Brendan’s rancid dressing gown, her puncturing wit:‘Has the increase in Creative Writing courses been commensurate with the decline in mental asylums?’ Or: ‘She’d probably gain more peace and inspiration from a good orgasm and some time to herself than the writing course, which is another burden on top of their vast mortgage.’And: ‘Have you ever looked at how much writers actually make? Mostly, it wouldn’t keep a cat.’
Secondly, her amazing descriptive powers when she writes about ‘A..kl..d’: ‘On the winding green paths there are joggers and dogs, the cushioned tread of scientific soles, the flare of high-viz jackets through the leaves and exhalant misting at the different levels of passing mouths’. Or the sardonically amusing siting of the nameless technical college at which Merle teaches: ‘The university is spread out along a double ridge with steep streets on either side. Students and staff spend much of their day traversing the slopes – it seems administration purposely schedule related course lectures on either peak, one after the other’.
And then there’s the excoriating dialogue, which anyone who has taught creative writing will recognise. The tutor has the ebb and flow of jealousy to counter : ‘ — there’s always one or two, students who are jealously irritated by the attention paid to dead writers’. Or else it’s the ‘resentment of students who seek personal attention during the seminars.’ The competitiveness, the criticism that may be well-intentioned, or subtly vicious:
‘Merle,’ says Jacinta, mutinous. ‘Can I say something?’
‘Go ahead.’ Merle suspects she will anyway. ‘Do you want to share your final piece?’
‘You know full well I’ve jettisoned my whole novel and won’t be submitting until next year.’
Oh, thinks Merle. That’s right.
‘No. I want to say this: if anybody other than Adarsh had read that aloud you would have told them it was over-written.’
There is absolute silence. Darren’s and Natasha’s busy fingers fall still; the others stare.
‘Do you think so?’
‘Yes, I do think so. Adarsh gets away with purple prose because he’s Indian.’
Slightly less convincing is the ending. This, along with the beginning, is often the hardest part of the novel to write. The desire to tie the ends together can resemble the forgotten school friend who comes visiting, seeking closure for something you failed to notice — if all the people in the world who secretly wanted to turn their lives into a novel put up their hands it would resemble a giant mosh pit.
The Writing Class has a double quota of endings to deal with, for the happiness of writers, published or unpublished, is tied up with the fate of their books. However cramped the flat of Jacinta and Gareth, however perilous it might have been to abandon one twin to Hermann, the greater concern is whether the muse can be accommodated in a hallway turned into a study or whether she will appear to two writers in one house. The mingling of the whole shebang: bone fide writers who just might have got their mojos back; the class; the lodger; the husband now in a silk shirt and with combed hair; the burnt pizzas; Merle’s added earrings; would take more control than Merle or the class combined possess. But at least this rich gathering achieves one desirable state. Trollope uses a wedding, Stephanie Johnson a hint of restoration — and the novel does what any novel should: it opens out, if not on a trouble-free vista, at least on prospects of change and continuity. It’s simply that what was spare and contrapuntal, fitting together like one of the appliance repairs undertaken by Jurgen, becomes a little crowded and perhaps over-rich.
For it seems all the characters have written THE END, and drawn under it a squiggly dingbat. But the subject is not fully exhausted. Jacinta has not handed in her novel, though she hasn’t destroyed it; and Gareth is in the process of improving a promising story of twin sisters, piano players who are reconciled during the playing of a duet. Hermann’s hand, after his violent and ill-considered tussle with Gareth, remains in search of a surgeon; the marital home is leaking.
‘The world the novel or story inhabits is necessarily smaller than the real world, even in the hands of the most talented writer. It is a reflection of it, a small, clever imitation in which the rules are rewritten to allow coincidence a greater chance’. Will Merle or Gareth or both soon have books under consideration by Penguin or being shaped by Geoff Walker? And next year, will Merle or Gareth revise the syllabus slightly to add new words of wisdom, new techniques? At least their tenure seems secure. ‘By far the greatest number of enrolments in English departments are in Creative Writing programmes.’ There is a problem though, not to be contemplated: ‘Who will study the writers when every student perceives himself as a writer?’ With this in mind, maybe we can hope for a sequel?
ELIZABETH SMITHER is a New Plymouth-based novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist and reviewer. Her most recent poetry collection is The Blue Coat, published by Auckland University Press in 2013.
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