The Exercise Book, edited by Ken Duncum, Bill Manhire, Chris Price and Damien Wilkins (Victoria University press, 2011) 222 pp. $35.
The Exercise Book, the latest product of the International Institute of Modern Letters, the writing school at Wellington’s Victoria University, contains some stimulating activities for getting started on writing. There are a lot of ‘icebreaker’ activities that would not be out of place in a good English as a Second Language textbook for instilling confidence and unleashing the dynamics latent in a group of students. This is a kind of ‘Teaching Imagination as a Second Language’ book.
The introduction has the disclaimer that though the book might look like a manual it is not — it is a selection of what turned up when a call was sent out for writing exercises from teachers, students and friends of IIML. The founding director Bill Manhire writes the introduction in a chatty and warm style in which he qualifies most statements with either ‘probably’, ‘perhaps’, ‘may’ or ‘possible’. He is not doctrinaire.
If this is not a manual, what kind of book is it? It seems the target audience changed during the compilation. Initially the editors, who comprise Manhire and three other teachers at the school, envisaged ‘two possible audiences’, namely beginning writers and high school teachers, but when they surveyed the contributions they found it ‘easy to posit a third kind of reader, the already established writer’.
In the first section called ‘Starting the Engine’, Hinemoana Baker details, encouragingly and without guile, a meditation exercise that worked for her as a way of kick-starting writing. She follows on with two other exercises in which the raw material generated by free writing is somewhat mechanically manipulated so as to focus and develop the material. These two exercises reveal a kind of template that underlies a number by other contributors.
Some exercises are refreshing, such as Ken Duncum’s bundle of four that provide a coherent workout in script-writing, and the personal take on the creating of imaginary worlds by sisters Sara and Elizabeth Knox. It would be arbitrary to pluck out other examples, for this is a grab-bag of tarted-up exercises (many of the contributors confess to having tweaked an exercise they have come across in a class or a book). With each dipping into The Exercise Book the beginning writer, especially, is likely to come up with a new plum.
Some exercises are slight, such as the one with two instructions: go out with a notebook and look at things, then come back and write up your results on a page. The only complication is that you have to divide your write-up into three sections. I guess this exercise, barely occupying half the page, is included because of the cachet of the appended name of Dinah Hawken, a well-regarded poet of nature poetry. Another slight exercise is from Harry Ricketts: ‘Write a 600-word personal essay on one of the following: my record/CD collection, hands, tea’. The inclusion of established authors contributes to the atmosphere of a ‘creative community’.
Some exercises include a tinge of the coercive, such as one by Paula Morris in which if students:
have photos in their wallet, they must show everyone in the group. (There is no pedagogical reason for this, though it can help with group bonding.)
This is a kind of test as to whether an individual is willing to play along; it is a clue to how membership of a particular ‘creative community’ is self-selecting.
Amongst the best of the exercises are those submitted by American creative writing teachers who have links with the Wellington school. Their involvement acknowledges that the teaching of creative writing is an international phenomenon, that creative writing schools are one of the more successful present-day manifestations of the age-old urge for writers to gather with their own kind in order to nuture their talents. Bohemia does not prosper so well in this neo-liberal phase of capitalism. Interestingly, the founding patron of IIML, Glenn Schaeffer, is an American entrepreneur based in Las Vegas. Lesley Wheeler, an American professor of English who contributes an insightful exercise for stimulating young students to write poetry, relates that, on a Fulbright scholarship in 2008 she made a study of the Wellington school as a ‘creative community’. This revelation appears in her potted biography at the end of the book, amidst the other 51 contributors’ bios, which read like brief CVs.
In an example of editorial sleight of hand, Manhire’s signature exercise, ‘Five Things’, which involves five random things that students have to stitch together into a story, is presented as a contribution by Eirlys Hunter, who acknowledges the debt. Elsewhere, just as disingenuously, W. H. Auden’s two-page long poem ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’, a vivid and sardonic ballad about the passing of time, is tagged with the brief instructions by Kate Duignan to write ‘a story in which time behaves unconventionally’, while including a few lines from a song by either ‘Bob Dylan or Coldplay or Lady Gaga’, and ‘An animal in the wild’. The bathos in this conjunction of poem and exercise is slightly alleviated by the following contribution by the American, Zach Savich, which is a sensitive exploration of the use of time imagery in poetry that more obviously relates to the Auden poem. The slippage of material between Manhire/Hunter and Auden/Duignan, can be seen as attempts to paper over the cracks inherent in such a selection , or more kindly seen as the inevitable refraction within a ‘creative community’ of any bright idea.
The goal of The Exercise Book project is, perhaps, to weave as seamless a corporate report as possible about the current state of play at IIML, to carry on the programme set in the two previous IIML anthologies, Mutes and Earthquakes(1997) and Spectacular Babies (2001). All profits from The Exercise Bookwill go into a fund to help the school’s MA graduates polish their portfolios in hope of publication. Manhire in his introduction to Mutes and Earthquakes says:
If I’m to be honest, I think that a couple of things which I emphasise are sometimes apparent in writers who have attended the Victoria workshop. One is the element of play […] [and] hybrid writing which hovers […] somewhere between poetry and prose.
The playfulness, in particular, pervades The Exercise Book. Manhire’s hesitant imprimatur interweaves the book from the introduction through ten exercises, the most by any contributor, until the penultimate item, ‘Performance Tips’. He describes these tips as ‘the complacent advice of a hopeless platform magician’. With irony verging on sarcasm, he sends would-be adepts who do not ‘get’ these final revelations back on to the exercise treadmill: ‘If you want better ideas, you can just turn back to Section 1’.
‘Performance Tips’ is where Manhire, camouflaged by metaphor and other people’s supposed quotes, forcefully spells out some home truths:
Magical ‘teams’. These are a contradiction in terms. A magician works alone, or with an assistant.
‘Don’t let anybody tell you what to do. When you are doing something you love, it’s easier to succeed at it than doing something you don’t.’
Remember, a good magician is always more than a mere publicity hound. Constant practice and hard work and personal sacrifice are necessary.
Beyond the koans, the bonhomie of school, this is the esoteric knowledge of the mage or high-priest (the priest turns out to be an atheist): achievement in an art is the result of solitary, hard, dedicated work. The final sentence of the introduction advises that perhaps ‘we should all devise our own rules, and then go looking for ways to break them’.
Ironically, in a book about the craft of writing, The Exercise Book is slipshod in proof-reading: in the introduction Gavin McGibbon is called Gavin McKinnon; in the index ‘cliff-hanger’ comes under the entry for ‘Fell, Cliff’ but also stands alone as ‘cliff-hanger, 57; also see Cliff Fell’ — this is a software glitch, surely, and not an in-joke by Index compiler, Damien Wilkins; Wilkins is spelled Wilkin in the ‘Contributors’ section on page 213; there is a missing ‘of’ on page 188 and several other minor missing words. Perhaps these errors are a sign of haste in publishing the book, or maybe having not one editor but four led to some lack of oversight.
Irony can be an aspect of the playfulness that Manhire has admitted to advocating at IIML. There is irony for instance in the cover design by Dylan Horrocks of a faux primary school journal cover that spotlights a ‘Janet and John’ couple cheerfully writing in their exercise books.
A defensive irony animates an advertisement for the writing school on the inside back-cover of the latest issue of the literary journal Sport, which is produced by Victoria University Press: both journal and press are prospective outlets for students and especially graduates of the school. Under the ironical heading ‘Writers are born not made’ (the kind of statement that institutions such as the Institute characteristically mock) comes the description of IIML as ‘The best delivery suite in the country’. This whiff of triumphalism is amusing — why the superlative? — has the market been cornered?
One contributor who is a graduate of IIML admits to having ‘taken many undergraduate workshops in an obsessive manner’. There is no irony in an obsessive acolyte, but there is in the concept of Doctors of Creative Writing, at least five of whom are pending at IIML according to the list of brief biographies at the end of the book. A delivery of midwives!
Out of the cobbled-together production that is The Exercise Book, a small useful book struggles to get out, and beguile beginner writer and high school teacher. More useful to ‘the already established writer’ would be a book by any great writer in which they discuss the practise of their craft.
DENIS HAROLD is a writer and researcher who lives near Dunedin.
All that Denis says about the imperfections of ‘The Exercise Book’ is true, but in some ways he misses the point. Why did this book sell out straight away, and is now in a second (or possibly third?) printing? The exercises themselves are only part of it. A lot of writers have done the MA, or a short course at the IIML, or even Bill’s original composition course. I’d bet many of them went straight to their nearest bookshop out of sense of loyalty and nostalgia; that the sale would support scholarships made it even more compelling. A much larger group haven’t studied at the IIML, but would love to. This book is an opportunity to join in with at least one part of the IIML experience. Personally, I think Bill Manhire’s introduction is worth the price on its own, just as Damien Wilkins’ essay in ‘Mutes & Earthquakes’ more than justifies that purchase. They are essential reading for any writer, new or established. When I feel frustrated, or think what I’ve written is rubbish, I just pick up the Exercise Book and remember how it felt to tackle ‘5 things’ in March 2011 – in short, terrifying, with nine other MA students and Damien lined up to read my efforts – and like magic the job of filling the blank page doesn’t seem so hopeless or difficult after all.