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Feedom, play and magic

Schreibtischtäter > Literary writing > Spoke desgin

Creative writes are not great `joiners`; they sometimes kick against, what is expected. They prefer to be seen to be outside the club or playhouse, even if they are life subscribers. As Groucho Marx would not join any club that would have him as a member, so the attitude of creative writers standing apart rubs off on others, on all of us.

Creative writing and freedom of expression

One of the most striking aspects of a creative writing workshop is that opinions are voiced with freedom. Sometimes, students in those workshops find it hard to get used to this freedom because, in their past, those opinions have been shamed as foolish. Yet inexperience can be inadvertently wiser at times than experience. It carries fewer preconceptions. Language belongs to every human. It lives by evolution, by being played with and by being hit at fresh angles.
However, creative writing`s capacity for the creation of illusion-as-truth, and the precision of its language, makes it doubly dangerous to authorities whose power depends on the formulation of illusions, and the debasement and twisting of language. Standing apart makes you even more vulnerable to assault. `Every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient and sterile`- Sinclair Lewis. The word `sterility` here is precise; it connives with the dead hand of authority.
One of the gut instincts of government is control: seize the language and you control not only speech but also its contexts, the terms on which discussion is based, and the permissions and prohibitions of speech. Look at the manner in which war is presented by politicians and the media. Observe the terms for atrocity and killing tamed to acronyms an newspeak. War takes place `in theatre`; soldiers are `taken out`, `dropped`, as if killing a person was the action of usher removing a theatergoer from the playhouse. Force-feeding illegal prisoners of war is `introducing internal nutrition to detainees` as if use language you are used by it. If you do not recognize the terms peacekeeper missile and preemptive strike as oxymoron’s, your hole has already been dug`.
Such language places what is described at several removes; it does not change the intolerable actuality. It tampers quite deliberately with our reaction to it, attempts to neutralize it. Writers are the antennae for language, designers of speech, and you, as new writers, should similarly be alert to language`s abuse and debasement.

Serious play

The action of writing, as the poet and scientist Mirolav Holub put it, is an action of `serious play`, of willful and sometimes wild experiment. The pleasure principle walks out in the world wearing serious clothes, set off by a clown`s cap and bells. Boisseau and Wallace, speaking of poerty students, make a strong generic point when they argue for the play experiment in a writing class:

A course called `Creative Writing` might better be called `Experimental Writing`. Faced with the daunting specter of a blank page, the poet may feel intimidated by then injunction to be creative; create. But, being told to experiment, to something out can be more attractive.

Play is still a challenge, even if less daunting than the frown of High Art. In Charles Dickens` Great Expectations, Miss Havisham instructs the child Pip: `I have sick fancy that I want to see some play. There, there!` with an impatient movement of the fingers of her right hand; `play, play, play!` This is like a writing tutor who has shut out be world and experience as influences; and sometimes his or her Pips find it intimidating to `play to order`. Yet, as writers, to reach a word count of fiction by a route defined by character or by that situation or by this point of view. We conduct investigations in nonfiction driven by this point of view. We conduct investigations in nonfiction driven by the desire to poke fun, or out of a rage of injustice. We push ourselves to grasp a cracked crown of sonnets. What can we do but laugh at the elegant brick piles of language when we are finished?

Serious difficulty

We find we are on a tightrope; we recognize where the tipping-points are within ourselves, and try to stay on it for the rest of our lives, writing and balancing all grand binaries: imagination and rationality, doubt and confidence, achievement and failure. We give a performance of ourselves along such spectra, within a small or invisible circus of our readers. Yet all our difficulty must seem – must be made to seem – inevitable. `A good style should no sign of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident` - Somerset Maugham. The difficulty and the opportunity lies in the word `seem`.

Language`s magic

Natural magic, like language or natural history, surrounds us: in the speed at which species nest and fledge, in the dynamic connections of chaos in subatomic and planet-sized physics. Mathematics and the arts are not poles apart, but the same pole reached by different routes. You can write a poem or story based on the order of Fibonacci numbers: sequences of numbers found in the patterns of leaves, grasses and flowers; in the branching of bushes and trees; or in the arrangements of times on a pine cone.
These patterns seem distant from the machinery of politics and the media. Censors do not understand it. Natural magic does just surround us: it is us, as much as we are part of the environment. It informs every function of our own bodies, plots our life span, and operates the way we perceive. In the same way that the natural and seemingly rational magic of the natural world simply gets on with things, so we as writes must get on with our work.
The way in which the best writing workshop are conducted is to supply the right evrionment for a kind of rapid learning; what I would call a stochastic evolution of talent, one that runs in phases and leaps of progressive learning. As environamental change forces species-evolution, so the environment of the workshop cause a natural response and a progression in expertise; new writing gives in our brain`s neural networks. As form gives a chance; what does not work is laid aside as a useful lesson, a neutral selection, a phase from which we receive no harm. That chance can take the form of a story, a novel, a play or a poem. There is natural history to language which takes place inside us – a matter of alternative forms, variation and mutation. Workshops premeditate and push such variation.
We push students over into the natural of the language of fiction, nonfiction and of poetry, almost to make them lean into books as the writer of that book must once have leaned, daily, in despair, curiosity, pleasure. We read books as readers, but we learn, by that leaning into language, to read books and worlds as if were their writers. We learn to write and lives as writers, in that risky position of near-topple and exposure.
There is a danger involved in such teaching and learning: the danger that students might fall so badly against their own inexperience that they are hurts to a degree that they turn away form writing, that they lose confidence in the long game. That is why it is important that we must learn to play at such moments. To play with our reading and writing, to play with language, even when in danger of falling into pretentiousness or opacity or simple mediocrity, is to take control of the situation. The more control we have, the less likely we are to be controlled. The more practice we have of this, the more playful we can become, and the confident in our ability not only to control – but also to let go.

Rediscovering pleasure

In the afterword to his book on teaching children to write poetry, the American poet Kenneth Koch addresses the question of teaching teachers to play again with language and creative ideas: `Such writing might begin with something as simple as writing a wish poem before they ask the children to … if an unprepared to … rediscover one`s feeling for poetry, which life and education may have scared out of one`. `(Mainly) education` springs a billion traps, but the damage is revertible. One can be released back into the continent of writing: there is no need to be scared of play.

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