Listowel Writers' Week Fringe

Blogging Listowel's Literary Scene
Subscribe

Mary Kenny writes about Listowel

May 18, 2009 By: Mary Category: connections, historical, journalism, storytelling, tutors, workshop

My first ambition, as a young girl, was to be a ballet dancer, a profession for which I was in almost every respect wholly unsuited, but for which I entertained (and still entertain) a romantic attachment. Apart from the gossamer beauty of the dance, I also liked the traditions of the great ballet schools: the endless practice, the demanding disciplines, the ensemble of working together with a company: and above all the notion of having a ballet master – or mistress – who taught the younger dancers, and who had, in turn, been taught by classical teachers when she was young, who had, in turn, been taught by their classical teachers: so that every performer is part of a chain of past, present and future, of seamless continuity in the performance of a great profession.

Later in life, I also encountered classical and orchestral musicians, who explained to me that a good musician should always have both a teacher and a pupil: you should always be learning, and what you have learned, and practiced, you should also teach and transmit.

And that, today, is very much my attitude to writing. A seasoned writer should have both students to teach, and masters – and mistresses – to follow. You are learning the craft that you practice until the day you die; and where there is a chance to teach it, it is part of your craft to pass it on. And in any case, by teaching – and by reflecting on teaching – you also learn more.

There has been some discussion in the press, recently – notably, in the letters’ column of The Irish Times – as to whether writing can be taught; or, more specifically, whether “creative writing” can be taught. I would say that genius cannot be taught: and yet, was it Einstein who said that even genius was ninety per cent inspiration and ten per cent perspiration? Let me go back to the example of the ballet-dancer: the dancer must have some innate ability to dance. But what you see in the finished performance on stage is the result of work, work, work: of hours and hours of rehearsal every day: of an exacting teacher who demands perfection, and sometimes beyond, from this poetic expression of the human body.

In writing, too, whatever talent that exists in the writer can be developed, honed, improved, worked upon. In his recent book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell looked at what it was that made people in a number of fields outstandingly successful. In the building of a fortune, he found, there was an element of luck – especially, in the luck of being born at the right time, when there were fortunes to be made. And yet the common denominator among those who achieve their ambitions was this: they worked much, much harder than others.

An interview with Colm Tóibín, too, in the May issue of Image magazine (by Bridget Hourican) also brought out that theme: writing, said Tóibín, is just hard work. You sit down at it and you do and then you do it again and again and again; and you work at it until it is right. Yeats, whose gold and silver phrasing slips off the page with swan-like ease, said – perhaps more fancifully – that he would rather be scrubbing floors than working at words. I don’t quite believe that W.B. scrubbed many floors – there were servants, otherwise called “women” to do that kind of thing! – but he was reaching for an apt metaphor of hard labour.

So, while the genius of writing obviously cannot be taught – nobody can be taught to be a James Joyce or a W.B. Yeats – the craft of writing certainly can be. And like any other craft it is improved by practice, application and helpful mentoring.

One of my favourite metaphors for the craft of writing is one that Yeats certainly would not have experienced: writing is like breast-feeding. Breast-feeding is “natural”, and yet, many first-time mothers need some mentoring to get the knack. In order to be successful at breast-feeding, you must keep doing it regularly – otherwise the flow of milk will dry up. However, you mustn’t do it too much; otherwise the milk will get thin.

Good breastfeeding depends on good nourishment of the mother: so to get a high-quality milk yield, you must also have some high-quality input. And here is the parallel: to write, you need to keep writing – Virginia Woolf could sometimes only manage 50 words a day, but it was allowing the juices to flow. (Beckett sometimes managed nothing, and to me, that says a lot about the sainted Beckett, and the element of nihilism in his work.) However, if you write too much, the work may deteriorate and become sub-standard. Some very successful authors wrote too much: and of the prolific output perhaps only one text is remembered.

And as for the input – the nourishment that must go into the body to produce high standard milk, or into the imagination to produce high-standard writing: a writer has to keep reading, and to keep reading good writers.And good writers of one’s own choice, too, I’d say. You are not obliged to like Beckett, say, just because he is revered by many. You can like a writer who is totally out of fashion: I am extremely fond of Somerset Maugham’s short stories, although it is practically social death to say so among some literary folk. But he feeds my imagination. And whatever works for you – use it.

I have attended workshops in Listowel as a student and I have given one as a seasoned writer: this year being my second experience teaching. And like the veterans at the Bolshoi, I hope to go on learning and teaching until I drop.

www.mary-kenny.com


Creative Commons License
This work by various authors is licensed under a Creative Commons License.