Paradox: The Creative Crucible

David Manderson

I’ll start with an explanation – I’m a teacher by trade who’s spent most of his working life in classrooms teaching low-level vocational skills. Not a very satisfying job as you can imagine, not one I’d advice others to do. But recently I managed to achieve something – I wrote a novel that was awarded a PhD. The doctorate was the best professional thing I’ve ever done in my life, and the novel’s done quite well. A lot of agents have shown interest in it, it’s been read and praised by famous writers and it’s won a couple of prizes, one in England and one in Wales. And my life has changed. At the young age of 52 I find myself a junior academic, with all the stresses and changes that entails.

So do I think postgraduate creative writing on the campus is a paradox? Yes, undoubtedly. But I’ll put forward the argument that it can be a very productive one. In fact I feel that paradox is not only alive and troublesome in the making of creative writing on the academic campus, but a vital part of the process. The clash between creativity and academic criticism and theory in a university is one of the best and most motivational things about it there, and what makes it a suitable and appropriate environment. Whether there are better places to make it or not is irrelevant, because all ways are unique. But for some people the campus experience makes a creative crucible, a workshop to examine their ideas, test, reject, change or develop them, a forge to melt them down and mix them up and recast them – in short, to move on from wherever they are with their writing to the place they want to be. That’s what happened to me. But, in an area where two quite different species, the academic on the one hand and the artist on the other, meet, this is a contentious claim. So let me clarify it a little. First, the PhD is only one way to make valid imaginative writing – there are millions of others. And second, not every piece of creative writing is suitable for the crucible process of the PhD, far from it.

The PhD and the novel come together in my view only for some people, and only under certain circumstances. One circumstance is that the author must have a strong reason for taking a PhD in the first place. The already successful novelist who embarks on a doctorate because he feels he might as well pick up a qualification for what he does professionally, is I think doomed to fail it. The as-yet unpublished writer who feels that a PhD might bring him his publishing breakthrough is also, I think, doomed, as is the author who sees other writers getting PhDs and thinks that he should get in on the act, or the writer who joins a university so that he can belong to a group, or the writer who gets fed up with isolation and thinks that a PhD will open the door to a safe job. None of these – the desire for a title, or publication, or belonging, or employment – are deep enough. There’s not enough real need in these to carry you though. What really makes the creative PhD work for some, and why it worked for me, is much more fundamental. It’s not at all an external wish for money, status, success, power or whatever, but something much more internal and personal: the need for personal validation. Not ambition: survival.

The person who starts a creative writing doctorate with a sense of failure of what he’s tried before, a feeling that he’s got to reject everything he’s assumed was valid about his writing up till now, and make it work, and the determination to understand his limitations and turn them into strengths, is the sort of person who should start one. These are the people who have the necessary ingredients to use the creative crucible. One of those ingredients is anger. Anger’s great. It’s the combustible stuff, the first energy, the spark. Another is patience. Patience lets time – so often the writer’s enemy – become his friend. There’s no instant return, no quick fix; it’s a process of effort and persistence that will let you work your material and allow you to control it, to make it take the shape you want. Another ingredient is the ability - and indeed, for this type of person - the desire to work alone. Isolation is the place, the environment where you will allow yourself to work. Another ingredient is where you choose to do your PhD. Who are your tutors or supervisors? Have you read their work? What is it about it work that resonates with you? Why do you like it so much? (You won’t know all the answers to these questions yet, so you should be prepared to go by feeling, by instinct here.) There are other ingredients too but last - and it comes last because it’s the first thing you’ll meet once you’ve made all the other decisions and entered the university - are the ideas, theories, activities, debates, dissents, squabbles and arguments you’ll meet in your reading and in your chosen place of study. Used well, they’ll provide the intense heat that will keep your cauldron bubbling – which is especially important at the start, when you’ve still only a partially realised idea of what you’re going to write.

So where’s the paradox? “Nobody knows anything,” William Goldman said of Hollywood, famously. I think this is an excellent thing to bear in mind for anyone undertaking a novel in a university too. Nobody really knows how you’re going to do it, even the ones who write novels themselves – there’s no route map, example, case study or model that will help you. There’s still less on to write one as a PhD, and the best advice admits this. You have to invent your own way towards what you want because the thing you’re trying to write can only come from you. It’s not until you show that you can do this that you’ll get any serious attention. But although nobody knows anything, the trouble with a university – but it’s a good one, if you can handle it – is that everyone does know something. You’ll meet a host of opinions, theories and views, from your lecturers, from fellow students and from your reading, and none of them will agree. Here’s the paradox: they know nothing that will help you but they do know something, and you should do your best to take it in, even if it seems irrelevant, and especially if you hate it. You might well feel angry, resentful, you might strongly disagree. “What’s this got to do with me? I came here to write! I already know what to do!” Well, no you don’t, to be honest, that’s why you signed up in the first place, to learn something. And this is an important part, maybe the most crucial one, of the crucible. What’s happening is that your ideas, the things you’ve based your writing on so far, the things you’re absolutely sure of, are being pulverised and smashed down to their most basic elements by critical theory, classical and contemporary philosophy, argument, thought. Coming at you from angles you never imagined, they’ll question the first principles of your writing. Of those principles are found to be flawed, so be it. As everything melts down and merges, they’ll dislocate assumptions, alter perception, challenge or affirm views, and forge the writer. The tempered material they harden into is the writing. This process more than exercises the imagination, it extends it hugely. Contact with and reading about arguments, debates, theories, and reading books similar or unlike the book you want to write, as you might expect, can only heighten the writer’s ambition, intention and level of achievement, although many practising writers don’t accept this.

It’s painful to admit, if you have to, as I had to, that you’ve been doing some basic things wrong, or not doing them at all, but it’s a good lesson. You needn’t agree with everything and in fact you shouldn’t. By all means oppose and criticise, (although I think you should do this in your own time rather than the tutor’s), but let the debates take place. They have to go inside, seep in and become part of your work in some way, or your work must become part of them, otherwise there’s no point in trying to write a novel this way, or to gain a doctorate. So at some point your first ideas must change. Maybe a little, maybe a lot, it depends on how valid they were in the first place. (To me, the person who changes them a lot gets more out of a doctorate then someone who just changes them slightly, but that’s just an opinion.) Pain, embarrassment and humble pie are great lecturers. Once you’ve been with them for a while, you’ll learn what not to do again. You’ll learn what’s poor, inadequate, unacceptable, and you’ll begin to find much of it in your own work. But at least you’ll be recognising them for what they are, once you’re some way through the process. You’ll see what’s limiting about your own work, what’s been holding you back. It’s just a series of steps, after that, to solving these problems one at a time, to doing something about it.

Here’s what happened to me – some of it anyway. I’d been writing these long clunking novels. One in particular I’d got stuck in, a story about a roadie for a Scottish folk band. (It might not surprise to you to learn that I used to be that very thing.) I’d got stuck in it for at least 10 years. I kept writing and rewriting it, literally the same words over and over again, although at the time I thought every version was new. It had enormously long chapters composed of pages-long paragraphs, and it kept growing. The end was not in sight; it was impossible to reach. To end was not the point; the point was to keep going. One of the first things you do on a course is to show your work to other people. It took less than 5 minutes to junk that book and put it where it truly belonged, which was in the bin. I can still remember the relief I felt when that dusty, dense manuscript hit the bottom of my wheelie-bin. Baggage? It had to go, and so did the interminable paragraphs. I realised this when I heard myself read my own work on a CD made by some other students. My voice, this uninflected, quiet, limited, dull, depressed, repetitive instrument I’ve been cursed with, as I’m sure you all hear by now. It doesn’t sound like that to me, of course, but it does to other people, and that’s what’s important. So I broke it up on the page: gaps, pauses, white space, section breaks, hesitations, unexplained stops – anything to take away the monotony. In fact if the tone of the prose at any time started to sound like me, I changed it. And as a result the voice that does come through is not me, although it probably still resembles it, but its sound and its context are those of a fictional character, who is always on the wrong track, is usually deluded, and isn’t at all who he thinks he is.

I’ll say one last thing about the creative crucible. As a creative writing student you’ll one way or another come up against other people doing the same sort of course. Or you’ll start to meet writers (many of whom, incidentally, will have no belief at all in the creative writing PhD, and will waste no time in telling you that). At least one of these – often the one you least expect – will suddenly become successful. They’ll get the thing you’ve always dreamed of, the publication, and whatever form of personal happiness you’ve always assumed that brings. Here’s another phase of the creative crucible. If this fact pisses you off so much that you feel like giving up, your novel isn’t good enough. I’m not making a moral point here about the dangers of envy. I’m saying that any book deflected from its aim by something relatively trivial hasn’t got a good enough aim in the first place. The creative crucible is a lengthy process, and no matter whether you feel depressed, fed up or defeated that day, its demands stay exactly the same.

To conclude, it’s my belief that the paradoxes, struggles and contradictions that arise in creative writing on the campus provide the writer with the means and site for the best novel in the world – the one that has not yet been written.

Copyright David Manderson 2008

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