No way am I suggesting that those in the industry are frauds. Like the nurses in Isabel Menzies’s study who spoke about “the appendix in bed number three” and such like, they’re genuinely trying to help. And of course, many certainly do. Yet helping, as therapists recognise, is fraught with danger. Beyond the basics of first aid administered in an emergency, we can’t always know whether our well-meaning intervention will be helpful to another person. I’m sure that’s why this quote from a psychotherapist to a patient, I believe attributable to Patrick Casement, has stayed in my mind, despite its counterintuitive message: “Don’t worry, I wasn’t trying to help you!”
I’m not convinced that many in the creative writing industry understand the complexity of the helping relationship. This lack of insight might lead them to underestimate the hurtfulness of, potentially accurate but critical, feedback rendering it virtually useless. They might advise prematurely, without getting to grips with what the writer herself wants to achieve. They might be so fixed in their ideas about what constitutes good writing, they kill the soul of a piece before it’s begun to breathe.
Although I haven’t worked with her directly, from what I read on her wonderful blog, Emma Darwin is a creative writing teacher who does appreciate the complexity of her role. She provides pointers rather than answers, always addresses a topic from different angles and acknowledges the limits of what teachers can provide. Of the pros and cons of writing courses, she’s said:
Good teachers do their best to bring out your own best writing, but we all have our limits, and too many are too rule-bound, and have too fixed an idea of what the best writing is like. Other teachers don't have a fixed enough idea, in the sense that they can't offer you enough technical understanding to help shape your material and develop your craft.
while in another post, she lists eleven things a creative writing course can teach. But where she really nails it, in my opinion, is in this post on the need for humility in giving feedback, because there’s no knowing how useful one’s perspective might be if we don’t know how the other’s mind works.
And that, I think, is the nub of it. Not everyone’s mind works like our own. Some teachers will intuitively recognise and respect that difference, and will hold back from giving advice, while others will adopt the attitude that what works for them must work for everyone else and blunder in. On top of that, in a competitive marketplace, the teacher who puts forward their ideas tentatively, who asks more questions than they answer, might not look so competent on the surface to the student who wants a clear path to success.
We might ask just who is the creative writing industry designed to help? My thoughts on this are informed by the work of another psychoanalyst and organisational consultant, RD Hinshelwood, and particularly his perspective on the symbiotic relationship between psychiatric patients and staff. We need the mad to confirm our own sanity and thus have a vested interest in their failure to recover, just as the diet industry would collapse if people actually lost weight through their use.
Since few writers can earn a living wage directly through their writing, teaching, mentoring and critiquing provide a far more reliable income. Even those not constitutionally suited to the teaching role will find the prospect eminently attractive when it comes to paying the bills. While many will find deep satisfaction in helping novice writers reach their potential, there must also be an anxiety, however deeply buried in their unconscious, that these novices will overtake them, stealing their readers and publication advance. I know, I know, we all chant about how there’s room for everyone but, in fact, publishers’ lists are limited, as is the reader’s time.
I offer these thoughts not to condemn the whole industry (as stated above, Emma Darwin is marvellous, and Roz Morris has some good advice on choosing a critique service too) but to prompt debate among users of these unregulated services. If you’ve followed the links, you’ll see that some of my references are few years old; that’s because I made the notes for this post at a time when I was struggling with the fact that the professional feedback I’d paid for while grappling with successive drafts of my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, seemed to be taking me one step forward and two steps back. (I concede that that might be down to the complexity of the task I’d set myself, but it was frustrating not to be “got”.) It’s getting an airing today because Charli Mills has asked for 99-word stories on the subject of industry.
I’m always pleased when novelists manage to bring their characters to life, not just at home, but at work. And I’m in awe of the research Charli has done into the old industries around where she lives. I’m not so hot on the historical side, and rubbish at retaining facts, but I’m fascinated that the desolated areas where I walk regularly once accommodated a thriving millstone manufacturing industry. Here’s my tawdry tribute to that:
Skills passed from father to son, father to son, it was good work. Steady, if not lucrative; we might not thrive but neither would we starve. So long as there were millers there’d be millstones; so long as there were bakers there’d be men chiselling stones from the cliff. Ladies might grouse that their bread was grey and gritty, but so what? Gritstone was gold to us.
Three complete and one nearing; there’d be shoes for the littl’un when the gaffer came to collect. Suddenly a crack; how had I missed the faultline? No choice but to start afresh.