Please ignore the byline above. The wonderfully insightful piece that follows is by Chris Jackson – a current student on the Curtis Brown Creative Six-Month Creative-Writing course.
It is nearly a month into the six-month novel-writing course at Curtis Brown Creative, and Karolina Sutton of Curtis Brown and Mark Richards of Fourth Estate have come to visit us.
Some context. This comes on the back of a session led by Anna Davis about the importance of beginnings, two hours which catapulted Richard Ford’s Canada towards the top of my reading list (a great opening). We’ve also had several classes with Christopher Wakling in which we have been asked to describe the novels we’re writing (everything from Mafia and social satire, to dystopian and sprawling literary fiction). But Karolina and Mark are our first guest speakers, and influential figures in books. One could be forgiven for expecting a certain tension to enter the room.
But all that dissipates. Instead, we have a very down-to-earth conversation about books led by people with great belief in the importance of literature; the session makes the future of the novel seem in very safe hands indeed. When the discussion touches on some of the difficulties – poor sales, unfair reviews – that can confront writers during their careers, Karolina says: ‘True writers stick at it because they love it. You have to love it.’ It occurs to me that this delight in story is why we’re all here, and that this is a very mysterious thing.
Why then do we write? In Why I Write, George Orwell’s first reason for putting pen to paper is ‘Sheer egoism’. Orwell explains: ‘Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood.’ Another revealing admission came in DBC Pierre’s admirably honest speech on receiving the 2003 Booker Prize, when he spoke of regret as the writer’s ‘rocket fuel. It is as if, post-Freud, all writers are expected to confess to maladjustment. Otherwise why do something so absurd as spend a lifetime putting marks on paper, when one might be a lawyer or a doctor, something useful?
It wasn’t always the case. Perhaps the greatest description of the need to write comes unsurprisingly from our greatest writer:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5, Scene I.
It is hard not to feel that Shakespeare himself is speaking through Theseus; the passage suggests the poet was conscious of a legitimate and joyful need to find order through his writing. Another famous justification for writing comes in Dante’s claim in that the entire Divine Comedy had been written in order to ‘tell of the good encountered’. Dante felt he had a commission from God; if it had been suggested to him that he wrote out of a selfish desire for posterity’s applause, I believe he would have been baffled.
The week after the Karolina-Mark session, I find that my first collection of poetry The Gallery has been accepted for publication. As exciting as it is to be publishing a book – it’s hard to resist, for instance, memorising one’s ISBN number – there is also a reality check involved. Poetry is notoriously hard to sell, and success in writing doesn’t preclude disappointment; on the contrary it can simply lead to a different kind of disappointment. Yet the worst-case scenarios of poor sales or critical panning are not sufficient reasons in themselves not to write. My mind goes back to the session at Curtis Brown: You have to love it.
It is still early days in the course. So far, I have discovered many interesting technical things about writing, and met some very talented people. I doubt very much that any of us would make the same claims for our writing that Dante did in the 1300s. But I think we might be able to make a smaller but still valid claim. We are each here because we love it. I don’t think that’s at all a bad place to begin.
Two poems from The Gallery (to be published by Salzburg)
Meet Mr Rockwell
And this is Mr Rockwell, fixture of the bank,
straight and white as a Greek pillar, eh, Rockwell?
Newspapers invent villainy to hide their own.
Harmless, this fellow. But a passion for pensions, eh, eh?
That’s Rockwell smiling. A forgettable face, no doubt
without distinguishing feature – ideal for crime! –
a little pockmarked perhaps, ghost-farms of acne,
the head not yet egg-bald but you’re losing it
I suspect Mr Rockwell. He never answers.
What else? Non-descript teeth, a collar-like neck,
you can’t really tell the nape of him from the shirt,
yet an unarguable face, it couldn’t be otherwise.
Of course, it’s not the best face, not a Hollywood face.
You can’t always people the world with heroes.
Past, Present, Future
I met Past on the corner of Gloucester Road and Cromwell Road, examining the moon as if about to confide in it. Its skull was strong, its skin papyrus-ish. It looked on Present with exasperation as it tied obsequious garlands around its ankles. I knelt next to Present and looked up from shadows of bulk. I turned to meet its eye: its features were white, its eyes florid like one of those blue-eyed freckled types who throughout life seem always about to enter convulsions. It whispered that someone round the corner was intent on its immediate murder. Embarrassed, I stood up and spoke again with Past, ignoring Present altogether. As I was quizzing it about its attire, tittering about its scars and medallions, the dignity of its height quaked. Future walked towards us, seven times our height, kicking at bins, singing its anthem. Something about how it would never suffer itself to fail.
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