Stevenson’s advice to the young writer is misleadingly simple, a Zen koan in disguise. Read everything that is good, nothing that is bad. And then what? … Then, learn to read as a writer, to search out that hidden machinery which it is the business of art to conceal and the business of the apprentice to comprehend … And then you have to hope for grace and luck, the Lares and Penates of fiction, to knock at your door.
I don’t have a lot of specific things to say about Margot Livesey’s The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing. I’m more interested in what I learned (or didn’t learn) from it about teaching creative writing, something I have been–mostly idly–curious about for some time, for personal and professional reasons. I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic about it: none of the novelists I admire the most, after all, had any kind of training in “craft,” and given the impossibility (in my view, anyway) of setting reliable standards for good or bad art, I have never been convinced that creative writing can or should be graded. These opinions are, I frankly admit, more prejudices than convictions or conclusions–they are not supported by extensive study on my part of how creative writing programs work or whether on balance they do seem to be good or bad for the literary world. I have read a number of essays and articles about this question over the years, both pro and con, but it hasn’t been an issue of great importance to me. Lately I have thought that perhaps it should be, not least because creative writing is an increasingly large part of the curriculum in my own department. I certainly have no doubt whatsoever about the talent, dedication, and good faith of the people who do this work at Dalhousie, and that is actually one reason I have been feeling more curious lately about creative writing as a process or a discipline.
With that in mind, I asked the Twitter ‘hivemind’ for examples of what people consider the best books for or about teaching creative writing. I got a lot of suggestions: Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House; Nancy Kress’s Beginnings, Middles, and Ends; Sarah Painter’s Stop Worrying, Start Writing; Robert Boswell’s The Half-Known World; Graywolf Press’s The Art Of series; Tin House’s Between the Covers podcast; Ursula LeGuin’s Steering the Craft, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction.* One that got a few strong endorsements was Margot Livesey’s The Hidden Machinery. It sounded appealing, so it’s the one I decided to read first (and, I now think, maybe last).
I did learn something from The Hidden Machinery, but it wasn’t quite what I expected or was looking for, though I suppose I’m not exactly sure what that was–something concrete, I think, about the actual pedagogy of writing, about the movement from reading to doing. Livesey’s book is not a textbook (of the list I compiled, I now see that only Burroway’s is of really of that kind), but it is described as a “masterclass,” so it’s not unreasonable to think that it is meant to do more than talk about how other people’s books are written. And yet that’s really all that it does, with a few nods towards using them as models and some stories about Livesey’s experiences writing her own novels. Rather than being a book of an unfamiliar kind, it turned out to belong to a category of books I spent a lot of my early blogging years exploring: “books about books.” Only I was reading them, back in the old days, looking for models of criticism, trying to answer my questions about what kind of literary analysis had any traction outside the academy. It hadn’t occurred to me (though maybe it should have) to look at these books as how-to-write guides, not (or not just) how-to-read ones.
The Hidden Machinery is a perfectly fine book about how some really good novels are written. It is mostly close reading. There are zero revelations in it for anyone who has read, say A Passage to India or Persuasion or Madame Bovary attentively with an eye to things like point of view or narrative form or metaphorical patterns or character development. Livesey does a good job walking us through her examples; she is an observant and insightful reader. In her discussion about her own fiction, she explains clearly what she thinks she learned, where she thinks she succeeded or failed, as a result, at least in part, of the attention she learned to pay to other writers. These sections are interesting, but they are not really transferable “lessons”, because each of her novels (like every novel) is unique. There is absolutely no specific advice about how to be as good as her exemplary writers are–and how could there be? There is, near the end, a list of “rules” (derived, a bit unexpectedly for a novelist, from her study of Shakespeare) and it is as useful and as useless as every such list I’ve ever seen: “don’t keep back the good stuff”; “negotiate your own standard of plausibility”; “don’t overexplain”; “write better sentences.” “Don’t overexplain” would probably rule out a novel like Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which I loved. “Write better sentences” is a good Flaubertian proposal–but for some of us, one Flaubert is more than enough. “Negotiate your own standard of plausibility” at least allows for the ridiculous level of coincidence in Dickens…but he (and those who love him for, rather than in spite of, his excesses) would laugh off “be careful how you repeat yourself.”
I was looking for something in Livesey’s book that would be an “aha” moment for me about creative writing as something that can be taught. There was such a moment, but it didn’t exactly confirm for me that what’s most important is classes or programs dedicated to the how-to side. Many, many times I have sat at the English Department’s table at the “academic program fair” held yearly to showcase and recruit students to our various majors and honours program. Year after year, since we started offering creative writing courses, the vast majority of student inquiries are about them, not about our “standard” literature courses. But in those literature courses we do exactly what Livesey does in The Hidden Machinery,** and if you do a majors or honours degree in our department you will perforce study examples across a range of periods and genres–not just the contemporary ones or the ones students already know they are interested in, but the ones they don’t know they are going to love, the literary “unknown unknowns.” Many, many times I have asked prospective creative writing students what other writers, what literary periods or forms, they are most interested in, and many, many times they have had no answer: they just “like to write.”
I love that they like to write! But I have always thought (and sometimes said, as tactfully as I could) that to write well you really, really need to read widely. If Livesey’s typical at all–and in this respect I do think she is–that’s what creative writing teachers think too. I’m just still left wondering why an English degree isn’t, then, the right or even best way for these students to proceed, and why they don’t know that. The counter-argument probably turns as much on time, encouragement, and mentorship as on the belief that you can actually teach someone to write something worth reading or even, one day, something that is itself worth studying as an example. Those are definitely good things for aspiring writers to have, even if they are neither necessary nor sufficient factors for producing good, much less great, writers.
I’m not trying to take a stand for or against creative writing programs as such: that’s really not my place as a non-expert, for one thing, and there are lots of reasons (including administrative and financial ones) that make it inevitable that they will not just continue but expand. There can be (and there is, at Dalhousie, I’m glad to say) valuable integration or at least intersection between creative writing and English, in individual courses as well as in the programs as a whole. For these reasons among others, I’m still interested in questions about how reading leads to writing, and about craft, creativity, and pedagogy. I like the look of the Tin House podcast, so I might have a go at some of its episodes next.
*I don’t know what, if anything, to make of the fact that these are by and large not writers I had heard of or read before (I’d heard of Livesey, but not read any of her novels; I’d obviously heard of LeGuin!).
**While I was thinking about this post (and, to be honest, second-guessing the wisdom of wading into these waters at all), I happened to read a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books of George Saunders’s new book about writing, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, that included this comment: “One doubts that a lesser writer could recognize the skills of the masters so readily, or be able to analyze the short stories as cogently and incisively as Saunders does.” That immediately struck me as absurd: it describes precisely the work of literary criticism, and it reflects what I have always found a problematic assumption, which is that authors make the best critics. Review assignments (in Canada especially) often seem to assume this as well. I think the two skills sets are intimately related but different, and I wonder if this assumption that those who are critics and not practicing novelists lack insight is what leads to books like Livesey’s and Saunders’s being hyped as revelatory, expressions of some special creative power, rather than a good reflection of (some of) the things an English degree will teach you about and how to do.