Choosing a Writing Teacher

by Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, February 2004
Way back, during a not untypical spat on the internet -- a "discussion" on the rights and wrongs of outlining -- I was asked by a beginning writer whose head was spinning, how could she distinguish between the rightness and wrongness of the utterances (the pontifications) of certain writers. If famous author X argued one way and less famous author Y disagreed, how could Miss B Ginner know the correct course? Should she give more weight to the more famous writer, for example?

I considered philosophizing at this point. Did Miss B want to be an author or did she want to be a writer? But in the end I replied that when an aspiring writer decides to listen to an author, the choices should have less to do with the "ranking" of an author, maybe not even that author's critical reviews, and definitely not "fame", but should be based on how much Beeg Inna admires the author's work, or relates to him, or understands where the author's coming from, how he uses language, what buttons he pushes.

I asked, is the author a head, heart, or gut writer -- and which kind are you? Is what they do in some way special to you or not? And you might hate what they do, what they write about, you might not be into the author's chosen genre, but still you might see something in the author's attitude to craft which touches you. What I mean, I said, is that if you perceive something "heroic" in an author, some element you empathize with, then go her way. If you don't "relate" to an author, then take another direction. For example, though I very much appreciate the person P.D. James and appreciate the quality of her writing, I can't imagine P.D. James the author or P.D. James the teacher would "do" much for me, Alex Keegan. We are very different, and I think we have different literary aims.

If I could sit at the feet of an author, I think it would be first off (if I was lucky enough to get the choice) Saul Bellow, or Alice Munro, or perhaps Robert Stone, or Tim O'Brien. My other heroes are sadly all dead: Denis Potter, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, and Lawrence Sargent Hall.

Do I mean any disrespect to Phyllis James? Definitely not. How can I put this better? We have different approaches. I am over the top, extreme, passionate, volatile, in my life, and, I think, in my writing. There's a lot of that, a lot of me, in my writing and there's an inkling of the same streak in many (but not all) of the students with whom I gel most.

If you read me and mutter "where's the control?" or "what's wrong with a straightforward sentence once or twice?" or "a plot would be nice!" then maybe my writing isn't for you, my personal style may very well not be for you, and of course my teaching may definitely not be for you. This does not automatically follow (perhaps opposites attract) and I'm not saying it's a make or break thing, but it's definitely another element to consider when deciding on a teacher.

OK, Miss Bright Beginner responded, fine, got that, but does it follow anyway that a good writer is necessarily a good teacher? Do all the good writers possess genuine insight into their own methods, and even if they do, does it mean they can teach well? Can they pass on that information?

Well, to begin with, I said, that's easy. We've been discussing those writers who teach -- you have to weigh them against each other. It takes, at most, three lessons to "suss out" the teacher. Perhaps one practices BBB (Bull Baffles Brains), and another, though eloquent on the page, simply can't connect to the lowly dreamer.

Let me note here that I strongly believe good writers can be good teachers. The old adage, the cliché, those who can, do, those who can't, teach is one of the cruelest lies. The novelist John Gardener mentored Raymond Carver (and it's said saved his life). Ray Carver in turn helped Jay McInerney. It does not follow at all that because someone wants to teach or likes to teach (or needs to teach, because good fiction often pays so poorly) that they aren't fine craftsmen.

I'm sure many writers can introspect and understand their art, but I suspect that many teachers only half-know what happens within themselves when they write. This, coupled with an ability or inability to teach and motivate, makes the matrix of possibilities even wider. And there's always "just getting by," churning stuff out. It frustrates me to see, for example, a writer's how-to book packed full of old news and no fresh insight whatsoever.

So listen. I think, ultimately, we can all judge the ability of the author to look inward and articulate his processes simply by how he speaks and of what he speaks, whether it is general and vague, euphemistic, or whether it is concrete, direct and useful.

Miss B was on a roll now. OK, she said, I'll go with that, but you seem to be saying there is a method. Surely there are no catch-all methods? No method that works for one and is bound to work for another?

Oh absolutely! And a good teacher should be careful. For example I will tell my students how I work -- that the Alex Keegan fiction machine is most efficient from 8am to 1pm (well it was at the time of this writing) -- but I wouldn't, couldn't and shouldn't suggest or impose schedules.

But what I can do is to strongly advance habit, consistency and sheer hard work -- essential -- and I can strongly argue how important it is to develop a known atmosphere, a way of life, an approach to living in which above all else you are a writer, not a lover, mother, father, wife, but a writer. Just as Edison mentioned 99% perspiration, my Boot Campers know how forcefully I advocate throughput, hard-work, regularity, consistency, and how I argue that procrastination is more than a thief, she is a murderess.

Individual methods to achieve the necessary throughput and sustained hard work, may be many and varied, but methods there must be. There may be many routes to success, but there are many ways that almost always fail, many ways to cheat and eventually lose. Those I would talk about.

Should I play computer games when I'm blocked?
Sure, if you can control it.
Would you play?
No, absolutely not, because I'm obsessive, extreme, probably compulsive, and in no time at all I would discover my writing time had disappeared. Should I browse the web for writer's sites, chat in a forum or two? Sure, but not if you're as obsessive as I am.

So the point, my point, would never be "This you should do," but "This I do, this is why I do it and here's what happens when I don't. This is an example of one author's way, here is another. The commonalities are these, and the common factor between the successful authors is avoidance of the pitfalls."

But do we published writers tell the truth? I was asked. How does B Ginner know she isn't being sold snake-oil? Well, I answer, it's always possible we lie. Devious liars are what we are every day. Seeking the truth, lying is our daily craft. We might also lean this way in our advice. Or maybe we just don't want the competition. I can only speak for myself -- (I say too many honest things and get into trouble for it) but, I think some authors do lie a lot about their craft. Maybe not maliciously, but out of a kind of glibness or laziness, or out of a desire to say something relatively safe and easy.

At this point I began to wonder if Miss B was working to a script. Was it fact, she asked, that the best teachers are always those who are the most successful writers? Might it not be the case that the best teachers are the best critics? After all, many how-to manuals have been produced by writers whose fiction-publishing success is limited, yet their books have helped many to go on to be frequently published and highly praised writers.

That was a valid point. Many top sportsmen make lousy coaches while many workmanlike players go on to manage and coach successfully. One of the finest books on short fiction is Writing in General and the Short-Story in Particular, and that was written by Rust Hills, a self-confessed non-writer of shorts, but a fine reader and critic, and then the established long-serving fiction editor at Esquire.

At the end of my conversation with B, I confessed. My personal preferences were coloring my argument -- shame! So I told her.

Yes Miss BG, I want to learn, I want to be taught, I want to be guided, but BG, most of all I want to be inspired. Give me Robert Stone's Under The Pitons and give me the mind that brought it to life; or give me Nathan Englander and Nathan Englander's The Twenty-Seventh Man; let me read Lawrence Sargeant Hall's The Ledge, and make me weep, make me ache. I want to talk to people who write like that, not the masters of slick-fic, not the fast-food servers of chick-lit, or the ponderous gurus of the obscure.

Give me the wild, the alive, the passionate, drunken, messy writer who, if she conformed to the rules of commerciality, could maybe be ten times more successful. As long as she cares about writing, as long as she wants to see young writers grow, if she can cry when she reads something wonderful, that's what I want Yeah, that's it! Some of that please.

Oh, says B, Oh yes, says I. The craft element is only half the issue, the mentor-part, the inspiration, that's important too.

Alex Keegan British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.

His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.

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