The Writing Course Hots Up… And Cools Down

I don’t know whether any physicist has actually worked out the formula for the phenomenon of three buses always coming along at once, but someone really should. (Dark Puss, fancy a shot at it?) For there was a sudden intriguing flurry of activity on the course towards the end of last week when I received not one but two useful critiques on the first essay assignment. One came from the fourth member of my peer review group. I’d given up on ever hearing a peep out of him, but at the last minute he produced an extremely detailed and insightful review. Then finally our instructor, also at the last gasp of his promise ‘within a fortnight’, delivered us his thoughts. I’d been a bit skeptical about our great leader, as some other members of the course tend to fawn on him when he puts in a rare appearance on the forums, and that brings out the worst in me. I will try to behave better, though, as he did provide a helpful critique.

This all coincided with a discussion I’d opened about whether/how it was possible to write personally without sitting down at the typewriter and opening a vein, as the saying goes. The overwhelming response from course members was that no, this is not possible. It’s the job of the writer to follow the pain and write through it, on the basis that readers read in order to experience different (and one supposes extreme) states of being. What the reader wants above all else is the intensity of the experience.

I have to say that I’m not fully convinced by this. I think it’s one of those situations where the abstract answer is very different to the real one. A writer says: ‘I don’t want to spend all my time excavating the worst parts of this experience’ and the reader thinks, ‘Ah, but will the account be properly truthful? Isn’t writing about confronting things we tend to avoid?’ Whereas those selfsame readers will weary very quickly indeed of a stream of self-pity, misery and complaint, which is pretty much what you will find clustered around difficult experiences. To write about bad times successfully, I think you need a lot of leavening ingredients – primarily humour, insight, wisdom, and the power to console. I also think that writing can be effective when it makes implications rather than statements, or when we see the work of extreme events in indirect or tangential ways. In other words, I don’t think you have to stand in the epicentre of an earthquake to understand the force of an earthquake.

Both the question and the answer here are about the difficulty we humans have in getting our powers of thinking and feeling to work in harmony. I wonder how much our lives become mired in conflict because thought gives us one answer to a problem and feeling gives us a totally different one. I’ve been reading and continuing to marvel at the wonderful Being Wrong by Kathryn Schultz, which demonstrates in all kinds of ways how we think other people are wrong with the greatest of ease, but feel ourselves to be wrong at the cost of desperate and destructive emotions.

The chapter I’ve just read about denial and acceptance was particularly powerful. Schultz tells the story of Penny Beerntsen who was violently raped on a family day out to the shores of Lake Michigan. Being exceptionally brave in the heat of the moment, Penny knew the one thing she must do was get a good look at her assailant’s face, in case she survived the attack. Therefore, when the police came to her later in hospital with a strong suspect, and she picked his photo out of a selection, the case seemed easily closed. However, the man she identified continued to protest his sentence, and his case was eventually taken up by the Innocence Project, some 18 years later. By this time, DNA testing was available, and the results from the laboratory proved that the man jailed for the rape was indeed innocent, and that another man, currently serving a lengthy sentence for aggravated assault, had been the perpetrator.

Continuing to be an exceptionally brave woman, Penny Beerntsen did her best to face up to this miscarriage of justice. But what a dreadful responsibility now seemed to lie on the shoulders of a woman who had been an innocent victim of a terrible crime. Now she felt guilty not only for the 18 years of wrongful imprisonment, but for the score of crimes her real attacker had committed before he was caught. Schultz goes into this case in some depth (all of it fascinating), and argues that Penny can hardly be held to blame for what happened, not least because it was the police’s job to identify the perpetrator correctly (and they turned a blind eye to all sorts of evidence, so sure were they that they had their man) and the legal system’s job to ensure a fair, accurate and full trial. Yet every stage of the process – by no means a negligible one – is littered with people who for various reasons want quick results, are fuelled by righteous anger, and believe themselves to be on the side of the angels. There is so much at stake here that accepting the possibility that mistakes are easily made becomes even harder than it is normally.

Yet mistakes are easily made. All the studies undertaken into eyewitness accounts have shown beyond doubt that this is the most error-strewn form of evidence. The very best eyewitnesses get more than 25% of the facts wrong in their accounts, the worst more than 80%. Seeing may be believing, but it is in no way objective recording; our perceptions are often wildly inaccurate. Yet in a court of law, the testimony of the eyewitness remains surpassed only by DNA in its ability to secure a conviction. Because we feel our own perceptions to be accurate, we believe those of others to be so too. However, Kathryn Schultz brilliantly points out that when we cross the border from non-fiction into fiction, the eyewitness account transforms into a first person narrative. And here the reputation of the narrator takes a nose dive. In a novel, the first person account is considered to be subjective, partial, and unreliable.

This is the thought that I take with me into my writing course. Being a reader before I am a writer, I am uncomfortably aware of how inaccurate my memory is, how much events are changed by the mood of the moment, how easy it is to create different versions of the same event. The instructor made a very intriguing comment at the end of a discussion a couple of days ago, suggesting to us that we might give up the need to be right, or to solve things, in favour of tracking the path of uncertainty and error. I’m much taken with this idea, which I think gets us closer to any kind of ‘truth’ of experience. What I want to ask the course participants now is how we square that pursuit of uncertainty with narrative’s demand for an ending. Only we’re about to hand in another essay and the forum is currently a dead zone. Well, perhaps next week; I think they’re getting sick of me asking difficult questions as it is!


43 thoughts on “The Writing Course Hots Up… And Cools Down

    • Ooh good question. But in truth, I’d rather stick with online. There should be a law against two or more writers gathering at a watercooler, because we are a strange but competitive breed, prone to depress one another. And I think that liking or disliking a person makes a huge impact on reading their work. I think I’m getting more objective critiques from virtual classmates than I would from ‘real’ life ones and for me it is all about the quality of the critiques (which have thankfully taken a turn for the better!).

      • Well I can perfectly understand that – and the right instructor can give a lesson huge impact. Wouldn’t it be great to be paid TO BE a student? What sort of revolution would have to happen for that to come to pass, I wonder? 🙂

  1. Oh wow there is so much in this post to respond to.

    This reminds me of AS Byatt’s Still Life etc Quartet. In Babel Tower there are some rather scathing satires of the modernisation of the education system. There is also in Still Life a scene in which Stephanie tries to get back to her pre-baby, pre-family self by going to the library and studying a poem about a vase (I think). Byatt’s argument is that losing oneself to the object of study itself is the important thing, and that one’s personal experience of it as self-expression or emotion is not something to be admired or pushed forward. It may be an old fashioned view now, and the way we write literature has changed, but it was perfectly possible for her to write some very good, very stirring books using this forensic approach.

    I agree with all your insights regarding the reasons accounts of bad times would work or not.

    And I think you are definitely right and don’t need to track the path of uncertainty or error on this one! Although of course to be able to weave that into one’s writing is a skill to aim for. As with all things, it’s balance – as much as readers want uncertainty, I think there is a need for definite-ness too – something for the reader to react against, or to feel for.

    • I’m a fan of A. S. Byatt, though you remind me that I’ve only read Still Life from that series of books, and should read the others, too. I’m very much of the inclination that being a conduit is the way to go! And you are so right about the difficulty of maintaining that balance between certainty and doubt – because they just don’t make sense without a little of the other.

      • No 3 Babel Tower is the best. The Virgin In the Garden is very “period” and a bit restricted by the fact that Frederica is in the main still at school. It’s good but doesn’t have the scope of the second and third novels.

        The fourth was very disappointing and veers off into some characters I didn’t really care about.

        The conduit thing is interesting. I think we’ve lived in a time that has rapidly changed in terms of what we share of ourselves and how much we expect to give of our personal selves in our intellectual and artistic lives. Although I think there is definitely a place along the spectrum for many different approaches and I think there are audiences for all of them.

  2. Intriguing. Introduce structural forms that rebel against the need for definite endings? Provide different perspectives somehow alongside the first person? Textually acknowledge the impossibility of the narrative task at hand and state that you’ll make the best fist of a definitive ending you can but it will never be perfect? Reminders of subjectivity? However it’s to be done I think the developing genre of creative non-fiction provides a perfect venue to work through these kind of issues.

    • I would like to take every sentence of this comment and post it individually onto the forums with the word: Discuss. Fabulous stuff, J, and every little bit of it worth exploring in depth.

  3. I’m interested in your applying the term narrative to non- fiction writing. Of course it can be and is used in respect of non-fiction every bit as much as fiction but is the implication not then that the writer is shaping the events described not only so as to bring about a feeling that the piece ends satisfactorily but also in other parts of the discourse in the ways that a fiction writer would? If that is the case then the question of the truth of the experience becomes an interesting one. In one sense you are getting further away from the absolute truth, but then again it might be argued that by deliberately choosing and shaping your material you are able to convey a truth more completely to your reader. And, of course, I could ask what is truth but I don’t think your course is that long!

    • Ha, there is SO much in this comment that the only sensible way I can think of to reply is to steer you towards a wonderful book: Truth in Nonfiction: Essays edited by David Lazar. These are indeed the sorts of questions that keep creative non-fiction writers warm in the winter! 🙂

  4. I think of memoir as being an exploration of memory itself, of how we construct a narrative that makes sense to us out of a handful of clues. People experiencing the same events may reflect on them with quite different interpretations – ask the two parties in a divorce what went wrong and you will hear two very different stories.

  5. ‘This all coincided with a discussion I’d opened about whether/how it was possible to write personally without sitting down at the typewriter and opening a vein, as the saying goes’

    Of course you can. Writing a craft first and an artform second. (actually, all Arts are crafts first and artforms second)

    Opening a vein and spilling your soul all over the page is a useful way to break through the barrier to the writer’s personal voice and it can also be useful in first drafts, but then the craft has to be applied to those words ‘filled up with loathing and self-pity’.

    There are stories and memories that writers need to write to advance. Pieces they fear, for whatever reason. Perhaps it was difficult moment in their lives. Perhaps it is something they don’t want to examine. But not all writing, even of memoirs, should be like that.

    For one thing it would be utterly exhausting and would undoubtedly lead to burn-out and/or writer’s-block.

    Writing a piece a writer fears helps to break down the wall between the writer and the words, but it is not the only thing that does this. Writing a piece that is crafted with cleverness and style also helps. Writing a piece filled with humour and good cheer also helps.

    Opening a vein is nice and all, but it is a pretty exhausting way to write a reflection on literary theory or a memory of a nice tea-party where once the writer met their love or…whatever scene of honest enjoyment the writer is trying to invoke

    Truthfulness is the important bit, but as (I think) Orwell said, ‘For a writer possession of the truth is less important than emotional sincerity.’ It’s hard to be sincere when your soul is bleeding out.


    • PK! How nice of you to drop by and join in. Yes, I am definitely of your opinion in this. Emotional sincerity, craft, a variety of narrative strategies and the avoidance of exhaustion and burn-out seem essential parts of the process to me! Thank you for putting it all so clearly.

      • No worries. Oh, I’ll talk about the craft of writing ’til the heat-death of the universe.

        Literary theory and criticism makes me come up in hives. But I am glad that there are those who are made of sterner stuff.

  6. If you have to open a vein, you’re not ready to write. If you do try to write while you’re bleeding all over your keyboard, your writing will be shite.

    You have to have a clear head to write well. I promise.

    Even writing about the happiest moments in the world requires writers to be selective. Embrace the edit! It’s what readers would prefer you do. While we love gossip and voyeurism, we get bored pretty easily.

    We don’t want 40 pages of whining, or personal philosophy with a wee bit of action dropped in. We want a wild ride, and we’ll be on our way. We don’t need to know the physics of the ride’s mechanics or the how the carney’s children are doing at school. Here’s your money, flip the switch, whee!
    RIde’s over. Sorry about your trauma. It was fun. Call me.

    If you write about a car accident don’t bleed into how it reflects poorly on the status of our transportation system, the history of cars, or give us four pages of that time your dad took you to the Everglades and you got a flat tire and then he lost the lug nuts and you had to find a tow truck and you all went for pancakes afterward because he really had a deep seeded need to wear women’s clothing…no, I promise, I don’t give s h*t. Stick with your car accident.

    Just gimme squealing tires, shattered glass, some broken bones, and a little bit of mental. That’s all the recipe you need for a good story. Make it up or tell me the truth as you know it, makes no difference to me, all crashes are essentially the same.

    Your experience is unique just because it is yours, so just write it. Writers should stop pouring over the emotion of it, and just get it all down. Everyone has a reader out there just waiting for you to finish it already.

    if you do run on a bit about your potting soil or mother’s hairpins, don’t fret, editor’s are going to slice whatever you’ve written in half anyway. All writers talk to much about ourselves-it’s what we know best. Except for maybe Melville, but he sucks.

    What it boils down to is that whatever the subject matter, disclosure, truth, or lies, these details won’t matter if the writing is wonderful. Great words pull us in, keep us interested, and linger long after. Even if you aren’t interested in the mating habits of migrating bees, the right writer can make you nerd all over it.

    That’s what writing good is all about is about, not how many tears you can fit in your inkwell.

    Congrats on your feedback 🙂

    • So essentially you’re talking about focus, selection, essence as being the foundations of a good piece of non-fiction writing, and of course decent writing. I couldn’t agree more! And I like your point that even a happy event requires emotional modulation and a proper sense of engagement. Actually a few pages of relentless happiness would be pretty unbearable, wouldn’t they? 😉 Great points!

      • haha unrelenting happiness is fine as long as the pacing works. people tend to drone on because they get all introspective and forget action verbs. Ya gotta make something happen!

  7. Glad to hear it’s hotting up – a little. I’ve just read two books that explore memoir by turning it into fiction. One of the writers says she wrote her memoir as a novel because memory is so fallible that remembering an event is of necessity an act of fiction. As a reader tangentially involved (I knew her poet brother who died so tragically), I was disappointed as I wanted the brutal centre of the earthquake and I came away unsure of whether she had made the best decision or not. However, that is one option – to declare it fiction and give oneself freedom from having to be exact.

    • Yes, there comes a point in narrative non-fiction where the distinction from fiction is very hard to grasp! I just read a very interesting article, in fact, that said the power of narrative non-fiction was all in the testimony, particularly when trauma and crime were involved. It’s significant that having named real people, they can either challenge or applaud your interpretation of events. He was particularly talking about cases of abuse, and books where victims or their amanuensis had stood up and named perpetrators, who in some cases had subsequently been brought to justice. I think what makes the decision to choose fiction or non-fiction as the medium is whether the story matters most, or saying ‘This happened to me.’ I can certainly understand why, writing about chronic fatigue, say, I’d want to put my own hand up to the experience. But other people may well prefer fiction for the veil it throws over, say, family members whose privacy needs to be protected.

  8. Busses in queues? A very well known problem and much studied. You might find (some) of this article of interest:

    If you are very keen (and amazingly have nothing better to do with a few days of your life) there is a recent, relevant PhD thesis from Berkeley available here:

    Always happy to help with the science-y questions, wish I was better at literary challenges!

  9. I feel people do not really take “emotional truth” into account. I encounter this often on my movie blog when people slag off a movie as not being historically accurate. I don’t mind so much if the film is able to render an emotional truth.
    That’s why I find one shouldn’t struggle with being truthful in memoir. You should never lie or alter facts consciously but you’re allowed to render them the way, they felt, even if the “truth” was slightly different.

    • Yes, I think emotional truth is key. I really like Georges Perec, whose W or the Memory of Childhood plays openly with the mistakes in his memory that nevertheless contain a lot of emotional truth. That’s an amazing book.

  10. I’m glad you’ve finally gotten some good feedback and attention! I completely agree with you about not liking the idea that opening up a vein is what’s required to write about oneself well. Yes, I do want to read about genuine experience, but there must be art there as well! I want the material to be carefully shaped, and if this means that it’s a little less truthful, then so be it. I’m not a therapist when I read a book, after all! I read it for the aesthetic experience, among other reasons.

    • I really like your point about not being a therapist! That gets to the heart of the matter, doesn’t it? There has to be control, restraint and meaning, or no aesthetic experience. Which is essential, as you rightly say.

  11. >>>I have to say that I’m not fully convinced by this. I think it’s one of those situations where the abstract answer is very different to the real one.

    I strongly, strongly agree. I always think the important thing is for the writer to be interested in what s/he’s writing about for the writing to be any good. Insisting that it has to be about pain seems very reductive — there are so many things in the world besides pain that are interesting and worthwhile. The writer has to be engaged, not miserable.

    • Well I think that’s absolutely true. I’m a big believer in mixed emotions – not that we don’t have the odd surge of pure feeling, but I do think that most experiences are complex, when you really look at them. And I couldn’t agree more that there are many things beside pain that are really worth writing about!

  12. We had to beat into the heads of our teenagers for Mock Trial that eyewitness testimony is fraught with all kinds of peril. We even ran them through an experiment using my two sons (who are similar in coloring and bulk, but not at all alike in looks – the oldest keeps saying, “I’m the one with the glasses!”) – and the kids did not pick up that a switch was made: it makes the point well when you get fooled personally. Good writing point.

    As for Emotional truth: today I finally finished a scene that took me almost 19,000 words to get all the information out of my brain: that’s the part where you sit at the keyboard and open a vein.

    The important emotional pieces – designed to evoke emotion in the reader, not display the emotions of the character – now take up two section, one of 246 words, another of 107.

    The process was exhausting (some scenes are like that), but I am prouder of those two tiny, restrained sections than I could ever be of 40 pages of whining.

    I consider that distillation the writer’s job.


    • Wow, 19,000 words down to a couple of hundred. I’m amazed and impressed and not at all sure I could do that myself! But no wonder you’re proud of such a distillation – it’s epic! And how interesting that the unreliability of eyewitnesses is actually taught nowadays – I think you’re quite right and that it has to be experience to be believed.

  13. There is so much that is interesting in this post; I especially liked your observations about the need for leavening ingredients when writing about bad times, and the difficulty in achieving harmony between thoughts and feelings.

  14. The instructor made a very intriguing comment at the end of a “discussion a couple of days ago, suggesting to us that we might give up the need to be right, or to solve things, in favour of tracking the path of uncertainty and error”…this is such a Pittsburgh (or at least, creative nonfiction in Pittsburgh) approach to writing! It really challenged me as well because I was used to much tidier writing but I’m so glad i followed similar direction – It strengthened and deepened my writing. The key is to be able to then reign it in when necessary – something many people don’t learn!

    • Ha! Is it now? Well, that’s extremely interesting. I’m happy to report that the instructor IS very good. He went to a great deal of trouble over my first assignment and gave me some very insightful, very subtle points to work with. I’m really glad I’m doing the course – the materials supplied have been excellent, too. I should say more about them but don’t know whether that’s a good idea – probably safest to leave the sources with the course!

  15. First, I’d like that formula so I will better be able to predict when my bus will arrive.

    Second, I don’t think you have to open a vein to write well. Shouldn’t all depend on purpose and audience? Are you writing for the attention of the Jerry Springer/tabloid crowd? Then a lurid train wreck is in order for sure. When I am reading a memoir I am looking for honesty not guts on the page.

    Third, memory is notoriously tricky, isn’t it? It is one reason why it is so fascinating. I always marvel when I talk to my sister about our childhood and it’s like we grew up in two different houses or something.

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