Introduction by Bill Manhire
International Institute of Modern Letters
Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand
The creative writing workshop can be a troubled and contentious place. Flannery O’Connor graduated from Iowa back in 1947, some years before Messrs Olsen and Schaeffer were born—and she is name-checked several times in this book. Yet it was she who said, “I am often asked if universities stifle writers. My view is that they don’t stifle enough of them.” I’m told that if you say the words Nelson Algren aloud in certain forums, any Iowa graduates present will shift uncomfortably. That’s to say, there are people who despise creative writing workshops, and they will hate this book on principle.
But what creative writing workshops offer is not an Iowa invention. If it’s the practice of offering advice to aspiring writers that’s at issue, you can track back through the Western tradition to rhetoricians like Geoffrey de Vinsauf and Aelius Theon. Or you can go somewhere else altogether. Kiribati, for instance.
Kiribati is a Pacific archipelago—one of those tiny island states that global warming may soon consign to the depths. It was once a British colony: the Gilbert and Ellis Islands. (Kiribati, pronounced Kiribass, is a transliteration of Gilberts.) If you had gone there some 90 years ago, you might have bumped into the British colonial servant Arthur Grimble, and he might have introduced you to the poets of the place. The Kiribati poets lived ordinary, real-world lives, though in everything they did they aimed to be exceptional. According to Grimble’s good friend Taata, a poet ought to excel friends and family in the everyday labours of fishing, farming and building. “Only by becoming a recognised master of the island crafts can he win reverence for his art.”
But from time to time on Kiribati, as elsewhere, the need to create a poem is felt. It is then, as Taata told Grimble, that a poet abandons farming and fishing. He takes himself off to the loneliest of places, somewhere he can fast and avoid contact with others. He then marks out a large square on the ground, with a good view to the east, and sits for a whole night there in his “house of song,” awaiting the dawn. After addressing the rising sun in a ritual incantation, he returns to his village, where he chooses five friends and brings them back to the composing place.
Now listen to what happens:
Without further preamble, he begins to recite the “rough draft” of his poem, which he has ruminated overnight. It is the business of his friends to interrupt, criticise, interject suggestions, applaud, or howl down, according to their taste. Very often they do howl him down, too, for they are themselves poets. On the other hand, if the poem, in their opinion, shows beauty they are indefatigable in abetting its perfection. They will remain without food or drink under the pitiless sun until night falls, searching for the right word, the balance, the music that will convert it into a finished work of art.
When all their wit and wisdom has been poured out upon him, they depart. He remains alone again—probably for several days—to reflect upon their advice, accept, reject, accommodate, improve, as his genius dictates. The responsibility for the completed song will be entirely his.
Probably this practice was centuries old when Grimble encountered it. It sounds to me like the ideal creative writing workshop. Inspiration is acknowledged: a writer begins to work on a text that truly matters to him—that has come to him perhaps because he has put himself in the way of it. Yet eventually, and in a formal situation, he offers it to sympathetic fellow writers for close reading and advice. They respond, offering their own points of view, but trying to wed their comments to the intentions they sense in the piece of writing. The writer chooses the advice he finds helpful. He does so on behalf of the completed composition, for which he then takes personal responsibility. As for Grimble’s “abetting perfection” idea, I think that holds, too—though maybe “aiding and abetting” would be even better. In a workshop, everyone’s an accomplice.