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Writing: Some Thoughts on the Teachable and the Unteachable in Creative Writing

Trevor Pateman

Abstract. This essay discusses aspects of style, expression and imagination from the standpoint of their teachability. The concept of "finding a voice" is explored and elucidated as "the full imaginative expression of a bounded individuality". Writing blocks are discussed, using psychoanalytic concepts of "transfer" and "resistance".

The title of this essay is expansive enough - some might say, beyond reason - but it already excludes all that is contrasted with writing as speech. Writing and speech are importantly different, though contemporary reports of their difference may have been greatly exaggerated, in ways to which this essay may contribute a corrective.

If speech is excluded from my proposed subject matter, so too is literacy, as a mental and social fact and problem. I shall not be concerned with the acquisition of the skill of writing, nor with the social management of its distribution.

Writing has many genres, and we who are literate write letters, reports, shopping lists, school essays, poems, novels, and so on, but already far enough to mobilize the superordinate genres of nonliterary and literary writing. And for the rest of this essay, 'writing' will mean literary writing.

So what is literary writing? One influential contemporary approach (that of Roland Barthes and many others) has it that literary writing is intransitive, unlike the nonliterary which is transitive - that is, oriented toward the standard aims of communication. Writing is intransitive when it is writing just for the sake of writing and when what matters (to author and to reader alike) is the character, the quality, of the very writing itself.

But what could qualify as such a quality other than the style of the writing? Is not literary writing style itself? (L' ecriture, c'est le style meme). Unfortunately for the gesture toward La Rochefoucauld, it is impossible to sustain any unified notion of style, for it immediately breaks apart into at least three conceptions that it is as well to set down here and now.

First, there are formal styles or registers that have a conventional existence and already prescribe how some piece of literary writing is to be executed. What makes something a sonnet or a haiku or a limerick is not up to the individual writer. The forms already exist and are to hand, ready to be re-used.

Second, there is that aspect of a writer's style which is not deliberately crafted but which exists as symptomatic or indexical of a concrete individual's writing and can be used to determine authorship. If you discover a piece of writing that may be by Shakespeare, you don't determine this question by literary judgment alone (or at all): if the piece is sufficiently extended in length, you run it through a computer program that will tell you whether the style is Shakespeare's. (A perfectly analogous approach in art history, originated by Morelli, consists in determining authenticity by looking at how minor details, such as ear lobes, are painted. The assumption being made is that these are parts of the painting on which the painter would have worked in a more relaxed and less attentive manner, thus leaving behind a symptomatic signature).

Third, there is crafted style to which the (serious) writer is supposed to devote his or her best efforts and in terms of which literary identity is (supposedly) established.

If we turn our attention to educational programs devoted to the teaching of creative writing, it is easy and convenient to suppose that what has to be done is familiarize the student with the registers of literary writing and help him or her with the crafting of a personal style. And this is part of the truth. But not the whole truth, because it is not the whole truth that literary writing is the style itself. For at least in relation to prose genres (to which I shall now, in a further restriction of scope, confine attention), writing is centrally about the making of fictional worlds, in which states of affairs, characters, and events are represented and, I want to say, essentially represented with feeling. For this phrase "represented with feeling" I shall now substitute "expressed" and say that in prose writing fictional worlds are expressed.

This is not to collapse fiction writing into communication, but it is to say that such writing is larger than its style (its stylistic aspect, if you wish), even though what is expressed in writing may be inseparable from (organic with) how it is expressed. And this recognition will, among other things, promptly upset any craft conception of the teaching of creative writing that one might have been tempted to hold. For now "becoming a writer" changes into something more than being able to turn words adeptly (as a wordsmith). "Becoming a writer" will also involve accessing autobiographical or fictive worlds and representing them with feeling. Nor is this to be achieved in any mechanical, before-and-after, sense that the representation is subsequent to the world's being identified, but rather in the sense that the worlds that are accessed are always-already represented with feeling, though their final realization on the page may require considerable crafting.

A less cumbersome way of putting this is to say that becoming a writer involves being or becoming imaginative in a particular way: being able to imagine worlds peopled with characters, enlivened by events, and furnished with more or less elaborate settings. And it is far from obvious that being imaginative is something that can be taught, nor is it obvious what constitutes a learning environment in which the imagination will flourish.

One way to get some purchase on the question, Can Imagination be taught or nurtured? is to consider what might be the obstacles to anyone's being or becoming imaginative. And I identify two main categories of obstacle.

First, as a mental activity, exercise of the imagination may be curtailed by limitations of general or specific intelligence. For purposes of this essay, I need take no view on how significant, if at all, is this possible obstacle.

Second, as a mental activity engaging with representations to which ordinary human feelings attach, the exercise of imagination may be limited by the operation of unconscious transfers and resistances that distort or block the free flow of imaginative engagement. I take the view that such unconscious movements are significant obstacles to imaginative work. I will elaborate on this claim.

Unless one believes that (1) the mind (mental activity) is always and everywhere transparent to itself and that (2) its operations are reflexively available to itself, and that (3) all our mental activity can be coordinated in a cooperative endeavor to achieve our conscious goals - unless you believe this, then you have to allow that there is room for imaginative activity (as a kind of mental activity) to go wrong. The theory of the unconscious mind, as it has been developed since Freud, allows us to give accounts of ways in which things can go wrong, and I have singled out the concepts of transfer and resistance as fruitful ways of introducing the idea of unconscious obstacles.

As a preliminary sketch, my thinking goes something like this: a writer trying (consciously) to represent a world of people and events can be disrupted in that practice by interference from unconscious mental material that has been activated in and by the writing. For example, an emerging character in a story may get transferred onto it emotions originally attaching to other (real) characters - paradigmatically, one's mother or father. This unconscious process is not (by definition) available to the writer for conscious monitoring and reflection (taking the form: Is what is now happening good for the story I'm trying to write?). Consequently, there is at the most banal level some chance that the transfer will be bad for the story (derailing it) rather than good for it (making it resonate, for example).

Likewise, an emerging story, if consciously reflected upon, may require representations of people or events whichbecause of the operation of unconscious resistance, cannot be accessed by the writer. So the representations go missing, and the story suffers. It would, for example, be a gross mistake to suppose that all you need for the writing of a good sex scene in a novel is a craft skill. For such a scene, even when consciously and conscientiously embarked upon, may be sabotaged by the operation of unconscious resistance. That, at any rate, is the kind of claim I want to make.

It begins to look as if the practice of writing will go better, will encounter fewer obstacles, to the extent that we have achieved some kind of self-possession, some kind of self-knowledge. And this is not something that creative writing courses are there to teach. Nor could they teach it, for self-knowledge comes about through experience, through the bespoke challenges of life, and more specifically through the challenges encountered in close relationships and in counselling, psychotherapy, and psychoanalysis. Now I want to flesh out this sketch by looking more closely at the idea of unconscious transfer(ence) and illustrating some of its varieties.

In a one-to-one therapeutic situation, a patient may seek (desire) the therapist's approval or love, and this may result in the foregrounding of psychic material that is thought likely to elicit such responses and in the witholding of other material. For example, a patient may foreground statements that say, "My husband treats me badly" and withold statements that say, "I'm having an affair." The patient, if you like, is being economical with the truth. A writer can also seek (desire) approval or love from an (unknown) audience, and this desire can be transferred into the writing being done, so that the writing is run through with the desire for approval.

As a second example, a patient may transferentially fear an analyst's disapproval, or loss of interest, or anger and may seek to circumvent and prevent their occurrence. In parallel, a writer may write anticipating a certain reaction from the (unknown) audience and seek to contain or displace it. As a scientific writer, Freud does this all the time, constantly trying to disarm by anticipation the negative reactions to his work that he expects. Related to this second example is a third, in which a patient, anticipating an analyst's hate, may seek to take control of the situation by appropriating the anticipated hate and expressing it as self-hate - a phenomenon that can affect whole cultures (as in Jewish self-hate). A writer can do the same.

As a final example, consider that a patient may assume in the analyst the same desire as is in himself or herself and may therefore approach the analyst collusively, expecting agreement as to the desirable. A writer may do the same thing. The obvious example is provided by academic writing where "we" is often written as expressive of an expectation of agreement (as in the ordinary-language philosophy of the 1940s and 1950s). There is also collusive writing in literature - something easily spotted when the text dates from a past century.

But why are such transfers (necessarily) bad things? Let me try to answer this by taking the example of self-hate and drawing a distinction. It is not at all wrong to seek to envision a fictional world in which the characters express self-hate. But the writing will fail, I want to argue, in proportion to the writer's inability to bring his or her own self-hate under some kind of conscious, reflexive awareness; for then this real self-hatred will continue to express itself transferentially (symptomatically) across and through the literary text, rather than expressively or symbolically within the worked text. And the literary text is not supposed to be a symptom.

I can come at what I am trying to say by another direction and suggest that the metaphor of a writer finding a voice can be given at least part of its meaning in terms of the overcoming of transfers and resistances, and by a roundabout route, that is the claim I want now to try to sustain.

The metaphor of a writer finding a voice requires careful scrutiny. After all, it appears to transgress the rule or ruling that speech and writing are separate orders of reality. I will begin to analyze the metaphor by listing out some naive and perhaps not so naive questions:

  • 1. When you find your voice, are you finding something that you once had but then lost?
  • 2. When you find your voice, is it possible that you should subsequently lose it?
  • 3. When you find your voice, does this mean just that you can proceed more confidently in your writing, similar to one's being able to start playing a piece at the piano only when one has found the key for the piece (the key to which the piece opens)?
  • 4. If finding your voice is like finding a key, to what is it a key? (Is it the key to a world of feeling?)
  • 5. What is the relationship between finding a voice and achieving a style?
  • 6. Is finding your voice something that essentially requires someone else's recognition, so that you haven't found it until others feel that you have?
  • 7. What does it do for readers to be reading someone they feel to have found his or her voice? Does it give them more confidence to go along with the writer? Does it bring confidence in the plausibility of the worlds the writer represents? Is a writer who has found his or her voice more believable? Or simply more interesting?
  • 8. Why is finding a voice important? Can you get along without one? And if you fail to find one, what do you end up with (being or doing)?

Quite a few questions! Let me make a start with the final one and say that the claim I want to advance is that finding a voice is important in just the same way as is speaking with a full word sincerely, authentically, and for oneself. Not to speak with a full word is always to speak with the voice of others or another - society, party, church, one's mother, one's father.

To speak with a full word does not always involve speaking in new words, but may require only that one accents the words of another as fully, authentically one's own. By way of example only, consider that within versions of Protestantism (for example, Scots Presbyterianism), doubt plays a constructive role, since it enables one (God willing) to come to a faith that is based in personal conviction rather than family or communal inheritance. The crisis of doubt functions to move one from dependence to independence. One's words may not change, but the way they are spoken may change fundamentally.

It cannot be quite the same with writing, since as readers we reckon to be able to locate where writers finds their voice in what they write. In other words, when a writer finds a voice, something lisible changes. It remains to characterize what, and this I shall shortly attempt.

But there is an assumption here (and see question 1, above) that a voice is always something that is found, in time. A writer never starts with a full-fledged voice of his or her own, any more than a painter starts with a style or a philosopher with a vision. They all begin in dependence, by which I mean "under the influence" of what their schools have taught them and of what they have read and seen.

Awareness that one is "under the influence" may be followed by an attempt (a neurotic attempt) to shorten the lengthy passage toward finding a voice by means of a conscious but premature rejection of the influences to which one has been subject. Adolescent rebellion is a bit like that. Alternatively, there can be a recognition of subjection combined with its full and conscious acceptance which, when it takes a slavish form, yields what is often called academicism. Failure to recognize dependence means that we go on, blithely, producing while in dependence. This is what traditionalism is about.

Negatively, then, finding a voice means avoiding the traps of rebelliousness, academicism, and traditionalism. Positively, I think it is relevant that the judgment that a writer has found his or her voice is made by an audience (see question 6, above), so that a voice becomes a matter of recognition (like the style of a painter). But what is being recognized? I want to say, "Something like the full imaginative expression of a bounded individuality." And in this statement the word 'bounded' plays a crucial role.

I can sketch what I think this role is by going back to the side of the writer and imagining that finding a voice is like finding a key (see questions 3 and 4, above). In a science fiction scenario one can imagine all possible texts being run past a writer who selects those that he or she could have written. In such a scenario, having (found) a voice provides the principle of selection, selecting texts in which particular kinds of world have been represented with a particular feeling tone and in a characteristic manner (style). If you are Samuel Beckett or Virginia Woolf, you can confidently select from among the texts run past you the Samuel Beckett-texts and the Virginia Woolf-texts. If you haven't (found) a voice, then the texts you select will come with a variety of signatures, perhaps not even including your own.

In an essay that has been very short of references to other works on writing, it now occurs to me that there is at least an analogy between what I am saying here and what Lucien Goldmann said many years ago in his study of Pascal and Racine, Le Dieu Cache, translated as The Hidden God (1964). From within a broad sociological Marxism, Goldmann tries to answer the question, What singles out the great work or writer? His answer is that it is the work or writer that best expresses the vision of a class or group at a particular time and frees that vision from accretions that do not properly belong to it but rather to other visions which in the everyday world are always and everywhere mixed up. The great writer is a very selective filter and a very acute distinguisher. But this is to say that the great writer is strong on boundaries, on demarcating what belongs and what does not belong. And I am saying that finding a voice is at least a lot like that. Nor is such demarcation just a matter of clear thinking. It is certainly also a matter of clear feeling.

A few paragraphs back, I also said that it had to do with overcoming transfers and resistances, and I can connect this to what I have just been writing if I say that transfers and resistances are varieties of boundary problem. So in transference we bring to an encounter with a person or with our emerging text images and feelings that do not belong there but have been brought in from elsewhere. Transference is transgressive of a boundary, a boundary necessary to keeping a personal encounter authentic at the level of I and Thou, and necessary to keeping the story as this story, rather than some other (perhaps lost and forgotten) one. Resistance works in a different way, preventing us from filling the space within the boundary, whether as inhibition of our contact with another person or inhibition in the expression of what properly falls within the story we have marked out. Just as in our own lives, which we never lead to the full because there are transfers and resistances we never master, so in our writing, even our best literary writing, there will always be the trace of that which we have not been able to efface. Life and writing have this in common, that they are always human, all too human.

Originally written 1996 at the Centre International de Cerisy la Salle. Published in Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol 32, No 3, Fall 1998, pp 83 - 90. Lightly revised and edited for this website version 2003. Copyright material reproduced by permission of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.