One of the proudest moments of my career as a creative writing teacher was when a rather flamboyant woman, with big hair and saucer-sized dark glasses, flounced out of my Adult Ed. class flinging over her shoulder the accusation, “You’ve smothered my inner-child!” I racked my brains to think what I had done to warrant this indictment, how exactly I had perpetrated this act of literary infanticide. I could only conclude that, apart from a bit of un-sisterly rivalry occasioned by the fact that at the time I had even bigger hair, my crime was to suggest that the lady re-worked and re-wrote her splurge of automatic writing.
Now don’t get me wrong, automatic writing, regurgitating last night’s dreams, spewing out the first things that come into your head, brainstorming, free-flowing, whatever you want to call it, has its place in the writer’s armoury; it can be good for unblocking your creativity, getting out the raw material, the intuitive first thoughts that can then be shaped into something artful and effective, but the key word here is ‘raw’. It needs cooking; in fact it needs de-boning, filleting, seasoning, marinating, simmering and presenting prettily on the plate with a bit of parsley and a cutely-carved carrot. The thoughts and words that pop freely into our minds are a good starting point but writing is as much a craft as an art. It’s like carpentry; we need to slot the pieces together into a meaningful shape; re-shape the bits that don’t quite fit until they work in harmony as part of a cohesive whole; polish the uncured timber until it shines.
This was not the first abrasive brush that I’ve had with a student more sensitive and highly-strung than me and I doubt if it will be the last. There are would-be, wannabe writers around who buy far more into the image of what they think a writer is than the nitty-gritty reality: Writing is all about re-writing. For a tutor to suggest you re-work something is not some terrible critical condemnation, it’s just part of the process. There are few writers (I’d bet none) for whom a piece of work descends as one perfect and complete whole direct from the Muse; instead most pieces, from flash fiction to entire novels, start as a somewhat half-baked idea, grow, evolve, change and achieve some sort of perfection through a series of re-incarnations, hard-thought re-writes.
No one could call Jeanette Winterson’s work uninspired or mechanistic, yet she put her novel Sexing the Cherry through seventeen re-writes and I bet that didn’t include the minute comma changes at the end of each day’s writing. It’s the entire process of writing that’s magical and mystical, the component parts are just nuts and bolts, prosaic pieces which need the writer’s hard slog to transform them into art. So before you call on the literary Esther Rantzen with accusations of inner-child abuse, consider whether the pretentious brat might not be better off dead or at least locked in its room with no telly.