Magazine article The Spectator

Critical Lesson

Magazine article The Spectator

Critical Lesson

Article excerpt

I arrived late and perspiring at the novel-writing workshop. Four would be novelists and the tutor were seated around a table. I apologised for not being punctual and received amused, forgiving or complicit smiles, reminding me that it was art that we were about today, not commerce or industry.

Two rows of paperbacks divided the table.

The tutor said that these were what she considered to be exemplary novels taken from her bookshelves and that we might take a note of the titles. I switched my phone off, took out my pen and notepad and looked eagerly along the rows. Three Tracy Chevaliers, two Jeanette Wintersons, two Virginia Woolves, an Alice Sebold, a Dodie Smith, an Emily Bronte and an Angela Carter. It was here that the small, glistening soap bubble bearing aloft my frail hopes wobbled and popped - that's how I would have described my disappointment in my novel - and we hadn't even started yet. Lurking obscenely in the shadows cast by these female titans, the weaker sex was represented by Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot (never heard of it), Conrad's monumentally racist Heart of Darkness and Orwell's Animal Farm, admired and selected, we learnt later, because the book was a famous early polemic for animal rights.

The tutor was in her early twenties and spoke with confidence and authority. Good fiction writing was a marriage of the two sides of the brain, she said: the critical left side and the creative right side. Writer's block, she said, was procrastination brought on by bringing the critical left side of the brain into the writing process either too early or too completely and smothering the murkier, more instinctive right side. The best way to prevent this happening was to wrong-foot the left side of the brain by writing first thing in the morning, before it was fully awake.

Now that we knew which parts of our brains to bring to bear on the page, she gave us some writing exercises. She asked us to complete the sentence 'I remember when. . . ' and keep writing for five minutes.

I remembered when my albino hob ferret Suleiman the Magnificent was best in show.

I wasn't asked to read my reminiscence out and I was relieved about that.

Next she asked us to complete the sentence, 'The first time I saw your face. . . ' Following some fruitless, left-side procrastination, I plunged in and wrote about the time I lifted the lid of the hutch and saw that Fatima had given birth to six kits: three hobs and three jills, including the lovely Selwa, who won best in show the following year. …

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