Way back, when I was in sixth form studying English literature, one thing I remember very clearly is the attitude of my teacher to creative writing. When someone asked her if she wrote her own ‘stuff’, she announced rather proudly that if she couldn’t write as well as Shakespeare, she thought it best not to write at all.
Therefore the study of ‘A’ level English consisted largely of the academic process of reading and regurgitating the opinions of critics on the books and poems chosen for us by examiners.
That was the easy part.
However, it was also rather boring.
We were allowed one, individual critique of a previously unread poem during the actual exam – which was treated by most of the class with great suspicion and fear. So used to being spoon fed with the opinions of others, we had little experience to enable us to approach the task with confidence. And that was the full extent to which we expected to apply our own thoughts and feelings in our study of English literature.
It prompted me to ponder what is the role of literature, art and music if not to provoke an emotional response in the reader/viewer/listener?
The year I sat the exam, the great ‘unseen’ was the poem ‘Futility’ by Wilfred Owen. Set amongst the killing fields of the first world war, a piece which reflected nothing of the life experience of a class of teenagers living in the Welsh valleys in the late 1980s. Therefore quite possibly a futile exercise in itself… Inspiration came rather unexpectedly in the form of a new headmaster with an interest in Japanese culture and literary tradition. Another presentation of something seemingly totally unrelated to the life experience of a bunch of insular welsh teenagers, you may think? However, he presented us with the creative opportunity in the form of a Haiku competition.
Haiku is a Japanese, un-rhyming verse form of poetry, conveying a complete image or feeling in just three lines of syllables; and is usually concerned with nature or natural things.
Although to some it seemed too constricting and ‘alien’ a format; for me it had the effect of opening up a whole new world of writing possibilities. This one exercise served like a portal into another dimension for me. It taught me to concentrate on the conveying of meaning with as few words as possible.
It also made me realize that literary critique appears easier as there is a already an apparent ’whole’ to evaluate; whereas the fear of apparent ‘nothingness’ at the start of the creative process often stops people taking the plunge and composing something original. Perhaps closely compounded with fear of the reductionist review of the critics.
However, the most successful original creations also have a structure; their roots are based in reality and their message is often conveyed with meaning in a clear, simplistic, manner or form.
Critique has its place, but for me it fills a rather small space in the grand scheme of things. Give me the wide-open opportunity to create rather than critique any time.