It is hard to forget one particular creative writing lesson that might have ended in tragedy. The students were seated in groups critiquing their poems, an accepted and usually harmonious stage of the drafting process. One student who was fairly normal—whatever that might mean—took a comment about his poem personally and verbally attacked the person who had made it.
Within minutes he lost all control and turned his anger on the whole class. I declared an early coffee break and we escaped down the fire exit to the street, a marginally safer place. Up on the fifth floor the man was destroying the photocopier and the notice boards. At the time we believed there was safety in numbers and we did not expect students to carry weapons—I wonder if we would be so naïve today.
I also wondered later why that student had chosen to join a creative writing class in the first place. But rather than ask, I did something more decisive which was to persuade him it was possible—and desirable—for him to withdraw from the class without losing face or money (or being charged with any crime). The outcome, of course, was a happier class and formalised safety procedures.
By a rough count I have taught eight hundred creative writing students in the last fourteen years in classes that have mostly been happy, busy and secure. When asked about their reasons for enrolling in a writing course, students gave answers to suit the situation, unlike, say, prospective plumbing or hospitality students for whom there are easy answers connected with job skills. They are unlikely to talk about a passion for bathroom fittings or a fascination with cocktails. But creative writing is a matter of the mind and heart. It is about inventing things, and sometimes avoiding or disguising the truth. Paradoxically, it can also be about discovering some truth through the process of writing. While some might talk about the urge to write, the novel in progress or the need for a creative outlet in their lives, there is no single reason people want to write.
One applicant found his urge to write when he was sent a card featuring one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. A fourteen-line wonder! He admitted that despite thirteen years at school and five at university he knew nothing about poetry. Another class included nine lawyers studying crime fiction. Some planned to desert the law when they had made enough money from writing stories about people who break it.
Others have complex reasons that they don’t fully understand themselves. Some profess to have a 'passion for writing' but cannot show any writing generated by this passion. It turns out they have had a very long term writer’s block. Some who enrol in search of a structured learning environment arrive late for every class and leave early. When asked why they bother coming at all they do not seem to know.
There are people whose reasons for wanting to write are so tangled up with their lives that they might burst into tears during the first class and never return. Or they might let their secrets out over weeks or months, those things that are so hard to put into words, loneliness, grief, medical problems or feelings of inadequacy. There might come a time when it is safe to say what seemed confronting or self-centered at a first lesson.
I recall one brave person in a class I came to admire greatly, who made her problems known early on. She said she could not get to class on time because she was bi-polar and her medication caused her to sleep late. In the next couple of weeks seven others in that same class admitted to similar problems. A change in the class starting time helped solve some problems on the practical level.
More importantly, everyone in the group benefited from such openness and from the—perhaps coincidental—creativity of these eight students. Words like breakdown, medication, tragedy, counselor, psychiatrist, abuse and abandonment came to be used openly in class. All this was far from 'writing as therapy', and it was noticeable how every student’s writing skills developed in an environment that allowed needs to be expressed and met.
I think a lot about people I have taught. About what they gained from the experience and whether it met their expectations. About what I gained, what I did well, what I could have improved. I wonder what happened to the girl who turned up for the first class and was never seen again. Did I offend her in some way? Every 17th March I think about the Irishman who said he couldn’t be expected to attend class on St Pat’s Day. I am delighted to bump into one or other of the eight bi-polar sufferers and hear they are still writing, still trying to make sense of their world. I think of the man from whom we fled down the fire stairs. Did he write a poem about that experience? Write out his anger? Make a video?
I can play with answers, blame myself, the students, the system or the trains. Whatever the reasons, in most cases you never really know who these people really are or why they are studying creative writing, no matter what they say, write or do.