Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings, by Linda Anderson (ed.)

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This 660-page tome is the set text for the Open University’s Level 2 creative writing course, so it is read with more or less enthusiasm by large numbers of people who have to show that they have applied its wisdom to their assignment commentaries.  But given that there are so many books published to assist the aspiring writer, you have to ask if this one can justify such favouritism.

It’s a multi-author book divided into five sections, followed by extensive readings tied to the sections.  The first is a general overview to get the creative juices flowing; the second is on writing fiction; the third is on poetry; the fourth on life writing; the fifth on “going public”, half of which is actually about editing.  Each section is broken down into chapters which enable the reader to tackle easily manageable aspects of a form before integrating them.  Supporting the instruction, the chapters are full of activities, and if these are tackled, the diligent reader will produce a great deal that may form the germ of further work.

So what are the good things?  Creative writing can be daunting, and the approachable tone taken by the authors is encouraging, the activities planned so that anybody with a decent grasp of English will find them beneficial.  The readings are wide-ranging and generally pertinent; some contributors are well known, others less so.  Users may find themselves seeking out writers they may not otherwise have come across to learn more.

There are some not so good things though.  The sections seem to become less useful as the book progresses, though one must be careful not to confuse this perception with fatigue resulting from prolonged exposure to the book which, read properly, can take months to complete.  The fiction section is full of good advice which will help both the beginner and the person with some experience who wants to improve his or her technique.  The poetry section feels perfunctory, though again there is useful advice, plus exercises and examples to stimulate creativity.  If you want help with tackling a variety of poetic forms, look elsewhere.

The life writing section though should really not be in a book with the title Creative Writing.  It attempts to mingle biography with fiction techniques, which I find illegitimate.  There is actually part of a chapter entitled ‘Mixing fact and fiction’.  Fictionalising autobiographies is understandable, if not to be encouraged – these should always be read with caution – but to apply fiction techniques to biography is disgraceful.  If you do this, you are not ‘dramatising’ biography, as the book claims, you are subverting it.  Philip Roth’s imagining of Franz Kafka’s life after 1924 as a school teacher in the United States is not “hard to classify”, and does not take “the combination of biography, autobiography and fiction to a new level”, as it says here: Roth is writing fiction, and nothing more.  His story is no more about the historical Kafka than Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter is a biography of the late monarch.

The last section is ‘Going Public’, and this feels dated, given that the book was first published in 2006.  The first part on editing is fine, but the bit on exploring outlets, while it does mention the Internet, is not sufficient in an age of self-publishing and e-books.  The advice on setting up a website is out of date, and there is nothing on blogs.  The readings include an article from 1998 which has a list of search engines, one of which has been defunct since about 2001, but unsurprisingly does not include the one most likely to be used in 2013.  Those wishing to see what a website looks like are invited to visit Labi Siffre’s home page.  Publishing is such a fast-changing environment that aspiring writers would be better off using up-to-date online sources than this stuff.

Despite these problems Creative Writing is going to stay in print because the OU have a deal with Routledge and there is a guaranteed captive market for as long as it remains the creative writing course text.  To everybody not obliged to read this for the OU course, my advice is to find something more recent.  If you do pick up a copy second hand, only bother with the introductory creative process, fiction, and poetry sections (and read the last in conjunction with Stephen Fry’s excellent The Ode Less Travelled), the editing part of ‘Going Public’, and enjoy the excellent selection of readings.  As a manual, Creative Writing will still be of some value, though only if it is persevered with over several months.  But then, nobody said that learning to write well was easy.

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