The Creative Writing section of the HSC Paper 1 exam offers students the chance to display their understanding of Discovery by using their imagination to construct a short fictional piece. As enjoyable as this is, similar words of caution made about the comprehension section apply a propos of creative writing, for pitfalls abound in preparing for this part of the exam as well. Yet surely they can be avoided, surely the daunting task of attaining artistic revelation can be attenuated with right effort and preparation, a right mind? Of course! (Just don’t call me Shirley).
In my experience as a tutor, it’s common to observe students being held back by a few different but equally stultifying attitudes towards their creative writing, and indeed creativity in general. The first is that creativity, and therefore creative writing, is wholly “subjective” (whatever that means – entire PHDs have been devoted to the question of relativism in aesthetic judgment). The most extreme version of this attitude sees the student object in principle to the possibility of the marker arriving at a justifiable mark for their story.
It’s incredibly important to dispel such a fiction. Even relativism, a tenuous stance that can be held on such questions as morality and aesthetic judgment, is more subtle than this assertion. All art, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder, yet the beheld must display elements of craftsmanship in order to be considered. Take music for example. At the very least, out of tune instruments, playing out of time, in different keys, will be deemed vulgar and deficient, for they lack something which is easily discernible in all great art: mastery. What makes for a pleasing response in art is the obvious display of mastery over melody, harmony, rhythm, composition and performance. All these aspects can be, and are, judged by everyone from critics to casual listeners.
The same goes with literature. The canon for example, comprised of everything from Homer’s epic poetry to Milton to Auden, is judged rightly to have exhibited mastery over those qualities which make for great literature: everything from compositional form (narrative, verse structures, syntax etc), dexterity with language (imagination in metaphor etc, tantalising word combinations etc) to what is perhaps most important: a display of “heart”, of “insight”, the possibility of the light of self-knowledge which guides us through the omnipresent darkness. Literature is, as Joyce put it, the “affirmation of the spirit of man. Yet its aliveness is crafted with skill and composure. Interestingly, the ancient greeks only had one word “techne” for both art (painting, sculpture) AND craft (weaving, artisanal work etc). This shows how much they understood the blood, sweat and tears that goes into the craftsmanship of art. In short, be wary of succumbing to the temptation that William Butler Yeats warned of: of creativity without labour.
There is, related to this, the danger of resting on your laurels because of the freedom offered by the creative section. It is entirely up to you to explore the particular themes and character/situational contours. Many students take this as a ticket to wing it the night before or even on the day, to totally rely on the spontaneity of the imagination. This is folly, and as a tutor you can immediately tell when a student has done this, has not reflected and properly wrought a story. Usually this takes the form of an introduction that is far too long and then a jarring rush to end it. Total, undisciplined freedom only leads to a mess.
Another inhibiting ailment is writer’s bloc. Of being so conscious of the high levels of craftsmanship involved, of knowing your place in the pantheon of writing that not a word gets written. This stunting dissonance is part of the artist’s agony. You must relish the writing more than you indulge in the fears. But as with all arts, it can be learned and honed, and so it is important that you write as many stories as you can, and it is inevitable you’ll improve.