I always said I wouldn’t teach creative writing. There are too many ways to be a successful writer, and my taste only encompasses a small percentage of them.
But over the past year or so, I find myself more and more interested in ‘Voice’. Not ‘voice’ as in how-to-write-like-a-man-or-a-baby-or-a-penguin. No.
Voice in the sense of the authentic, essential, individual, unique expression of who you are. What You Have To Say That’s Different From Anyone Else.
Explaining what I mean by Voice takes time — but once people get the hang of it (that it’s who they are, not what their sentences look like), everyone wants to know, “how do I find mine?”
And I’m guessing they mean besides five years of psychoanalysis.
I taught five 90-minute sessions at the Guardian this weekend, and we talked about the pivot points in life, the places where everything changes due to joy or despair or catastrophe.
Those places hold a great deal of emotional weight, and looking at them can help you figure out what’s important to you; where your deepest interest lies, what your subject is.
One group began to talk about people they’d lost and how it affected them. An older man, a retired doctor, told us that he’d lost two sons — one many years ago at the age of two, and one last year as a grown man (leukaemia). “I write,” he told us, “because otherwise I would stand on the pavement and howl.”
It may have felt more like group therapy than creative writing, but I don’t think anyone in the room will ever forget that hour.
Today, I talked about Voice to a bunch of 14-year-olds in Kent. Their pivot points are less vivid because (being young) they haven’t had much opportunity to pivot.
But when I asked what animal they’d be if they couldn’t be human, something happened. “I want to be a cheetah,” said one pretty, shy girl.
“Do you see yourself as strong and speedy?” I asked her.
“No,” she said, quietly. “The opposite.”
She nodded. “I’m scared of them too. That’s why I want to be one. Because they’re scary and tough.”
And I got it.
“I’d be a wolf,” said a boy with a sweet, open face. “Because they travel in packs. They have friends and relations all around them so they’re not alone.”
I was so touched by those kids. I’m not sure how clearly they understood that they were offering glimpses of their souls, but the glimpses felt like a powerful form of magic–an alchemy, where a simple answer to a simple question becomes the story of a whole life full of barely defined wishes, hopes and desires.
They teach me everything, my students.