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Inside Creative Writing
Graeme Harper (ed.)
High profile writers, including Philip Pullman, Nadine Gordimer, Kate Grenville and Robert Pinsky, talk about their writing practice and ways of working. Designed with the needs of creative writers in mind, Graeme Harper explores both practice and process, asking authors questions about subjects ranging from motivation to creativity to drafting.
What is involved in the act of creative writing? How do renowned authors such as Robert Pinsky, Iain Banks and Philip Pullman write?

Proving that there is no single way of writing creatively, Inside Creative Writing features original interviews with award-winning authors from around the globe and reveals the different ways in which they speak of their writing lives.

Organised around central themes such as drafting, writing habits and skills, the book explores a wide variety of approaches to the craft of creative writing. With practical exercises and reflective questions tied to each theme, this is essential reading for all practising and aspiring creative writers interested in how they are forging their own, unique ways of working.
Interest in the creative process is a growth area in creative writing and literature studies. Fascination is most pronounced when it comes to award-winning and successful writers, as many of the contributors to this volume are – notably the headliners, Nadine Gordimer, Philip Pullman and Iain Banks. Yet the editor, Graeme Harper, makes a point of stating that this is not a book about ‘levels of fame’ and backs this up by selecting writers for interview on the humble basis of their work being ‘publicly distributed’. This makes for some fascinating contrasts and interesting parallels. We have Charles Baxter who is perhaps better known on this side of the Atlantic, within Creative Writing circles at least, as influential essayist on the poetics of storytelling – see for instance, Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction and The Art of Subtext: beyond plot. In this volume we are reminded that his wisdom comes from practice, that he is a novelist after all, a maker of stories, as well as an astute reader. His responses to the interviews’ set questions sit beside responses to the same questions from the likes of Jack Epps Jr (screenwriter of Top Gun fame), and a wonderful range of poets, including Ruth Padel, Maggie Butt and Nessa O’Mahoney. It all makes for a good and often surprising read.

The egalitarian premise is further backed up by the format, which is thematically arranged according to question rather than author. There are fourteen of the latter (authors) and fifteen of the former (questions). Sometimes this adherence feels dutiful, accruing occasional repetitions and one-line answers. It recalls how some writing course resources are arranged on specific topics, and can appear too teacherly. It also resembles the British Library’s excellent interviews, ‘Authors Lives’, which is perhaps a kinder comparison. Inevitably, nuances in approach according to genre arise in these conversations, along with commonalities, all combining to illuminate and entertain.

The interviews were conducted by email (with the exception of Nadine Gordimer who used Fax) and sometimes this modern, distant yet efficient mode of communication infects the dialogue. In fact, are these dialogues? When working well there is evidence of fruitful communication on the poetics of praxis, on what it means to try to write and to want to write. On occasions, the responses are decidedly more considered, forthcoming and ‘written’ than they might have been in a recorded interview. Conversely, on occasions the exchanges lack enough indication that humans have met, have talked, have exchanged ideas, bounced off one another and gained something from the meeting. The responses can appear pre-formulated, as if taken off the shelf. This complaint could admittedly be borne of nostalgia for an established format, one which this book explicitly aims not to emulate. The interviewer’s usual focus on specific works and a writer’s oeuvre is marginalized. This could be seen as a lack, though some might see it as gain – we could learn more about general rules of approach and process, and this altered focus certainly affirms the editor’s aims and intentions.

Overall, the volume adds an interesting new slant to the genre of ‘writers speak’, a genre which includes The Paris Review interviews, Allen’s Writers on Writing, Haffenden’s Novelists in Interview, Cole’s Playwrights on Playwriting, Continuum’s two volumes The Way We Write and Writers Talk: novelists in Interview as well as Nasta’s Writing Across the World: Contemporary Writers Talk. With such a busy and rapidly growing list, any new addition has to be distinctive. And Inside Creative Writing is, in both a positive and a negative sense. It is geared unashamedly to the requirements of the teaching and learning industry. In his introduction, Harper repeats the terms ‘creative’, ‘writer’ and ‘writing’ as if hampered by a nervous tic. This is for Google hits, one assumes, or for rhetorical purposes – to help establish ‘creative writing’ as an important academic and theoretical category. The practice of writing is indisputably important; I’m not so sure about the label ‘creative writing’, especially when it’s given this much attention. The paradoxical effect is to render the term hollow; its heart scraped out. There appears to be no ‘inside’, no imaginative energy or impetus in such dry and repetitive discussion.

Don’t we tell our writing students to cut down on abstracts, on adverbs and adjectives? And what writer would call themselves ‘creative’ or describe their day-to-day work when puzzling over a character, scene or line-ending as ‘creative writing’? The term is an academic convenience, grown to inhabit discipline boundaries, but is not used easily by practitioners. When attention is drawn to it the word ‘creative’ can seem decidedly ill-fitting and wrong. Humility is an essential part of the writing process and luckily – and this is where we get to the volume’s strength – we get ample testimony of that in these exchanges. Rather than those bright, positive adjectives (creative, imaginative, inventive), terms that emanate largely from the outside, the poetics of practitioners, the real ‘inside story’ if you like, is often riddled with the lexis of uncertainty. Apprentice writers learn most from hearing echoes of their own decision-making and doubt. This is what we get in abundance. Inside Creative Writing adds to that practical conversation, with some of the voices heard before, some of them new; it is distinctive because of its approach, overall honesty and the fact that its contributors are so wide-ranging – in terms of genre, nationality and experience. This volume adds something different and will be a great aid to would-be writers and literature students alike.

Derek Neale   

Additional Information:
Wed 1 Feb 2012
Issue Number:
ISBN-13: 978-0-230-21217-6, ISBN-10: 0-230-21217-4
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