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Monday, 17 March 2014

Read the Beginning and you will be Bored. Read to the End and you will be Catatonic

Dogs are better than cats in stories because they run up to people and get up to mischief.

The Guardian had a feature on creative writing courses this week. It came out of Hanif Kureishi's statement that  creative writing courses are 'a waste of time'.

So the Guardian asked writers and course leaders for their thoughts on writing. Most of the contributors focussed on structure. They wrote about how the creative act is a love affair that requires passion, commitment and engagement with the world. They talked about the need for experimentation, for focus and the necessity for students to see themselves as 'real writers'. Toby Litt mentioned the need to '...demystify what "real" writing should be or what a "real" photographer should write. They put on literary airs. If someone holds writers in too much esteem, they'll never become one.'

Philip Hensher said that he likes to '...irritate as well as inspire a class...' by saying things such as ' "If you're going to have an animal in a story, have a dog and not a cat." (Dogs are easier structural principles, running up to strangers in parks and so on.)'

Jeanette Winterson says, 'I don't give a shit what's in your head. By which I mean if it isn't on the page it doesn't exist. The connection between your mind and the reader's mind is language. Reading is not telepathy.'

Rachel Cusk talked about the importance of 'exteriorising their subjective world by fixing it to objects, instead of routing everything throught the persona of Jane and John.'

Nobody really believes in the natural genius of writers, though Michael Cunningham does remind his students that '...fiction contains an element of ineluctable mystery along with its elements of craft, and that a great story or novel is great in certain ways we can elucidate and certain ways we cannot. We don't dissect great literature in the belief that once all its organs are spread out on the table before us, we've got it figured out.'

That applies to photography as well. Structure is all well and good but there is something ineffable about the photography that stands out, that sticks in our heads and settles in our souls. Often the reason it settles is nothing to do with photography. It's to do with some emotional memory that is connected to history or film or psychology; a lineage that gains its power from cultural, political and artistic roots.

I don't know how that can be explained adequately. I don't think it can. And I don't think it necessarily needs to be. There is still as little Great Photography about as ever there was. That's because Great Photography is emotional and does depend on accidents of Vision and Time.

But there is more really good photography than ever before and, as with the writing, it requires passion, commitment and engagement with the world. And a demystification. Photography is not that complicated and the best of it is very direct, to the point and tells some kind of truth that gets under our skin.

That needs demystifying. But the much of the theory of photography and the writing on photography is about mystifying photographing. It packages it up and moves it into a dessicated place for discussion and dissection.

In the feature on writing. Curtis Sittenfeld said that writing should be enjoyable; 'If you don't enjoy it in some way, you probably shouldn't do it.' And the same goes for photography.Because what's the point otherwise.

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