I thought I would like to share with you my notes on watching Melvyn Bragg’s conversation with Ian McEwan on the South Bank Show Originals series. In the interview Melvyn himself comments on Ian’s ‘focused zeal’ for and on writing. I was struck again by how relevant his words are for any experienced and aspiring writer in the modern world of writing and publishing..
Here are my notes verbatim
‘Writing tells you how the writing it fitted into the novel.’
(Melvin comments on McEwan’s ‘focused zeal’. They talk about ‘the facts of the streets.’)
Ian talks of being the only student on the first Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. His weekly tutorials consisted on meeting Professor Malcolm Bradbury (‘a superstar professor who gave me a sense of readership.’)Bradbury would read this week’s story and simply ask Ian for the next.
In this year Ian McEwan wrote twenty five short stories* which were the launching pad for his literary and professional success.
Ian mentions, in later times, of ‘writing himself into a corner.’ And ‘having closed down for years.’ And feeling ‘locked down’. He mentions ‘writing myself into silence.’ And 'The act of writing demands that one ‘Engages with the world.’
In later years he began to free his voice in writing libretti and screenplays before beginning his more recent novels.
Writer and critic DJ Taylor shares his views in the programme. He says - talking of the short novel Yesterday’ - ‘It’s quite an old fashioned book – an issue novel.’ But he admires his writing. ‘He writes brilliant sentences.’
Some brilliant thoughts from Ian McKewan on Writing
‘Happiness and anxiety rubbing along together.’
‘How does matter become conscious?’
He speaks of the material view of life being rich and human. ‘In the material view of life there is a beauty and grandeur.’‘It is the actual, not the magical that should be challenged.’
‘We have not yet bettered a device like the novel to find out what it might be like to be other people.’
‘Even poetry cannot tell you what it’s like to be an individual moving through time.’’
‘Think of novels like minestrone soup…’
*One would like to see such high literary productivity among the students emerging from the plethora of Creative Writing MAs now being commodified and pushed across Britain these days. One hears troubling accounts of the lack of literary product in the maze of sub-Eng Lit exercises, and of promising writers who stop actually writing their short stories and novels for years after completing their degree. Of course the graduaes might ‘teach’ Creative Writing, or nibble the edges of literary journalism with reviews and criticism. Good luck to them.
But I think Ian McEwan had a much better deal, sitting in the pub talking to Malcolm Bradbury knowing he had an audience for the next short story. And the next.
My Own Advice to Aspiring Writers Regarding Further Study
I do encourage writers to study for further degrees if they fancy that. But urge them to make it history, politics, art, physics: any field that makes it an authentic academic experience that toughens the mind and develops the senses.
During that time, I will say, you can write your novels and short stories in the evenings and week-ends. After a year or so you will have a Master’s Degree in a valid subject with substantive content which could inspire a body of creative work that reflects your unique writing self and will find its readers.
Equally I might say to these aspiring writers - go off and work on a building site, in a factory, in a café in a forest or a bank. Or go travelling for a couple of years. And still write your short stories. poems or novel at the evenings and weekends. In this way you will have enriching, valid experiences and a body of creative work that has substantive content emerging from your working life. This will reflect your unique writing self and will find its readers.
There is a good argument for each of these options.
Option One will furnish you with an alternative career while you are making your way in the challenging world of writing and publishing. It might make a hole in your bank balance but ultimately it would be worth it.
Option Two will not leave you in debt and allows you to live in the real world as you develop your writing. You will move among people outside the slightly precious world of acadême. It’s always a good thing for a writer to get inside the lives of people different to yourself. As Ian McEwan says, ‘We have not yet bettered a device like the novel to find out what it might be like to be other people.’
Any of these
experiences will develop your material
view of life. As Ian McEwan says ‘… the material view of life [is] rich and
human.’ And also: ‘In the material view of life there is a
beauty and grandeur.’