Likely stories, Norman Bilbrough

Being a writer requires three essentials. In rough proportion they are 90% determination (in other words, hard work), 8% talent (which includes imagination), and 2% luck. I suspect that those who think that creative writing classes are pointless would see talent running at 90%. That is, if you have talent – a God-given ability – you don’t need to be taught a thing.

In any vocation a good worker needs initiative and energy, but he or she must also learn the tools of the trade. They must undergo an apprenticeship. And this applies to creative writing.

There are advantages a writer needs to possess before embarking on such an apprenticeship. Life experience is invaluable. It is awareness, it is breadth and it is density. It is money in the bank. Many students who have a rich life experience undervalue it. Or their low self-esteem sabotages the use of it. A good teacher will help a student value his or her experience, and stimulate the use of it

The other advantage is living the literary life: being a reader and thus developing, over a period of time, a literary consciousness. That is an awareness of literary forms, of literary appropriateness, or what is fresh and new. This applies to all genres. A great number of students are not readers. Teaching students how to observe and search in literature – as well as in life – is vital. One especially needs to read the genre that one chooses to write in. A student came into my class with the intention of writing Mills and Boon romances, but without having ever read one. She was disadvantaged from the start.

Since I am most familiar with short stories, I will talk about the teaching of writing in that genre.

Of course, short stories can be inspired. But generally it is only the idea or subject or general emotion of the story that comes from inspiration. The story has to be made from there. So a teacher teaches the making, the craft of the story. Craft has three aspects: form, technique, and processes.

A ceramic bowl has form, a building has form, but stories? As a younger writer I might have believed that if there was such a form, the only way to decipher it was through instinct and intuition. Now I think that sometimes woolly and painstaking process can be avoided by learning creative writing. It’s the teacher’s job to get the form and all its attachments and ramifications into the hands of a student. And the teacher has to soften the idea that the student is being taught a rule. It’s not a rule: it’s a guideline. The form is not set in stone, but it does vitally contribute to the final aesthetic of a story.

Generally, the way the author tells the story, what style he or she picks, is secondary. It can be minimalist, traditionalist, rap-like, post-modern. Similarly, the subject matter is also beside the point. It doesn’t matter if it is a story about a teenager coming to terms with a father who has revealed he’s gay, or the story of a dust mite with an ulcerated right feeler. Most stories fit the basic form, or a variation of it. I have encountered radical stories that acknowledge the form even while, as a matter of policy, the author refuses to believe it exists. This is a common fear among students: how can one push boundaries of perception and imagination when there is a form to conform to? Well, one can.

A short story is essentially about conflict, and the resolution of that conflict. Of course, this conflict can be caused by the teenager discovering he is homophobic, or by the mite chewing off its feeler. The subject matter is irrelevant, but the dynamic is not. Conflict (or the problem) can be small, or earth-shattering. But it must be significant to the characters. And conflict can be interior (that homophobia again), or exterior (say, an approaching tsunami).

Looking briefly at the form. First, the scene is set. This might be the problem stated right in the first line: “When his father talked on the phone to Mike, Jack felt sick in the gut.” Or maybe the characters are introduced, then the problem. Whatever, the conflict must be introduced early for it is the engine that drives the story. No conflict, no problem – no engine. And your story simply is not a goer.

But when the characters engage with the problem, then the story has lift-off. The narrative line has been established, and it is this line, the progression of the story, the tension generated by the characters dealing with the problem, that is the energy of the story. And this energy moves inevitably to a conclusion, generally with a climax on the way.

A story must progress, it must have an energy line that ends at a point conforming with all that has passed. The end is contained in the beginning and the body of the story: it cannot be a stranger to the substance of the story.

So the Form: Establishment, Lift-off, Journey, and Arrival. All with many variations.

It’s not hard to teach the constructs of this form. This shape. The difficulty in teaching is for the student to fit his or her life experience and imaginative experience into it. Most students write purely from life experience. But rarely does such experience fit perfectly into a story. Stories are made of pieces of experience and imagination. Stories steal from all experience and make a new experience that has its own successful shape. This process of re-creating is what teaching the writing of short stories is all about.

Learning other skills, other techniques, is necessary for this “recreating”. A beginner writer’s natural tendency is to explain, overstate, show off and pitifully underestimate the reader. So instead of abruptly saying, Mike was a homophobic little shit who couldn’t tolerate his parent’s choice of partners, the writer should show this situation through dialogue, action and emotion.

Then there are processes of writing. Beginner writers believe that a story is a one-off process. But I have yet to meet a writer who can get it right first time. A story is the end result of a series of drafts: it goes through many transformations. First drafts can be embarrassing; they can make a writer disgusted with him- or herself; but usually there is the skeleton of the story there. A good teacher will suggest ways of transforming the story into the next and improved draft, and how the writer can carry it onward to the conclusion.
Of course, myriad psychological aspects now come into play. What’s the writer’s attitude, what is the extent of his or her belief in the story, and of their confidence? Attitudes, psychological skills can be learned. The teacher is now teaching a process and helping the writer to see that process through to a successful end. The teacher is a confidence-booster and so must have the ability to encourage tenacity, literary perception and a better self-belief.

One can add passion to this list. A story can ascend or fall, according to how much passion the writer injects into it. But is such a quality teachable? Perhaps not, but certainly its absence can be noted. It’s all part of attitude. What attitudes does a student bring to the project? The teacher can note attitudes, then encourage the mellowing or extending of attitudes. I guess this is the more abstract aspect of creative writing teaching.

To sum up, teaching creative writing could be seen as a process of allowing students – with the help of a multitude of teaching aids and one’s experience – to work through their own processes to find the successful story.


Norman Bilbrough teaches creative writing at Whitireia Community Polytechnic. His collection of short stories, Desert Shorts, was reviewed in our December 1999 issue.


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