Roz Morris: We’re both writers. We’ve both taught and mentored authors as well. I find it’s a double-edged sword. Getting involved in another person’s creative process can be draining because you want to do your best for them.
Garry Craig Powell: It’s incredibly hard not to be drained by it—and that’s one of the best arguments I can think of not to become a creative writing teacher.
RM: Do you find it’s a struggle to protect your own creative mojo?
GCP: It’s a constant struggle, and most teachers fail to do so. During term-time, my own creative and intellectual energies were almost entirely absorbed by my students’ work. Sometimes, especially when working with highly-motivated, talented graduate students, that was worthwhile. But often it wasn’t. Frequently you’re working on dreadful stories, written by people who have little talent, and may not even care.
At the undergraduate level, lots of the students only care about the grade they’re getting and are only taking creative writing because they think it’s a cushy option (and they’re right–it usually is!) That’s why I took early retirement: I’ve written as much in the past two years as I wrote in the previous five or six.
Some teachers get around this by just neglecting their students. They don’t bother giving written responses to their work and may not even read it. (Sometimes they have students read it aloud in class and then pontificate on it.) In other words, they’re selfish. But they may be right. If you know your own work is far better than that of your students, perhaps you should prioritise it. I couldn’t do it, though.
RM: On the other hand, I learn from the authors I’ve mentored. By seeing their misfires, I understand far more about what works. My students have given me my best education in writing.
GCP: Yes, that’s true. I learned more from teaching creative writing than by doing an MFA degree at one of the top-ranked American programmes (where, in fact, I learned little).
RM: And my students have unexpected strengths that put me in awe.
GCP: I’m often amazed by the imagination of students, by their innate creativity. But we’re undoubtedly entering an age of semi-literacy. People don’t understand that language is the writer’s medium, and imagination isn’t enough. You have to know the language deeply if you’re going to use it to create. I don’t think many young writers understand that.
RM: Again, this comes back to the point about reading. Prose is an instrument of its own. A novel is not a movie described on the page. To learn to write prose, you have to read it. You have to examine what it does to you.
Let’s talk about the work you do reviewing for literary magazines – Rain Taxi Review and Late Last Night Books. How did you get into that?
GCP: I asked the editor of Rain Taxi if I could write a review for them. I did it partly because I was trying to build the much-vaunted platform, and partly because I understood that writers have a responsibility to be critics. If there’s no criticism, the literature is unhealthy. You can’t just praise everything to the skies (which is the tendency, increasingly).
How are people going to know what to read if critics aren’t doing their job? I was invited to write for Late Last Night Books. I can’t remember how. I think the editor had read my collection of short stories, Stoning the Devil, and liked it.
RM: Tell us about your own work. Which writers have you learned the most from?
GCP: Graham Greene, for tension, plot, and concision; Hemingway, ditto; Tolstoy, for everything, especially psychological insight; the Latin Americans, especially Borges and Garcia Marquez, for their political and philosophical concerns, their sense of humour and wild imaginations; Evelyn Waugh, for the beauty and rhythm of his prose and his humour, too; Lawrence Durrell, for his lyricism and use of setting; Martin Amis, for his wit and inventive language; Hermann Hesse for his ability to infuse his fiction with spirituality. Milan Kundera for his discursiveness and mixing of genres in his novels. There should be more women, I realise. I love Isak Dinesen, for her ability to create a magical, mythical story, and Hillary Mantel, for her incredibly well-researched, yet vivid, exciting novels.
RM: Several gasps of agreement there.
GCP: I could go on for pages on this one!
RM: Recently I heard an acting coach say it takes 15 years to make an actor. Is it possible to say how long it takes to make a writer?
GCP: I doubt there’s any infallible rule. Malcom Gladwell has his famous 10,000 hours. That could be right. There are immensely talented people, like Scott Fitzgerald, who turn out a great novel in their mid-twenties, though.
I was a late-bloomer. I didn’t start seriously until I was in my mid-forties, and it took me more than ten years before I was able to get a book published. That’s more typical. In the old days, someone wishing to learn a craft did an apprenticeship for seven years, then worked another seven years as a journeyman before becoming a master. I don’t see why it should be less for writing. You certainly shouldn’t expect to become a master in two or three years simply because your degree tells you that you are. The best writers know that it takes infinite patience and dedication. I’m still learning.
RM: So am I.
GCP: I’m not nearly as good as I aspire to be.
GCP: You have to measure yourself against the best—Conrad, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Will you get anywhere near them? Who knows?
RM: Speaking of which, let’s get back to work. Lastly, where can we find you online?
GCP: My Facebook author page is at https://www.facebook.com/gcraigpowell/ Do please like it! That’s an easy thing to do for an author who’s a friend. My website is currently under reconstruction. It’s www.garrycraigpowell.com . Again, please sign up for news. I’ll post a notification once it’s ready. It shouldn’t be more than a week or two at most. You can also find me regularly at https://latelastnightbooks.com – I post on the 26th of each month.