I’m no intellectual. This much became clear to me when, plunging into the writing world, I decided I’d give up my subscriptions to Glamour and Cosmopolitan, and take out one to the London Review of Books instead. I was always seeing people online going, Oh, I read this fascinating article on the behaviour of nematodes (or something) in the LRB.
It was a mistake. I have yet to finish an issue. I simply can’t get on with the lengthy text, the broadsheet size pages, and the lack of photos. There aren’t any pictures of shoes! There’s nothing telling me what famous women like to eat for their lunch, or swearing that they ‘love junk food’ and ‘are proud of their curves’! Good God, there’s not even any sex tips. And so, as I let the LRB stack up and the dog shreds them while I sneak off to buy Heat magazine, I must face the truth: I am no intellectual.
For many years I thought I might be one. I enjoyed school. I went to Oxford to study English, where I didn’t find most of it intolerably dull. I have on occasions taken enjoyment from the Rabelaisian vigour of Middle French, and I can certainly be relied on to find the apt literary quote that the moment demands (Eg on doing a home facial – ‘Out out damned spot!’ ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?’ (No. It isn’t.) But I had to face my true intellectual mediocrity on the day I had a tutorial on critical theory. I believe it was on something like the death of the author (oh how I wished they had died instead of writing their book on critical theory).
Frightening clever tutor: ‘So, what does Harold Bloom mean by the anxiety of influence?’
My infinitely more intellectual friend: ‘Covering angels….ephebes….belatedness….Keats…..Milton…’
Frighteningly clever tutor: ‘Excellent points, cleverer-friend-of-Claire. What do you think, Claire?’
Me: (after long tumbleweed pause) ‘So who saw Heat magazine this week? If only they’d do that Mr Rochester as Torso of the Week, eh? Eh?’
To this day I have no idea what anything I studied that week actually meant. If you can explain to me succinctly what Harold Bloom was on about, you can have all my old back-issues of the London Review of Books (slightly chewed in parts, one careless owner).
So, the point of that foray into my student days was to introduce the topic of education. What is a true writer’s education? There’s a perception in some new writers that you need to be conventionally educated to be an author, or even ‘have been to Oxbridge’. This isn’t true. I went to Oxford, yes, but I learned more about making outfits out of bin bags while vomiting in a wheelie-bin than I ever did about writing. The only transferrable skills I can think of are: 1. Reading lots of books fast. 2. Laughing in the face of deadlines as you stay up all night in a Red Bull and Haribo-fuelled binge of Henry Fielding. Useful for edits. 3. How to drink heavily while still scribbling down 2,000 words on structuralism. 4. Blagging. Writing 2,000 on structuralism while still to this day having no idea what it means. So, by all means teach yourself to blag, booze, read, and deliver under pressure. But you can probably do this without spending three years studying obscure Romantic poetry.
What then makes up a writing apprenticeship? In other forms of art– music, drama, painting – it’s considered perfectly normal to commit to years of professional training. Not so in writing – outside of the literary genre, few people seem to do this. And the more I think about them, the less useful formal writing courses seem. We’re fortunate. Our apprenticeship can be served with a stack of books and a pen. By all means we must educate ourselves. Simply by taking in whatever we can. Do things. Any things. Like if you ended up in a prison camp for years, that would be very useful for a book or two. Ditto childhood trauma, broken relationships, and something interesting like growing up in a petting zoo. Absorb as much of life as you can, safe in the knowledge that every soggy taxi-queue, every Little Chef breakfast, every painful injury, is all good fodder for your works to come.
The other thing you can do to educate yourself is absorb as much sense of story as possible. Again this is lucky, because story doesn’t just come between the dusty covers of a 19th-century novel (some of them really went on a bit). It’s everywhere – the most rubbish explody-shooty film, the most gory computer game, the slightest children’s comic, even the tales you eavesdrop on at the bus stop in the rain. Stories need to sink into our skin, so that when we write, they are there at our fingertips. So listen to gossip, read everything, talk to people. It’s all an education.
What do you think – what makes up a writer’s education?