Getting with the programme

Review of Alms on the Highway, New Creative Writing from the Oscar Wilde Centre Trinity College Dublin. Appeared in the Sunday Business Post, 12 June 2011.

Can creative writing be taught? Wilbur Schramm certainly believed it could. In 1936, the so-called ‘father of communication studies’ founded the Program in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa.

Over the intervening three quarters ofa century, what became known as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop programme has produced seventeen Pulitzer Prize winners, four recent US Poet Laureates and counts among its alumni Flannery O’Connor, Michael Cunningham and John Irving.

But the legacy of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is greater than the myriad published authors that have passed through the programme. Schramm’s most famous mantras – ‘Murder your darlings’, ‘Omit needless words’, ‘Show, don’t tell’ – have entered popular parlance, while the very idea that the heretofore opaque art of fiction can be revealed and inculcated in a classroom has travelled across the globe.

Today, colleges from Hong Kong to Cape Town offer degrees in creative writing, with even the venerable publisher Faber and Faber opening a writing programme, imaginatively titled the Faber Academy.

As with most things, creative writing as a discipline has its defenders and its detractors – a couple of years ago the much-vaunted novelist, screenwriter and playwright Hanif Kureishi described the courses as ‘‘the new mental hospitals’’ – but the reality is that they have become wellsprings from which many contemporary voices, particularly novelists, emerge.

Indeed, 75 years after the Iowa Writers’ Workshop first opened its doors, creative writing has become an established – if not always accepted – facet of the modern university. Ireland is no different.

Trinity College Dublin established the Oscar Wilde Centre in 1997, offering the first degree in creative writing in the country. Alms on the Highway is a collection of new prose, poetry and drama from the centre’s latest class, many hoping to follow in the footsteps of successful graduates such as Claire Kilroy, Claire Keegan and Chris Binchy.

An epigraph from Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis gives this collection its title, and there are dark, autobiographical aspects to much of the work on show. (Although I doubt whether the centre’s adopted patron, or any one else, would appreciate the volume’s garish cover, which features what looks like a homunculus with a traffic cone on his head, perched atop a grass-covered muffin.)

In his work The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, literary historian Mark McGurl argues that a focus on, and concomitant improvement in, the technique of writing has been one of the most influential aspects of the boom in creative writing courses over the last 50 years.

As author Kevin Barry notes in his foreword to Alms on the Highway, ‘‘there is a weight of care behind every construction and riff and setup (in the book). . . every piece here clearly has perspiration behind it as well as inspiration’’. Almost all the writers involved in the project display a commendable sureness of technique: from Chris Allen’s brief, evocative opening story, Feathered Cargo, through Eileen Casey’s exhaustive study of a marriage on the wane and the tale Big Pink, Marianne O’Rourke’s rumination on solitude and relationships set among the Nubian people of Sudan.

Gerald Dawe is the Wilde Centre’s course director, but it is the influence of another Trinity professor, Richard Ford, which permeates most deeply throughout the collection. Many of the stories echo the American novelist’s domestic realism in dealing with the intricate, almost prosaic nature of family and work relationships – even if few reach the dizzying heights of Ford (himself a graduate of a Californian university’s writing programme) at his best.

Creative writing programme sceptics argue that the emphasis on technique has created a generation of writers who are either ignorant of or afraid to engage with history.

That charge certainly could not be levelled at Melatu Okorie. Originally from Nigeria, Okorie’s If Lace Could Talk skilfully depicts the cruelties of her home country’s military junta through the pain of a young mother forced to make a new life in Ireland.

Elsewhere, American T Mazzara produces an unnerving, raw account of the dysfunctional relationship between a Gulf War veteran and his adolescent son, framed against the backdrop of the sclerotic social and cultural world of the Deep South.

Peppered throughout the collection, excerpts of poetry and drama often display a lightness of touch not always evident in the prose offerings (with a few honourable exceptions, most notably Fintan O’Higgins).

Breda Joy’s declaration that ‘‘I am a born-again Luasian/Virgin oft he touchscreen’’ and Kate Perry’s touching, humorous radio play Consuming Celia demonstrate that a literary engagement with modern Ireland need not be a sombre, high-minded affair.

Good writing and good stories share common properties, but the two are not synonymous.

While creative writing courses may be able to improve a writer’s style, no end of instruction will teach content. Thankfully Alms on the Highway boasts just enough overlap between the two – and enough fresh, new voices – to make it a creative writing programme-inspired collection worth dipping into.