Saturday, 5 January 2013

Worries and suchlike - on creativity and titles

On my course at uni, I have a creative writing module. Sounds fun, eh? Trouble with it was it just wasn't very good... Sure our teacher, Andrew o'Hagan is a Booker lon-listed author, very funny, and Scottish to boot, and his lectures were fun and informative, but somewhere long the way the actual process of writing was forgotten.

Ever since I was but a wee lad I've wanted, desperately, to write. I've been told I have something by teachers etc., but recently I've lost my confidence. I sit and write bullshit. Forced into a mould - 4000 words, title: The Ashtray. This doesn't feel to me like a valid way of testing my storytelling mettle. The title alone seems to force me down a contemporary setting, between the 18th and 21st centuries, Western in culture, urban, or at least close to it, in setting. What if I don't want that? What if that's not even close to my thing? I write SFF - science fiction and fantasy - I write the alien, the other, the different. As such I'm forced to liberally force an ashtray into a setting in order to justify it.

I feel that a better test of students writing abilities would be a theme, or a complex, abstract title. 'The Ashtray' is too mundane, too simple a figure. It's perfect for the Andrew o'Hagans of this world, but can you imagine Paolo Bacigalupi, China Mieville, Ken MacLeod, Arthur C. Clarke or Ian M. Banks latest, 'The Ashtray'? No, me neither. I see Raymond Chandler or Carver, Chekhov, Isac Dinesan - all masterful writers, yes, but all of a certain style or period - realism, the early 1900s, noir, etc. etc. - not speculative, not fantastic (in the literal meaning)

Further to this is the Western-centric approach. Suppose I want to write from the basis of the South American, the South-East Asian, the Central African. The Ashtray is a Western symbol, a western ideal. I can't even locate my story pre-1500 by historical necessity. Tobacco wasn't brought out of the Americas until then, and a quick google doesn't give me much prolific use of ashtrays until the 1940s, and of that mostly American and Western European. And even now, they are declining as smoking becomes less and less widespread. Why, therefore, should an Ashtray be the item to set my creative juices flowing.

You could argue its a 'challenge', something to take you out of your comfort zones, but I'd argue right back that this isn't a Creative Writing university course. It's one module, it's 4% of my degree. That's quite a lot really - £400 of my tuition fees. If it were a creative writing course, over a year to three years, then yes; bring me out of my comfort zone and make me a better writer that way. But to be fought out, you have to be eased in, and that I haven't been. I've written a small piece for class, and that was fantasy. I've written another piece which could be interpreted across cultures and across times, entitled 'My Grandmother's House was a places of constant danger". However, for my last piece I want to do my best. Get the best mark I can. And not to worry about my writing, how bad it is, how much it sucks. And that means writing what I know and what I want to write, what I need to write. The ashtray doesn't allow me that. 'Fear' would. 'Red' would. Hell, any abstract notion would.

It is my belief that such a limiting title is wrong, and not only that, it is actively limiting my ability to do well. I'll try my best, but if you want to teach, why not do it in a way more open to interpretation?


  1. Well, mate, since you ask - I doubt if I or Iain or China, or for all I know the other two, would use 'The Ashtray' as a novel title, but I for one would jump on it as a title for a short story.

    Contemporary? I see a couple wandering around the stalls of (say) Camden or Portobello Road, and the decision whether or not to buy an ashtray - a beautiful object, perhaps, or one with a coloured patch in the centre with a family crest or a company name - might tell us all we need to know about their relationship.

    Or a pub landlord or a regular, mourning the smoking ban. Or elebrating its demise, putting the shiny ashtray on the bar.

    SF? Same couple perhaps, at a street market or antique shop a century hence, wondering what this glass or metal object with the strange flutings on the edge was FOR. Or someone in a more distant future, repurposing it: maybe thinking an ashtray was where the ancients kept the ashes of their dead relatives.

    That's one of the tricks of the trade, which (I guess) your course is trying to teach you: a title is important, but it doesn't limit what your story is about. Look at a volume of classic mainstream short stories, your Maupassant or Maugham or whatever, and see what they do with titles. Look at a collection of Ballard or Clarke and you'll see the same.

    Oh, and in general: if you have a decent social life and a wonderful girlfriend, and you're getting through your course work OK, count yourself successful and very lucky indeed. Make the most of it and don't worry about not having time for your own writing. Twenty minutes a day is time enough for a few hundred words, which over three years is plenty of time to write a million words of crap, which is what we all had to do and is what it takes to become a publishable writer.

    As RAW said: '"Don't worry; be happy." The wisdom of the ages and the sages.' I wish I'd known that when I was a student!

    1. Thank's very much for taking the time out to write such a considered response.

      I can completely see where you're going with regards the ideas you throw around - you must be a subsriber to Harlan Ellison's idea shop to come with good ideas so quickly!

      However, I stand by the assertions I made regarding what the title limits, in terms of culture, gender and time-space. Given the module's position and singularity, I feel this is both unnecessary and one-track minded.

      I ended up writing an SF piece that used the ashtray motif metaphorically - my close dialogue needs some improvement in order to sustain it.

      Finally, regards twenty minutes a day - its something I've started, and intend to continue with. Thanks!