Three weeks in summer camp time is not like regular time. It’s a little bit like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia, where a civilisation might rise and fall and still leave you with time to get home to your own world for supper. In summer camp time, a week is not as it is the rest of the year, where things trundle on more or less as they usually do. A week is enough time for a life-changing new friendship to begin, for a new skill to be learned, for an entire new philosophy to be explored.
Which means that in three weeks, you can do an awful lot. This summer, in three weeks, at a summer programme based in Dublin City University, seventeen people (myself, a teaching assistant, and fifteen students) put together an anthology of creative writing. It’s the sort of thing that usually – if you were sane, anyway – you wouldn’t dream of attempting in such a short space of time.
The programmes at the Centre for Talented Youth Ireland (CTYI) are intense. There’s a whole range of interests covered – science, business, politics, engineering, law, computers, journalism, psychology, philosophy – and in every course, an awful lot of work gets done. There are projects and debates of an incredibly high standard going on all over the campus. High-ability students are challenged in a way that rarely happens in mainstream schools, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred they rise to it, because when you’re passionate about something, when you’re interested, you seize opportunities for learning instead of it feeling like drudgery.
I’d been teaching on the summer programme for several years when I was asked about the idea of putting together an anthology of creative writing, and it took me about a minute to say yes. I’d seen the high-quality work going on in my own course, and in others, and it was an obvious next step to get some of this work into an arena where others could see it. I also had, unapologetically, an agenda.
I’m a former student of the programme. I am not a genius by any stretch of the imagination, but I score well on aptitude tests. I am also a writer and creative writing teacher who spends a lot of time dealing with very similar issues to that which plague gifted education – the idea that either everyone is creative (or gifted) or that only certain people are, and that this is something innate and therefore there’s no need for guidance or instruction or support. There is a mystification of creativity, in all fields, that goes on. Either we are brilliant – and therefore no effort is needed – or we are not – and therefore there is no need to try. Dylan Moran has a wonderful sketch about ‘potential’ – leave it alone, he says, it’s like your bank balance, there’s never as much as you thought there was. It’s easier to have potential – or imagine you have it – then to ask yourself to try to achieve something. To realise that potential. It is impossible to keep trying and to never fail – and yet we consistently imagine failure as an ending to any potential success instead of a stepping-stone to it. Trying is scary. Hard work is scary.
We did hard work. We tried and tried and tried some more. These students were bright and brilliant and full of potential (also kind, supportive, hilarious, and many other good things). They wrote things that were good, often the kinds of poems or plays or prose that might earn an A in school, ticking all the boxes.
Any serious writer or artist knows that ‘good’ is rarely ‘good enough’. On the second day of the course we began workshopping – that slightly terrifying, soul-baring process of having your peers read your work and offer comments about what elements were strong, what perhaps needed work, and always with a view to future revision. The workshopping process is antithetical to most notions of ‘creativity’, which suggest that everything must be flung down on the page in the white-hot heat of inspiration and never ever tampered with. It was a new concept to many of the participants, just as it is to many of the adult students I work with during the year. It demystifies the whole thing. Writing – and good writing – becomes less of a magical thing that you either have access to or not, and far more about hard work. About trying. About coming back to a piece with fresh eyes and asking yourself honestly if certain lines are needed or if new words should be added or if that section should be cut or if that viewpoint isn’t quite working. And then returning to it once more, and again, and again, until you’re left with questions like, “is that comma allowed?”
We kept workshopping. Sometimes this was in smaller groups, as participants became more comfortable with giving feedback, and with receiving it. The workshop process is not a way of ensuring art is a democracy – points given should be respected and considered, but not unthinkingly applied. There is a difference, and you can see it, between the writer who ignores feedback because revision is too much hard work, and the writer who considers suggestions and, even if disagreeing with them, reconsiders the piece in light of them.
By the time work began to come in for the anthology, revision was not quite a mystery. It was not easy, but it was satisfying. There was proofreading. There were more discussions about commas. There was despair – there is always a little bit of despair – but there was also hope. And Haribo sweets. And Disney films. (It is important to keep oneself motivated.) And then finally there was the first version of the anthology, which is what makes the hard work worthwhile – the gathering-together of all the material in its best possible form at that particular time.
There was more work to be done after the three weeks – more proofreading, decisions about layout and fonts and typesetting and covers and logos – after the course ended. It involved myself, Colm O’Reilly (director of CTYI), and the very excellent people at Kazoo Publishing Services, and to be honest I’d like to forget most of it, the way people apparently do with childbirth. (I see-sawed between ‘never doing an anthology again, ever’ to ‘want to do another anthology right now!’, which I hear is fairly typical.) Because the anthology exists now – it’s a proper book and everything – and that’s the exciting part. The words on the page are ones the writers have considered. They’ve worked hard. They’ve tried, and then been nudged into trying some more.
They’re ‘talented’ – it says it on the cover, it says it with the name of the centre, it says it on aptitude tests. But I don’t see this anthology at all as a celebration of aptitude, of potential, in the same way that the summer programme in its entirety isn’t about a bunch of kids and teenagers swanning around thinking they’re great and resting on their laurels. It’s a celebration of what happens when you take that talent and nurture it, and challenge it, and develop it. It’s true in the writing world and it’s true in life – talent alone will only get you so far. I think – hope – I’ve managed to persuade the fifteen anthology contributors of that, at least a little bit. I hope they remember how hard they’ve worked, and that it’s not a failure when a first draft isn’t quite as good as they’d like it to be – it’s an opportunity. And I hope those who read the anthology get a glimmer of some of the work that’s gone on behind the scenes, sense that this is work that hasn’t just been flung down in a furious rush of creativity and then left there, and appreciate the hard work of these writers.
(c) Claire Hennessy