The Exercise Book edited by Bill Manhire review

by Fiona Rae / 28 January, 2012
Of course you can teach creative writing – although it will be nice when someone finds a less precious adjective than the C word. Or, rather, you can teach its techniques, topics and targets. A lot of our schoolteachers and a number of our universities have been doing so for years. Victoria University's International Institute of Modern Letters is one of the latter, and now it's published a generous, accessible manual of exercises and encouragement.

There are 62 contributors, from Pip Adam, through Paula Green, the Knox sisters, Gregory O'Brien, Harry Ricketts and many etcs, to Ashleigh Young. From St Cuth's, the US, East Anglia, Taradale High School as well as Victoria. From playwrights, poets, fiction and non-fiction names. From Eirlys Hunter and Kate de Goldi, but no other children's writers. Okay, there's heaps of stuff to use with kids as well as older aspirants.

Most of the exercises aim to start a sentence, a paragraph, the guts of something. At the same time, there are suggestions of bigger possibilities. Go For It, they keep cheering. They're sometimes prescriptive but hardly ever restrictive. They're as practical as possible, while acknowledging that "something more mysterious is going on when good writing happens".

Sensible sections. Getting a piece under way; copying and theft; trying new and dangerous stuff; our invaluable memory; rewrites plural; building a world.

Comprehensive coverage. The index is an exercise in its own right: "alcoholic aunt … Book of Job … severed head of Patrick Evans … puke … Spears, Britney …"

Excellent ideas. Emily Perkins's 10 sentences, including one shouted in an old folks' home; Bill Manhire's Rhyming the Past; Rachel Bush's cooking verbs; Cliff Fell's travel writing; Chris Price's poetic ABC; Kate Duignan's dialogue for the dead. Many more.

Enviable lines. Tchaikovsky arr Ken Duncum: "Every morning at nine o'clock I sit down and wait for my muse. If she hasn't turned up by five past, I start without her." Hinemoana Baker: "Your task, should you choose to accept it …"

A number are sound common sense. Another number are pleasingly uncommon sense. A few read as if they're what the author prints off whenever s/he is asked for something on the topic, but most are fresh, focused, felicitous. The cover is a tad cutesy; some inspirational sayings aren't; the proofing is … ahem … fallible. Is "Damien Wilkin" related to the Damien Wilkins who provides good value elsewhere? I can't find anything else to carp about.

Stimulating? Hell, yes. Handy? Ditto. I'll be using a lot of the ideas, and I promise not to pass them off as my own.

THE EXERCISE BOOK, edited by Bill Manhire, Ken Duncum, Chris Price and Damien Wilkins (VUP, $35).

David Hill is a Taranaki writer.
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