Leading by example

by Diane Brown / 09 May, 2013
Stephanie Johnson’s novel about a creative writing class is itself a lesson in how it’s done.
Stephanie Johnson: sparky dialogue, droll humour. Photo/David White


In Stephanie Johnson’s new novel, Merle, once a promising author, now spends most of her time teaching creative writing. Her long-term husband, Brendan, once a documentary film-maker, has trouble getting out of bed. His depression seems to have arisen from an inability to make reality TV. Merle’s patience and love for him is touching. Their only child has grown up and moved away. Jurgen, a mysterious German boarder, is occupying his room.

“If I didn’t have to teach, I would write a poem now, perhaps, that is, if I heeded the impulse and gave myself time and peace,” thinks Merle. But it’s not only the demands of her students. She’s lost her once almost-sexual desire for writing. It may be different for the minority of writers whose reputation and sales increase steadily with every publication. But feeling marginalised is an occupational hazard for most. Many will identify with a thoroughly believable Merle. Her English department colleagues haven’t bothered to read her work. They’re waiting to see if she passes the test of time. Merle suspects she won’t.

Teaching is rewarding but Merle is sceptical about her students’ chances of success. Not that she’s at liberty to express this. She’s been cautioned to say “once” not “if” you get published. Creative writing classes are a business. It’s important to sell the dream and retain students.

Tensions between students are skilfully revealed. Tosh, whose name is synonymous with his derivative fake Rastafarian rap novel, gets championed by Merle’s co-teacher Gareth and wins a publishing contract.

“Jealousy won’t help you,” Merle tells her students. “It’s corrosive.”

Johnson’s novel is also a primer in how to write and does not neglect the necessity to read well. Her classroom dialogue is never didactic but sparky and helpful for anyone interested in writing.

The emotional entanglements might occasionally be clichéd, but the droll humour she brings to them is refreshing.

Teaching writing requires emotional skill as well as knowledge of the subject. Merle possesses this, as does her creator. “Most intelligent readers want to read intelligent, multi-layered, mature writing, not something cooked up out of a desire for instant feedback,” says Merle, in an attempt to dissuade her students from posting their writing on the internet. “I think we will always need gatekeepers, people who do the quality control that publishers have always done.” Intelligent, tender and funny, The Writing Class is evidence of that quality control.

THE WRITING CLASS, by Stephanie Johnson (Vintage, $37.99); Johnson is appearing at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival.

Diane Brown runs Creative Writing Otago.

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