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This report is taken from PN Review 181, Volume 34 Number 5, May - June 2008.

A Creative Writing Workshop in the South Pacific Bill Manhire

Writers have always had ways of learning what they do. The example of other writers has surely been the most valuable thing - reading as an act of apprenticeship - but there are also advice manuals - by writers such as Aelius Theon in the first century AD, Geoffrey de Vinsauf in the thirteenth, John Gardner or Jeffrey Wainwright or Ursula Le Guin in the twentieth. A little more controversially, there are classrooms which make the learning process more explicit - the Irish and Welsh bardic schools, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, or any number of creative writing courses like the one I have been involved with at Victoria University of Wellington for some thirty years.

The rise of the creative writing workshop over the last half century has sometimes seemed at odds with Romantic notions of composition. Wordsworth's 'We murder to dissect' probably speaks even more strongly against the writing workshop than against other kinds of intellectual practice. How can instruction in literary craft compete with inspiration and the sort of channelling ecstacy described in 'Kubla Khan'? Doesn't the raw experience of life on the streets teach us more than the university classroom? We are regularly told that creative writing courses produce clones, that the implicit social contract of the group, or the pedantic temperament of some workshop leader, destroys distinctiveness and what Gerard Manley Hopkins used to call 'earnest'. Where do risk and authenticity go in such environments?

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