Miranda France sits crushed in the back of a crowded taxi, on her way to teach at a residential writing school, and realises she’s bungled this job from the off. She’s well aware that a tutor should always arrive nice and early, not buried under a suitcase alongside the students. ‘To start building the persona of the writer’ is ‘the first creative exercise of the week’, she explains. Her co-tutor, Tom, seems enviably at ease in the role. He wears jackets with roomy pockets to hold his poetry books and exudes a kind of Ted Hughes air. France is self-conscious but holds her nerve through the first supper with twelve would-be writers who have come to a large house in the lush countryside for what some might consider a doomed undertaking. It is now almost ten years since Hanif Kureishi declared creative writing courses ‘a waste of time’. Yet still people yearn to learn and the creative writing industry is big business. France tells us there are seven thousand applicants every year for six places on the creative writing MFA at Syracuse University, where Raymond Carver taught in the 1980s. ‘Can we really be taught creativity?’ is nevertheless something she wonders as she cradles a hot-water bottle, drinks endless cups of tea and meets one after another of her students in a chilly outhouse to discuss their projects.
‘It isn’t always easy to tell apart the people who really do want to write a book from the ones who need a kindly ear,’ says France, having spent half an hour with tearful divorcee Susie, who was given a place on the course as a birthday present but is nervous of self-expression. Boisterous Sheena is happier to show photographs of wounds inflicted by a crazed neighbour than to actually get down to writing about how she was attacked with a sword. Condescending Peter explains to France that her published work is full of errors and he could give her a list of them, in return for a meeting with her agent. She remains tolerant, empathetic and encouraging, while being aware that her own relationship with life-writing is an ambivalent one and that simply wanting to tell what she reluctantly calls one’s ‘truth’ is not necessarily in itself valid, or even advisable.
As days of workshops, exercises and tutorials pass and this ingenious book develops, we find ourselves drawn into a very different realm from that of breakfast banter and nightly games of charades at the writing retreat. A conversation with troubled Diana about letters found in an attic gives rise