University of Sydney

 

Michael Wilding

 

Writing Class


 

An excerpt from Michael Wilding's Academia Nuts (Glebe: Wild & Woolley, 2002)

 

Creative Writing had been Henry Lancaster's salvation. Sometimes as the day dawned and work loomed he would gaze across the bleak sea and remind himself how it could be worse, how it might have been worse, how it used to be worse. Teaching Literature. Every night the half-read novel, the incompleted epic. Some people read a book once in their life and remembered it. Not Lancaster. He did not want his head full of everything he'd ever read. He wanted space to conceive his own books. Sometimes it had seemed that he remembered nothing. And so week after week, year after year, he would be re-reading the texts he was teaching, and always the rush, the desperation, the incompletion.

So Creative Writing had been an idea of genius. For years he had scorned it. 'How can you teach writing?' he would ask. 'Poeta nascitur non fit. Did I ever do a creative writing course?'

'Dangerous argument,' said Dr Bee. 'Maybe had you done one you wouldn't have been teaching literature now.'

'Either you have the talent or you don't,' said Lancaster.

But then an invitation to teach it in the States had altered his world view.

'It's a network,' said his London publisher. 'The teachers all know each other and pass their prettiest students around between them.'

That was in the days before the sexual harassment guidelines, the days when every successful student seduced its teacher. Anyway, Lancaster had been there, done that. What interested him now was a life of teaching without texts. Freedom from preparation. Now he had found the way to ensure the students did the preparation and he just listened.

'Right, who has something to read? Excellent. Off you go.'

And then, after the student had delivered, 'Excellent, well done. I enjoyed that. Comments? Anybody have any comments? What did you all think of that?'
It was like being a talk show host with compulsive celebrities, the ones who couldn't shut up, just let them go on and on.

The worst part was having to listen to what they read. It was something years of lecturing had made him ill suited for. But he learned. It was just a matter of sitting there and not falling asleep. Or sleeping lightly enough to hear when the reading stopped.

And at its best it was like the midday movies on television. Sit back, put your feet up, and switch on to the sequence of sex and horror, incest, abortion, family nightmares, drugs and desperation.

'Don't you sometimes worry that there might be a degree of voyeurism here?' asked Dr Bee.

'I am a camera,' said Lancaster.

'I see.'

'What is literature if not voyeurism? What are movies if not voyeurism? What is art if not voyeurism?'

'Well, quite a lot I've always thought,' said Dr Bee.

'Perhaps,' conceded Lancaster, magnanimously, magnificently. 'Perhaps there are some other things too. But there is always the voyeuristic core. How do other people live? What lies at the heart of being?'

'Tell me,' said Dr Bee.

'It is the question, not the answer,' said Lancaster. 'Always the question. We are always asking, we are always curious how other people live, that is the eternal impetus of writing,' said Lancaster.

'Is that so?' said Dr Bee.

But Lancaster was in unstoppable mode. He had spent two hours having to listen to his students read their stories, two hours without holding forth.

'Sometimes people ask, how can you teach creative writing?'

'I seem to remember you asking the same question,' said Dr Bee.

'My answer is, you don't, you can't teach creative writing,' said Lancaster. 'You provide the chance. The occasion. You encourage. You facilitate. You offer the window of opportunity.'

'I am a window cleaner, as it were,' said Dr Bee. 'Or rather, you are.'

'Exactly,' said Lancaster.

 

***

 

But it was not all exhilaration. Lancaster came in after one class his ashen, stricken self. It took a while before he spoke. Dr Bee waited affably.

'I just discovered one of my writing students is working as a call girl.'

'Have you got her number?' asked Dr Bee. 'Is she one of those who advertises in the classifieds?' He took a cutting out of his wallet. '"Candy and Roxy. Need help paying Uni fees. Visit us for a wild time. Satisfaction is guaranteed." I'd been meaning to give them a call. See if they were students of ours.'

'All grist to the media empires' mills,' said Pawley. 'Pumps up the small ads. The foundations of the global empire. Money from the child labour of paper boys and the immoral earnings of pimping for prostitution. The companies that pay tax at less than seven per cent.'

'I find it all a bit depressing,' said Henry.

'It's late capitalism.'

'I mean the call girl bit.'

'Same thing,' said Pawley. 'What else can you do with an arts degree in a post-industrial age?'

'His wife was prostitute to all the age, His pen was prostitute upon the stage,' said Dr Bee.

'It has a nice homology,' said Pawley, his eyes bloodshot pinpoints, catching the cosmic pattern of it. 'Henry sells his mind, she sells her body.'

'Is it your mind you sell, Henry?' asked Dr Bee. 'Or just your pen.'

'Ah, that's apt too,' said Pawley, 'the phallic pen, the -'

'Oh for heaven's sake,' Lancaster snapped.

'What else can you expect when they remove scholarships and introduce fees?' said Pawley. 'Capitalism. On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeois. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among proletarians, and in public prostitution.'

'I bet you say that to all the girls,' said Dr Bee.

 

***

 

She had been waiting for him outside his room.

'I've got this manuscript I wondered if you'd read.'

'Just read it out in class,' Lancaster said, automatically evasive of undertaking to read anything.
'I'd rather not,' she said.

'Don't be nervous,' he said.

'I'm not nervous,' she said. 'It's just a bit, it might be a bit shocking.'
'I'm not easily shocked,' he said, Lancaster the shocker, the man of sensation.
'No, well,' she said, 'I took your advice.'

'My advice?' he said. It pleased him, though he couldn't think of any useful advice he'd given. What was there ever to say?

'When you said, don't think about it, just do it,' she said.

'Ah, yes.'

'So I did it.'

 

***

 

'It was a whole manuscript about being on the game,' said Lancaster.

'Recognise any of the clients? Vice-Chancellor? Senior Management? Rowley?'

'I found it all rather, I don't know -'

'Voyeuristic, perhaps?' suggested Dr Bee.

'Depressing really,' said Lancaster.

'I'd have thought you'd have taken a more positive attitude,' said Dr Bee. 'Get her to fix you up with a couple of girls. Or a viewing booth. Ideal for the writer. A window on the world. You could probably pay out of your research funds. Think of it, Henry, the material, the sex, the opportunities. A new Butterfield 8. Or The World of Suzie Wong. You ought to be able to negotiate a percentage. That Japanese visiting professor who asked me to get him a girl, I'll tell him to give you a call. Maybe they could pay you a commission in kind so you didn't have to notify the university of other sources of income. Save you getting picked up for living off immoral earnings. Not that that seems to have worried them about your books.'

 

***

 

'How's the happy hooker?' asked Dr Bee.

Lancaster gave his pursed lip look, the British aesthete of the 1930s one.

'Manuscript all sealed and delivered? Film rights all fixed up?'

'It's so difficult,' said Lancaster.

It had been. How to tell her.

'It's good small press stuff,' he said. 'Literary magazines. But there aren't many small presses or literary magazines left. And you get a couple of hundred readers and that's it.'

How to say that if you want to go on record with memoirs of the sex trade, why not make some money out of it?

'The material's good. But you ought to make more of it. Market it. Make it more commercial.'

'I don't want to sell out,' she said.

'What do you mean?' asked Lancaster.

'I don't want to prostitute myself.'

'But isn't that what you're doing anyway?'

She laughed. 'I suppose it is. But writing's different.'

Who was he to deny that?

'So how do you go about getting published?' she asked.

He suggested she got to know publishers. Hung out round the literary scene. Book launches. Parties. Ingratiate yourself. Sidle up to the senior editors. How do you go about getting published, you go about it like getting into movies or television, on your back.

'Oh, but I couldn't do that.'

'What do you mean you couldn't do that?'

'That wouldn't be right.'

'But you do it all the time.'

'But I wouldn't feel right doing it to get published.'

He shook his head in dumb amazement.

'Think about it,' he said. He felt he'd already said too much. Was this the sort of advice expected of a writing teacher?

 

***

 

'You offered to show her round?' asked Dr Bee. 'Take her to the right places. Literary escort services?'

'Are you suggesting I should pimp my students?'

'Only the professionals,' said Dr Bee.

'She seemed resistant,' said Lancaster. 'She tells me one of the girls she works with did a deal with her dentist. Got her teeth fixed for you know, as she put it, rather than cash. But writing, she seems to have this elevated idea of it.'

'Can't imagine where she'd have learned that from,' said Dr Bee.

The Head of Department arrived for her morning tea and chocolate biscuits. Dr Bee sought clarification.

'What do the sexual guidelines say about having sex with a student who earns her living as a prostitute? Or his or her living, to be non-gender specific. What if you went to a brothel or phoned up an agency and you found it was one of your students you were offered? What would the official university ruling be about that? Should you, could you, go ahead? Or should you withdraw, as it were?'

'I think you should put it down in writing and make a formal submission,' said the Head of Department.

'In writing,' mused Dr Bee.

'Or is it too urgent?'

 

-- From Michael Wilding, Academia Nuts, Glebe: Wild & Woolley, 2002. Chap 15 pp.126-132. The book can be bought online through the NSW Writers Centre Bookstore on the Centre's website - www.nswwriterscentre.org.au

 

Professor Michael Wilding is one of Australia's most acclaimed writers. With his short stories and novels he was a leader among the avant-garde Sydney writers who in the 1970s created the revolutionary "New Wave" of Australian prose writing - an era which remains influential today. With his many academic publications he has also been provocative and influential. He has recently retired from his academic post at Sydney University and also as Chair of the New South Wales Writers Centre.

 

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TEXT
Vol 7 No 1 April 2003
http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/art/text/
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady
Text@griffith.edu.au