Cusk writes about other books and authors: Francois Sagan, Olivia Manning, Natalia Ginzberg, The Age of Innocence, The Rainbow, Never Let Me Go, and Eat, Pray, Love, which she eviscerates. Elizabeth Gilbert's voice is that of "twenty-first-century self-identity: subjective, autocratic, superstitious, knowing what it wants before it gets it, specifying even the unknown to which it purports to be abandoning itself. It is the voice moreover of the consumer, turning other realities into static and purchasable concepts ('tradition', 'the art of pleasure') that can be incorporated into the sense of self." Fun stuff.
For writers, however, her essay "How to Get There" is worth the price of the book. In the second paragraph Cusk asks, "What other grown-up gets told how to do their job so often as a writer? Or rather, what is it about writing that makes other people think they know how to do it?" Composers don't have people say to them, "I heard a great tune the other day. Why don't you use it in a symphony?" Few people say upon retirement from the business world, "I've listened to a lot of music. I think I'll write an opera." Many people say, "I've got a book in me." (I know this because I'm one of them.)
The subject Cusk discusses in "How to Get There" is creative writing classes and the writers who teach them. She has taught creative writing and so brings an insider's perspective to the issue. "The ascent of creative writing courses has given writers a different kind of work to do," she writes, "and is transforming every established role—writer, reader, editor, critic—in the literary drama."
Because a creative writing workshop will contain students wildly diverse in ambition and ability and because they are led by writers of wildly diverse character ("contradictory advice can be given in two different classes about the same piece of work"), how to evaluate a workshop? How are standards defined? The answer she says is by agreement. "There is no autocratic way of assessing literature: the shared basis of language forbids it. Agreement is the flawed, frightening, but ultimately trustworthy process by which writing is and always has been judged."
She notes that some students may already be writers, "but often they are people whose immersion [in the social contract], conversely, has been complete; they are writers who have never actually written anything." But what is actually "taught" in a creative writing class? Point of view? Narrative arc? Theme? You can get all those in a good English class.
She quotes Karl Ove Knausgaard: "Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing's location and aim. But how to get there?" Ideally, what the student gets out of a writing workshop Cusk says, "is a feeling of being 'there' for a couple hours, the beginning of a process by which 'there'—writing—can become a more concrete aspect of identity."
In other words, we attend a creative writing workshop and write, as I understand her essay, to become our authentic selves. This is not easy and the temptation "is to elude this labour by 'making things up', by escaping into faux realities or unrealities that are the unmediated projections of the subject self." Cusk says that this labor is what is—or, I would amend, should be—taught in creative writing classes. "How to Get There" is an essay for both writing students and their teachers. Cusk's collection of essays is for everyone interested in terrific writing.