Uniquely talented need not apply

Navid Kermani’s “On Literature” isn’t just a fascinating story. It also excavates, better than anything I’ve read, the stultification inherent to most group creative writing instruction.

A writer friend of mine told me that a few weeks ago he had had to exclude the most gifted of his students, a young man from Swabia or Baden or Württemberg — neither he nor I can really tell these regions apart — with the significant name of Stefan Hegel, from the course for young writers he had been invited to give by a foundation with connections to a large corporation, because this Hegel kept on interrupting the readings of the texts under discussion, sometimes raising objections at every third or fourth sentence, shouting out, standing up or bursting into tears of horror, disgust or despair. Several times, he said, this Hegel had simply grabbed the book or the pages my friend or, more often, the students were reading from, simply in order to stop them; twice he had even suffered a blackout.

The writer had noticed him even before the course started, he told me, namely when he was going through the applications that the woman from the foundation had sent him, after a preliminary selection, for the final decision, because this Hegel had submitted an eighty-four page, closely printed manuscript, the sole content of which was an explanation as to why he would never be able to write a story or a poem. If I understood my acquaintance correctly, what this Hegel was more or less trying to do was to demonstrate, using a single example, namely a journey in an aeroplane or, to be more precise, one moment during a flight from London to Stuttgart he had made a few days previously, why it had become impossible to put into words what he, or any other person for that matter, saw, heard, smelt, thought and felt — tangibly or emotionally — simultaneously in one single second.


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