Writing and the Autodidact | Matthew CleggPosted: November 30, 2016
In making an application for a fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, I was invited to reflect on the philosophy behind my teaching practice. As I teach creative writing in a university, and am a working poet, you would expect there to be a strong relationship between my teaching and my creative practice. I had some rewarding conversations with a colleague about the education philosophy of Ivan Illich, and his work Deschooling Society (1971). If you’re not familiar with Illich, he believed there are roughly two types of education: one based on the notion of syllabus, legitimised by authority, and designed to serve its agendas; and one based on the notion of conviviality, whereby people come together to learn what they want to learn – that is, what is convivial to them. If the former is disseminated through conventional institutions, the latter could be organised through what Illich described as ‘learning webs’ – or informal networks.
My colleague and I agreed that conviviality is central to creative practice – and that if we were to explore this principal more freely, we would need to set something up outside the conventional syllabus, and the orthodox classroom. This is why we created the Co-Conspirators salon in Derby, a space for students, ex-students and creative practitioners to come together and exchange passions, interests and ideas in the spirit of convivial learning. The group has been meeting for over a year. It’s both a supplement to the creative writing degree, and an open forum.
Going back to my earlier question – about the link between my teaching philosophy and my creative practice – I realise that both are tied up with notions I have about the value of being self-taught, of being an autodidact. My own writer’s apprenticeship followed this path – as many have in the past. I first recognised the value of poetry whilst I was undertaking low-paid, low-status jobs, in my twenties, not when I was in conventional education. Whilst working as an ice-cream man, someone gave me an anthology of poems, because I looked bored. A poem called ‘Roe Deer’, by Ted Hughes, switched on my whole nervous system, and from then on I was curious. Later, I was employed by Argos as a Christmas temp, working in the basement – filtering out a soundtrack of Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door. I carried a copy of Ted Hughes in one pocket, and a copy of T. S. Eliot in the other. I inhabited these books, and began making my own incantations out of words.
One thing I worry about, now I teach creative writing in a university, is that I’m serving two phenomena I’m uncomfortable with: a cultural addiction to syllabus, and a possible institutionalising of creative practice, through affiliation with the orthodoxies of academe. Let me take care: I’m not questioning the value of the best work undertaken by my colleagues and myself in higher education. You will certainly find a healthy spirit of imagination and integrity disseminated by creative writing staff at Derby University. Artists need to balance integration and differentiation in their creative lives, and there is value in learning how to integrate with cultural institutions. Equally, the differentiation that occurs along the autodidact’s less orthodox path is of value too. Illich wrote eloquently about how the position of the autodidact has been discredited in modern society, and how this has perpetuated the interests and economy of syllabus and power. Become too integrated, and you risk being institutionalised, addicted to validation; but become too differentiated and you risk being nowhere.
Perhaps some students sense this, and this is why they feel they must chase grades rather than pursue passions, or get lost in a subject. Of course, as an ex-student of mine told me recently, it is possible to do both – that the differentiated passions can lead to the grades.
Let me write briefly about the first autodidact I knew: my grandfather. He began his working life as a butcher’s boy, in London, eventually becoming a butcher’s driver. During the blitz he was a fire-warden, and the story goes that this offered him an experience that changed his life. After an air raid, he gained entry into an exclusive London hotel and restaurant. He was incensed by the luxury he witnessed there. At a time where the London poor were struggling with rationing, the wealthy were dining extravagantly. After the war, he left London, and travelled north, where he taught himself to be a joiner and interior decorator, and where he helped build houses, churches and schools for ordinary people. He taught himself the basics of car mechanics too, and, when he retired, taught himself to build boats. He made a cabin cruiser out of plywood and fibreglass – a boat I’ve written about in the poem ‘Jasmine’, from The Navigators.
When we were children, my sister and I received many home-made toys and presents from him: bikes, sledges, go-carts, model yachts, doll’s houses, a see-saw that also span around like a merry-go-round. Our house was filled with his handiwork: chairs, tables, cabinets, chests, a sliding partition. This was a man without a single formal qualification – and yet he embodied craft, skill and creativity. I have been in danger of idealising him and his generation, perhaps in proportion to all the ways in which our society of syllabus, qualification and legitimised practice has made his kind a thing of the past. In my imagination, he is something akin to Yeats’ fisherman – ‘a man who does not exist, / a man who is but a dream’ – more symbol than flawed flesh and blood. Nevertheless, I think about him more as I get older, and I’d like to work out a way to infect my students with something of his independence and convivial ingenuity.
His son – my uncle Bill – was certainly as independent and ingenious as his father, but I think he understood all the ways in which his father’s path would be harder to follow in the modern world. He did become a qualified engineer – through the army – but he also saw how legitimisation ran even deeper than qualifications. My mother says he became embittered – acutely sensitive to class orthodoxies and discriminations. He disappeared into the kind of voluntary nowhere where the too-differentiated often go to escape the painful and frustrating jostle for place. A talented engineer became an odd job man in a private marina – living on a lifeboat he’d converted into a home. He died of cancer of the spine, in his early 50s. I didn’t get the chance to know him. I wish I had.
I certainly haven’t walked a conventional path through academe. I haven’t served much of an apprenticeship as an orthodox scholar. My research abilities are no doubt adequate to the kind of poems I write, but they are no more than that. If you measure the worth of a poet by their scholarship, or their more pedantic tendencies, then you are likely to pass over mine. Many of my students will go on to become better academics than I will ever be. I find it extremely hard to write anything as pure research – without the filter of experience, or near-experience – or without a creative objective. According to some orthodoxies, my work is likely to appear insufficiently impersonal – and I’m ill-at-ease with the jargon vocabulary of academe, or its enlightenment sense of knowledge, or what counts as original research. But I persevere. I am interested in creative practice, however, and in how each practitioner will need to both integrate and differentiate themselves, if they are to continue on their own with a life of convivial, creative growth.
The Co-Conspirators currently meet on the second Tuesday of each month, in Derby. If you’re interested in coming along, please email Matthew Clegg at email@example.com for the time and location, and any other details.
Matthew Clegg’s second full-length collection, The Navigators, is available now from Longbarrow Press; click here for more information about the book.
Images: Bark, Endcliffe Park, Sheffield, 28 May 2016 (photographs by Brian Lewis)