Never mind teaching it – can you learn creative writing?

You’ve heard this question before I’m sure: Can creative writing be taught? Eminent writers periodically get involved in spats on this issue. Recently one was set off by Hanif Kureishi (who teaches creative writing at the University of Kingston).  He appears to despise his students, suggesting that the vast majority of them ‘are talentless’. Lucy Ellman, novelist and ex-creative writing teacher, joined in and called creative writing courses ‘the biggest con-job in academia’.

Teaching creative writing courses has its defenders: Jeanette Winterton (at Manchester University) and bloggers Emma Darwin and Shelley Harris. Tales from the Reading Room has an excellent post about learning on a writing course.

Let’s remember that writers need to earn enough to live on. Where would they be without us amateurs to add to their income? According to The Independent, Kureishi said that having three sons means that he has to earn money from writing in any way he can.

90 First NovelAnd some write creatively about it: the blurb for First Novel by Nicholas Royle says it’s a ‘darkly funny examination of the relative attractions of creative writing courses and suburban dogging sites …’ Hmmmm.

What success criteria do the doubters have in mind? I suspect that they judge a course by the publication rate. Kureishi however suggests he is offering therapy. Really?

I am concerned for those people who attend courses to improve their writing, and whose primary objective is not publication, or therapy. Moving the focus away from publication means emphasising improvements that the writer him/herself wants to make and this leads me to ask a different question about creative writing courses: can writers learn from them, and if so what and how? I’ve spent my career in education, and found that focusing on learning (rather than teaching) opens up many possibilities for thinking in new ways.

Learning on creative writing courses.

The best learning has four characteristics:

  1. It connects with the learners’ intentions,
  2. is active,
  3. collaborative and
  4. concerned with learning about the learning.

How does this apply to creative writing classes?

Learners’ intentions

Most participants (maybe all) come to classes and workshops wanting to improve their writing. Listen to those writers in that introductory round: I want learn to end my short stories, I have lots of bits but I don’t know what to do with them, I have some great ideas but I don’t know where to start, I write lots of poems but I don’t know if they are any good …

Active learning

Most writing classes are active and not just in the sense of the pen moving across the page, the fingers moving on the keyboard. I mean active in the sense that participants have to process the topic being explored, do something with it, exercise imagination, draw together some unlikely words and images.

Here’s an example of a 30 minute activity from RAM museum workshop last month: in 5 minutes, find an object; write three words about it and note the desire/want/need that a character associated with the object is pursuing; write for 15 minutes; take ten minutes to go over what you have done.

90 teapotI found this teapot. It stretched me to put it in a brief piece of writing, but the time pressure and the constraints of the activity worked for me. (I’m not going to share the outcome of the teapot focus, but the activity was helpful for thinking about objects, and some of it will be echoed in my novel revisions.)

Collaborative learning

This for me is the most productive aspect of learning on courses – working with other writers works. We are all writers, we can say. We can encourage each other, and provide responses and feedback. Our fellow participants can provide stimulating examples, innovative ideas. And from time to time you write something you wouldn’t have written without the presence of another writer. It might have been their example, a comment they made, an idea they sparked, an image they provided, a word they used.

Learning about learning

The best classes provide opportunities for reflecting on how different people learn, for being mindful about their learning: what are the effects of pressure, of a new approach and so on. It is a skill to reflect on process and be mindful of the activities that were helpful. It’s a skill that can be learned.

Now it is quite possible to experience all these four characteristics of learning in other contexts. This means, of course, that creative writing courses are not essential to writers’ development. There are books, magazines, blogs, and mentoring and editorial services. But none of these are quite as much fun, I suspect, as those Saturday morning assemblies of ten or so people (mainly women) who rack up in some poky room in a cold community hall and gaze in anticipation at the tutor.

Do you have anything to add to the debate about teaching and learning creative writing?


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11 Responses to Never mind teaching it – can you learn creative writing?

  1. Great post, Caroline. I imagine this debate will run on and on. But one thing I wonder, is how many creative writing teachers actually understand the learning process. Many will be naturals, or have learnt from their own experience and/or training, but some might be as naive about teaching as lots of people are about writing, thinking it looks straightforward so you just get on with it.

  2. Thank you Caroline for such an interesting post on the age-old question – can writing be taught or – as you put it – can you learn to be writer. Expressed like that I think the answer becomes obvious – but the learning journey can be longer for some than for others and it can also take different forms. I do get a bit tired of this debate. No one questions an artist who decides to enrol in art school or a musician who think that lessons might be a good idea. For all the creative arts there is a craft to learn, but the art comes from within…
    I also agree with Anne’s comment – great writers don’t necessarily make great teachers. Teaching is a skill by itself . Just because you can ‘do’ the subject doesn’t mean you can pass on your knowledge and experience in a way that is accessible to a rising generation of writers.
    As for Hanif Kureishi, I would have much more respect for his views if he didn’t accept payment for a job that he clearly feels is worthless. His students get a shabby and expensive deal

  3. Really interesting post, Caroline, thanks. Like Bridget, I too get fed up of the old debate of whether the craft of writing can be taught – why is it even questioned? Are the Romantics to blame? All that being gifted from God stuff? I also agree that great writers don’t necessarily make great tutors. Far from it. A good tutor can give the emerging writer, through the acquisition of writing skills, the confidence to take chances and explore their ideas and reach their creative potential, whatever that is. A poor tutor can kill creativity dead. Possibly forever.
    As for Mr Kureishi, I am so glad I was never one of his students.

  4. ps – Years ago I read an article by Mr Kureishi where he said he wanted to teach because he felt: “if I knew something, I should pass it on” ( which is how I feel). It sounds as if he’s changed his mind.
    Thanks again for interesting read 🙂

  5. Caroline

    Thanks for your positive responses. I agree, too many teachers of adult classes give very little thought to learning. But I have also learned that there is always someone in the group who likes the teacher’s style, even if I don’t!
    And I agree that it is a puzzle why no one questions that aspiring artists can get training or lessons in music, drama, art, design, and the many crafts. For some reason, some writers like to be a bit precious and claim it can’t be taught. You can see from my post that I dont agree. And I agree that great writers are not always great teachers, but we can learn from reading their books, of course, and perhaps from them even if they are not great teachers.
    Best wishes for your writing endeavours everyone!

  6. Very stimulating post. As a young student, I was keenly sensitive to the ability of my teachers. I was a poor student. But great teachers could teach me and I responded to teaching when they made me feel connected to the learning. I did learn to be a better learner; a life-long learner. Literary pretensions have nothing to do with teaching or learning or writing. And sometimes we have to un-box what we think we know about creativity. Writers need to write and look for mentors who can help them with what they want to learn about craft.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this comment Charli. We do learn wrong things sometimes, (I have on the piano so my practising just cements them in) and we certainly need to get out of the idea that if you do something well you can teach it. It happens and it doesn’t. When I graduated all those years ago I was considered qualified to become a teacher. I then I had to learn how to do it!
      I am moving towards getting a mentor myself. Watch this blog!
      I love your blog about the pond, especially the post reporting the return of the heron. Will look up the carrot ranch blog next.
      Please call by and comment again!

  7. Hi Caroline,
    This is a great post with lots of wonderful comments. I have learned a lot from reading it all. I have nothing more to add; other than I agree that an ability to do something well does not imply an ability to teach it. However we can all learn from interrogating another’s craft, whether what we learn is what they would have intended, or not.

    • Caroline

      Thanks Norah. I agree that we can all learn from others, even things that are not necessarily being taught. I tried to say something of that in my following blogpost on hammering out reports. You can learn a great deal from published writers, in that case about keeping going.
      I wish education policy-makers understood the difference between learning and being taught.
      Best wishes

  8. Thanks Caroline for such a beautiful article. I liked it.

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