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.
And 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:
- It connects with the learners’ intentions,
- is active,
- collaborative and
- concerned with learning about the learning.
How does this apply to creative writing classes?
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 …
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.
I 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.)
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?
If you want to receive email notifications of future blogposts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box at the top of the column on the right.