Just before Christmas, my friend and colleague Ashley Stokes was interviewed by Cheryl Whittaker at Mash Stories. The title of the article was ‘Can You Really Teach Me how to Write?’ This is a good piece on writing and teaching and well worth checking out. To give Cheryl her due, she was taking the counter position – as, obviously, was Ashley – and arguing affirmatively against the common barrier statement that ‘You can’t teach a person how to write; they either have it, or they don’t.’ This she ascribed to ‘those possessive over their field, wanting to maintain a certain elitism.’ While I applaud Cheryl’s commitment to Michel Foucault’s theory of power and discourse, it seemed to me that this misconception is actually much more widespread and commonplace than that (while allowing that she’s spot on about elitism in some quarters, naming no names). Every time the subject of not learning but being taught to write is raised, in fact, from the tabloids to the broadsheets to Radio 4, BBC 2, and Sky Arts, journalists will always lead with this question, as if it’s some kind of default setting. The implication, of course, is that only those touched by the muse or Plato’s dæmon could really be ‘writers,’ and that such talent is born and never made (unless celebrating the monolithic University of East Anglia Creative Writing programme, which seems to be the exception that proves the rule). Do a quick keyword search and you’ll see what I mean. On an admittedly less glamorous note, I get sandbagged with this one all the time. I’ve heard it from students, editorial clients, other writers, academics, literary agents and publishers. Even the majority of my family and my oldest friends clearly remain quite sceptical about what I do for a living. At all levels, it would seem, the myth of god-given talent endures.
As I write, there’s a robust discussion going on in response to Ashley’s interview on Reddit, concerning whether or not you can be taught to write, and I recognise many of the very good points from similar dialogues on blogs I follow and writing forums to which I belong. Anyway, in response to this classic debate between literature and pedagogy, I should like to pose a question of my own…
Why are we still talking about this?
As noted above, the basic argument against creative writing tuition can be expressed thus: ‘The ability to write creatively (which we’ll take to mean prose fiction) is a result of natural talent’ (Premise 1); ‘Talent cannot be learned’ (Premise 2); therefore: ‘You cannot teach someone how to write creatively’ (Conclusion). Where this talent comes from is a separate issue, which is when you get into muses, ‘X’ factors, and randomly occurring genius. Seemingly, you are born with it, and you’ve therefore either got it or you ain’t. I think we can agree that we’re all familiar with this argument, which is an indication of its prevalence, as is the willingness of folk on both sides of the fence to endlessly debate it.
Fair enough. You pays your money and you takes your choice, you may say. But does this argument really work if you think it through? Why is ‘creative writing’ such a special case? Imagine, for a moment, this argument in a few different contexts. For example:
Q. Can you be taught how to drive a car?
A. No, driving is a natural talent and you either have it or you don’t.
Q. Can you be taught to speak another language?
A. No, you have to be born in a country to understand its language.
Q. Can you be taught to play football?
A. No, you have to have a natural talent for the game.
Q. Can you be taught to play a musical instrument?
A. Only if you have a natural talent for music.
Q. Can you be taught physics?
A. No, you have to be born brilliant, like Einstein and Hawking.
Q. Can you be taught to be a plumber, then?
A. No, plumbing is a natural talent you have to be born with.
Q. How about training as a doctor?
A. No! Medicine is a natural talent…
Q. What about The Law?
A. That too!
Q. Can you teach me how to do anything, then?
A. No! You have to be born with the talent, otherwise don’t even bother trying. Go and watch TV instead.
You see where I’m going with this. And before you say it, yes, I am including the other creative and performing arts. If you cannot be taught how to draw, paint, design, take a photograph, shoot a movie, or write a computer game then what have they been doing at all those art schools for all these years? The same goes for acting, singing and jazz tap. Similarly, if you had suggested to a Renaissance painter that fine art was something that could not be learned from a mentor and a master you’d likely have been laughed out of the studio. (Caravaggio would’ve probably stabbed you up.) And don’t get me started on apprenticeships…
OK, granted you have your Mozarts and then you have your Salieris, but the question was not ‘Can you teach someone to be a literary genius?’ Neither was it ‘Can you teach someone how to be a bestseller?’ It was simply ‘Can you teach someone creative writing?’
Er, yeah… next question, please.
In this business, we’re writers and we’re teachers. Ask us how we teach creative writing, or why we teach it, or even where, when, and how much? Don’t ask us if we can teach it, and then tell us why we can’t. To be honest, it is just a touch insulting, assuming, that is, that the teacher knows his or her stuff, which is true of any trade, craft or discipline. (If you want to know how to evaluate a creative writing teacher or a course please see ‘Trust Me, I’m a Book Doctor.’)
Speaking for myself, I’ve taught for over twenty years now. I’ve taught big lecture series, seminars, tutorials, day schools, workshops and online courses. I’ve supervised dissertations and examined doctorates. I’ve taught English and American literature, creative writing, critical theory, film and cultural studies, British history, and English language. I taught in the UK, Asia, and even, briefly, on a cultural exchange in Canada. I’ve lectured in an Islamic country, I’ve worked in a world class university English department, a halfway decent art school, and one of the last ‘National’ Japanese universities. I’ve taught Access courses, honours courses, and master’s courses. I’ve also run an award winning student support service. I’ve edited countless works of fiction and non-fiction, written probably hundreds of reader’s reports and peer reviews, and been writing and publishing fiction and non-fiction consistently since the late-80s. I hold honours, master’s and doctoral degrees in English, and have been the recipient of two British Academy scholarships. I’ve taught thousands of British and international students how to read more critically and write more confidently and fluently.
Go on, ask me again if I can teach creative writing.
And my résumé is not particularly unusual – compare it, for example, to my colleagues at Unthank: all published authors, higher degrees; editors and critics, years of lecturing experience. (And I’m not touting for business here, by the way. I have more than enough work as it is!) Then check out some of the professors of creative writing, many of whom are famous novelists and poets. Would you go tell Giles Foden, Martin Amis, or Jeanette Winterson that they couldn’t teach their art? No, of course you wouldn’t, because how could any sort of classroom experience with a professional author be anything other than beneficial if you want to write yourself? Actors and musicians routinely give masterclasses, so why is the concept of a writer doing the same thing still so contentious? For a topic heatedly debated by clever people it really is a bit of a no-brainer. Look at TV talent shows for example, from The X-Factor to Strictly to my personal favourite, Inkmaster. The format is always the same: people with ambition and a little bit of basic knowledge are pushed and drilled by industry professionals, until, low and behold, they all raise their game.
Writing at its highest level is an art, but it is also a craft. This means that it can be studied, taught, learned and improved with commitment and practice, just like any other skill. I’m not sure why this should be viewed as such a radical proposition. I think the confusion comes from the gainsayers mixing up the art with the craft. All professions have their pinnacle, and most of us are fated never to reach it. Cult actor Bruce Campbell, for example, in his wonderful autobiography, If Chins Could Kill, writes about his life in ‘blue collar Hollywood’ as opposed to the A-list. I’d love to be a tenured professor and a bestselling novelist, but the fact that I’m not isn’t going to stop me writing, or striving to do it as well as I can, which means practicing and studying all the time. Most politicians will never be President either.
The point is that literary excellence and/or mainstream success (neither of which, by the way, cross-over very much) should not be the benchmark for the teaching of creative writing. Would you feel betrayed by Stephen King’s On Writing, for example, if its consumption did not immediately lead to the production of internationally bestselling novels and lucrative film deals? And I know those UEA courses are pretty exclusive, but they don’t guarantee a place on the Booker shortlist either. If the question was ‘Can you teach someone how to get published?’ or ‘Can you teach someone how to write a literary masterpiece’ or ‘Can you teach someone how to be rich and famous?’ then anyone claiming that they could would be lying. But that’s not what serious creative writing tuition is intended to achieve. If it does help you towards getting an agent and a prize-winning publishing deal then great, and any targeted advice and honest feedback is always going to narrow the odds, but it is unrealistic to enrol on any course, whatever the subject, with this expectation as a minimum requirement. Can you imagine the student feedback? ‘After the successful completion of a three month introduction to prose fiction course at the Open University, I failed to write a novel with the originality and virtuosity of James Joyce and the sales figures of J.K. Rowling. I am therefore marking the tutor at 0 out of 5, will not be recommending the course to others, and am initiating a formal complaint requesting a full return of course fees.’ That’d be kinda crazy, wouldn’t it?
While it is quite true that you cannot teach a student writer imagination and personal style, you can help them to enhance these qualities within themselves through study and practice, and to thus find their own unique writer’s voice. And, along the way, you can also teach technical precision in writing, develop critical faculties, and encourage creativity. Similarly, while you cannot guarantee the acquisition of agents and publishers, you can teach early-career authors how to correctly approach them, and also how to know when they are ready, having achieved a high enough standard in their work. After that, it’s largely down to instinct and commitment, and, if your ambition is to make money, luck. The secret is that there is no secret, and they call star quality the ‘X’ factor because nobody actually knows what it is. That’s another argument.
It’s lovely when it happens, but the truth is that if your only goals in writing are aesthetic perfection, literary celebrity, and riches untold then you’re going to spend your life being miserable and disappointed. And while we’re on the subject, it’s also worth noting that winning shows like The X-Factor does not guarantee mainstream success either. However aggressive the marketing, it still often comes down to chance as much as original talent, and the Darwinian world of mainstream publishing is exactly the same. As ever in the arts, many are called but few are chosen. Aim high, by all means, but be realistic as well and just try to enjoy the ride. Writing is not just about fame and fortune, it’s supposed to be fun. It takes you out of yourself, gives your mind the freedom to fly, and requires no more than pen and paper or a cheap computer and a bit of space. And isn’t it satisfying when you find just the right words for just the right image, or astound yourself with something you didn’t see coming at all when you sat down to write? Even when it’s a bit of a slog, I keep writing because it makes me happy, and if it makes a few readers happy as well, then it doesn’t get any better than that.
So, to conclude, there are many ways to approach writing, and instinct is a factor, and, dare I say it, talent; but it is a craft that can be an art, and can therefore be taught and learned just like anything else. Some folks prefer to go it alone, others take the pedagogical route, neither system being better than the other as long as you just keep writing. This is what we do, this is what it is to be a human being. We learn by study and by doing, and if we love something enough to keep doing it then we get good at it. So of course you can teach creative writing. Let’s lay that particular ghost. How about we all just agree on this one and move on, because all that time spent talking about writing is time that you could be spending, well… writing.