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Creative writing cannot be taught

“You can’t teach writing, so why go on a course?”

Always one with his finger on the pulse, I’ve been feeling for some time that I would like to say something about creative writing courses and their worth. In an up-to-the-moment riposte, I’ve been thinking about Hanif Kureishi’s comments just over four years ago that “most [courses] are going to teach you stuff that is a waste of time”. And this from someone who teaches the subject at Kingston University.

In an article in The Guardian, Kureishi was quoted at length from remarks he made at the Independent Bath Literature festival, saying amongst other things that; “it’s probably 99.9 per cent [of my students] who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent“, and “a lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can,” and “people go on writing courses for a weekend and you think, ‘A weekend?‘”

That’s all pretty damning from an author as well-regarded as Kureshi, and he’s not the only one who shares these views. I teach once a year or so with organisations like Arvon and Ty Newydd, I was Author-in-Residence at Bath Spa University for three years, and when I talk to people about this work, it’s a very common reply that “you can’t teach people to write, can you?”

Let’s leave that question to one side for the moment – because there’s something important that Kureishi and the others are missing right from the start, and that’s this: being able to write is not the only thing you need to be a writer. My step-son, not a professional writer, and only 17 at the time, realised this when he told my wife and me that there’s a lot of other qualities you need to have in order to be a successful writer. He’d spotted that just being able to ‘write sentences’ is not enough. You need to be able to manage the process in some way, either more or less chaotically, you need to be able to tap into and mine your obsessions (which is way more important than the ‘discipline’ that people suppose you need to be a writer), you need to be able to find an overview of what you’re trying to achieve, though again this can be more or less unconscious.

In fact, Kureishi is aware of this when he talks about the importance of knowing how to tell a story, not just compose sentences, but telling a good story is another thing you can get better at.

In fact, these are all things you can help people with. How does one learn anything, but by spending time with it, by living it, by doing it, over and again? Many of the subsidiary skills around writing are things you can develop. They are things you can focus on, ponder over, get wrong and then get better, and someone who has trod this path before you ought to be able to help you. If they’re a good teacher. If they can show you what is working and why, and what is not working, and why, then they are a good teacher, and the best teachers are those who know that they are still learning too. That they are as interested in exposing themselves to new thoughts and ideas as they are in exposing you to such things.

A ‘map’ I made in order to help me write Midwinterblood

Writing is a life-long journey of learning, and any writer who doesn’t appreciate this, who doesn’t always see that there is something more to learn, is probably not a very good writer. A few years ago I was standing in a friend’s bookshop when Alan Bennett (a local) came in and bought a book called something like How to Finish a Novel. He put it on the counter and said ‘never too late to learn something.’ There speaks a great writer.

What about the thought that it can take years to begin to learn how to write? That ‘a weekend’ is a total waste of time? Well, I have given one-hour writing classes and still seen people find something of value; one single, but important thing that surfaced, an insight that was not there before they sat down. And during week-long retreats at Arvon and Ty Newydd I have time and again seen people make breakthroughs; sometimes small, sometimes very large indeed. How can this happen in a week? For one thing, it’s about space. Travelling in space, as Thomas Mann pointed out, is as effective as traveling in time, and works powers to remove us from our ordinary lives far faster than time can. By going away to a new space, with strangers, one is immediately connected to one’s inner self more strongly, which is a big moment in the creation of any art work. The mere act of being somewhere outside of one’s normal life can be enough to open the well springs of inspiration.

For another thing, consider the word inspiration. In French, it means to breathe in, and that’s truly what inspiration is – a breathing in of something before you have something to breathe out. And again, by immersing yourself in your unconscious, in the space and time afforded by the writing retreat, this inspiration can suddenly strike. I’ve seen it time and again. It happened to me, one week when I was teaching at Arvon, and when, feeling a fraud and feeling guilty for teaching writing when I was two years into a period of block, the breathing in suddenly occurred, and a year later I’d written The Ghosts of Heaven.

For a third thing, it’s about validation. It’s about telling yourself that you are serious enough about what you are doing that you will spend your valuable time and money focussing on what you really want to do – write. This validation can be vital for some people, and again, I’ve seen it occur during the course of a single week, when someone who has had a worried expression for the first couple of days suddenly appears with a relaxed face and a blossoming pen and can see for the first time that they have the right to write.

But what about that original thought – that you can’t teach writing – the basics – the actual making a good sentence. This is certainly where natural talent comes in. Some people are basically more musical than others, some more athletic, some naturally better writers. But no one suggests that music lessons don’t help people play an instrument, or that a personal trainer can’t help get you fit. Is writing any different? Certainly not everyone is going to become Mozart, or Usain Bolt, just because they practice, and the same is true with writing. But it depends what your goals and dreams are, and I believe a good teacher can move everyone one, or several, steps forward along the lifelong journey of being a writer, and that could be enough to move from being unpublished to published. I know this because I did it myself – I never went on a creative writing course, but not because I don’t believe in them. I never went on one because I would have been too scared to expose my work – so instead I taught myself to write, by writing four books that remain unpublished. The first was terrible. The last was approaching something. And the fifth book I wrote got published, won an award, was published in over ten languages, and led to a career in writing that is now 20 years long.

You can learn to write and a good teacher can help you along the journey. And that is the point of creative writing courses.

You can’t teach creative writing. Can you?

Creative writing students at the University of East Anglia in 2011.

Creative writing students at the University of East Anglia in 2011.

Because my editor here at guardian.co.uk/books is unaccountably unwilling to allow italics in my submissions, I suspect you will be unable to understand the following: “You can’t teach creative writing.”

The reason for the sentence’s ambiguity is that, unitalicised and out of context, it is unclear how the stresses work. It might mean any of the following:

You can’t teach creative writing, but I can.

(As if said to oneself): I can’t teach creative writing.

You can teach other sorts of writing, but not creative writing.

You can teach other sorts of creative stuff, but not writing.

I wanted to italicise the “you”, as in my second option, because that is how I felt, two years ago, when I taught my first such course, entitled “creative non-fiction”, for the Arvon Foundation. (Don’t ask me what creative non-fiction is, because I don’t know). I felt pretty sure that other people can teach creative writing – a lot of them are ostensibly doing it, presumably with some success. But I had serious doubts that I could, with any benefit either to my students or to myself, join their ranks.

I was wrong. It is probably impossible to teach anyone to be an excellent creative writer (if they already are, you might help them along), but it was clear, by the time my first Arvon week ended, that almost all the students were writing better after five days of intensive composition and revision. You can teach would-be creative writers to write better. Yes, there were one or two fairly hopeless cases who were intractably tin-eared, but even they had a good time and believed they had benefited.

The most inspiring instance came in the case of a teenage girl from Nigeria, who had (bravely) come on the course, never seriously having tried to write. She began a piece about moving to the UK – good topic – by noting that buses in London and Lagos are different. She loved the internal staircases in the red double-deckers, which she had originally read about, she told us, in Mr Enid Blyton’s books. We foolishly corrected her, but immediately understood that her error – she’d never come across the name Enid – added to the accuracy of the story, and measured the distance between the cultures that she was attempting to traverse.

At the outset, though, her description of the buses in Lagos was unpromising: they were crowded, slow, dirty, and uncomfortable. After she was urged to close her eyes and imagine herself back at the bus station, details began to emerge: people sitting on the roof, a fat lady in a flowered red dress holding a struggling brown chicken, boys running round the vehicle selling water and samosas, a sudden storm of rain washing the dust in rivulets down the sides of the bus.

“You mean all that stuff matters?” she asked incredulously.

Absolutely, that’s what makes it come alive. And, with such assurance, she produced a final piece that was full of life. She had learned something about creative writing, and although she may not become another Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, she will never again write the sort of lifeless prose with which she began.

Asked to provide some hints to take away, my brilliant co-tutor and friend Selina Hastings and I offered the following:

Create a precis and outline to begin. You can abandon them later.

Get a first draft done, as it comes. This will be where the writing starts. It is the revising that makes the piece, not the idea. The details are what matter.

Read the work aloud after every draft, both to yourself and (then) to a reader(s) you respect. Bad writing generally reads badly; good, well.

The first sentence and first paragraph need to catch the reader’s attention.

Who is the reader, anyway? Who are you? Your job is to engage your reader, to tell them a story, captivate them. Never lose their ears, not for a moment.

It helps to close your eyes, and run the film of what you are going to describe in your head. See the story, then transcribe the reality of it.

Establish a voice early, and stick to it. Make it flow, perhaps make it sound like you.

But readers like some variety. Shift register occasionally, vary sentence length and structure.

Use some dialogue. Make the voices sound different from each other.

Show rather than tell – most of the time, anyway.

Make your connections and transitions seamlessly. But you can find different ways of doing so. You can use the extra blank space to indicate change of place, time, scene. But do this to some pattern.

You need a properly considered ending: to paragraphs, sections, whole works.

Be the sworn enemy of cliche and dead writing.

Get editorial help. It is impossible accurately to locate all of one’s own mistakes.

Beware of repetition: repeated words, constructions, rhythms.

REVISE. Then do it again. Sleep on it, let it settle. Then see where you are. Then revise some more. You can always add to the pared-down document later

Trust your unconscious: you don’t have to force everything. Sometimes it is better to listen, hold yourself in readiness to hear the answer, let it emerge, honour it.

You don’t have to write consecutively: start to finish. If something goes dead, skip ahead, or go back. Keep writing.

Don’t settle for almost good enough.

Make writing a regular part of your life.

Last week, when Selina and I once again taught an Arvon course – this time it was called “Life Writing” (don’t ask) – we looked back over these notes, and decided not to distribute them, just to allow them to inform the way we ran the group sessions and tutorials. What most struck me, resurrecting the list, was how obvious it all sounds, and yet how hard it is to do. Like telling a tennis player: keep your eye on the ball, take the racket back quickly, bend your knees, follow through …

Easier said than done, unless you are already good at doing it. But being encouraged in better habits, being mindful of good practice, causes good practice. And practising usually makes one better.

I was also struck, to my considerable embarrassment, by how often I have failed to follow our advice: been sloppy about particularisation, failed to scan my texts for dead writing, been too lazy to read my drafts aloud.

I now know that I can, within my limits, teach creative writing. What I have to remember is to teach it to myself.