Semantically-minded readers will note the deliberate choice of ‘teach me to be a writer’ rather than ‘teach me to write’ in this essay’s title. Just because a person may have an extensive vocabulary and be conversant with the difference between a colon and a semi-colon, does not mean they have the ability to be a writer. Writing and being a writer are two different things, although would-be authors sometimes fail to recognise this, leaving many labouring under the mistaken belief that being a writer is as simple as putting words on paper or screen. That people can and are taught to write is too long established a truth to debate. But can people be taught to be great writers, whether that be of fiction, poetry, script, journalism or non-fiction?
Perhaps, before launching into my argument, I had best establish my credentials to comment. I am a writer, a teacher of writing and a writing student (see biography for full details). I hope this triad of experience puts me on a sufficiently stable pedestal from which to join the current debate about creative writing degrees and courses.
Manchester Writing School lecturer and author Nicholas Royle – responding to Will Self’s recent Guardian article in which Self claims studying creative writing is a misnomer as there is no studying involved – states his belief that writing courses offer those with talent a valid and valuable opportunity to refine that talent (read Royle’s article here). Royle goes on to say that even those without talent can be taught basic techniques. Royle’s view is shared by Brunel University creative writing teacher Bernadine Evaristo who said, in the summer 2013 issue of The Author (Society of Authors publication), that “writing is a craft, but crafts can be learned up to a point.” She was refuting a contention by Jake Wallis. Wallis agrees with Self’s point that writing is “not an academic discipline” (The Author, Summer 2013). In the debate article between Wallis and Evaristo, Wallis, a writer with a doctorate in creative writing, goes on to state that creative writing is “a soft option” and students would be better served “sharpening their minds with proper study, rather than engaging in lukewarm navel-gazing packaged up as creative writing.” Words that, no doubt, angered many creative writing tutors.
My answer to the question of whether or not someone can be taught to be a writer is simple: yes and no. My explanation is a little more complex.
While a college student, I took an Art A-level. Although, even then, I wanted to be a writer, I had no serious thoughts of achieving that goal and was focusing on a career in publishing through a joint honours degree in Publishing and something else at Oxford Brookes University. Art was my weakest subject but one option for my degree combination was Publishing and Fine Art; I sought my art teacher’s advice. He said (almost twenty years ago, marking how his words struck me and stayed with me) that he believed everyone had a certain amount of natural talent and that, through teaching, they could harness that talent but only to the extent that they were already possessed of it. His words were wise (I will credit him; his name was Simon Jackson) and, I feel, equally applicable to all creative art forms, including writing.
In an educational context where creative writing is becoming increasingly popular, this anecdote suggests, as both Royle and Evaristo claim, that, yes, people can be taught to be writers. But I maintain that my reply is yes and no.
Currently there are over a hundred undergraduate courses offering Creative Writing as either a single or joint honours degree. There are even more institutions with the subject at post-graduate level as well as the new AQA Creative Writing A-level. Additionally there are a number of creative writing courses offered by literary consultancies, writing organisation like Arvon, writers’ mentoring schemes, online/distance learning courses and those organisations that offer feedback services for writers in the belief that they can be taught to improve their writing. Surely those working on such courses/schemes would also answer yes. An organisation like NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education) would not exist if there was not some validity to teaching creative writing.
I don’t wholly dispute their claims but I return to the wise words of Mr Jackson. It can be taught but only to the extent that the student has the capacity to learn. Their progress is dependant on their natural talent, dedication and general ability to acquire the necessary skills. Echoing Evaristo’s view, Prof. Michael Green, Head of Creative Writing at Northumbria University, in a recent interview for BBC Radio Newcastle, likened creative writing to motor mechanics and carpentry, arguing that writing, like other crafts, involves teachable skills. I agree with this assessment.
Writers need to know about character arcs, plot pacing, narrative perspective, structuring and literary devices if they wish to write fiction. Potential poets have to understand poetic form, free verse, rhyme and rhythm. Playwrights must learn the effective use of dialogue, props and stage directions, the importance of entrances and exits and the crafting of a story within the confines of the dramatic genre. These things can be taught through various methods: reading and analysing examples, writing exercises, feedback and workshopping writing. They can be taught. That doesn’t mean they will be learnt. I recently started taking a martial arts-based self-defence class. The black belt instructors demonstrate techniques, watch as we practise and correct when we go wrong. We learn. But I am naturally uncoordinated and clumsy; I will get better but I doubt I will ever excel at it. And potential creative writing students should mark this and consider whether or not they have the innate ability to learn to be a writer.
If they feel they do the single most important part of their learning is reading; in this I agree with Jake Wallis. Nobody would, I hope, attempt to build a car without first studying a working one and understanding how it was constructed. So why would someone consider writing a five hundred page historical thriller without reading similar texts to see how they were constructed? Not that in reading the goal is copying, as it might be with a car, but writers need to know the basics, the rules of the genre, before they can be creative with them. Anyone who has seen Shrek will know that, as a comedy, it is almost totally useless unless audiences are aware of the fairytale conventions it subverts. You could not write something so original without a good grasp of the familiar first.
But being a writer is not just about writing. A good deal of what a writer does is nothing whatever to do with writing. It is to do with self-promotion, networking, doing public readings, time management, organisational skills, IT skills etc. The compulsory first year module on Northumbria University’s joint English and Creative Writing undergraduate degree includes a session led by New Writing North’s director, Claire Malcolm, on the topic of the professional life of a writer and how he/she may earn a living. On my Creative Writing MA there was an entire module called ‘The Life of Writing’ which dealt with such crucial issues, all of which are teachable. How successful a student will be at them, though, depends less on the quality of the teaching and more on the student’s dedication and determination to be a writer. Are they prepared to go to yet another reading given by someone they don’t really like for the chance to make an industry contact? Are they prepared to travel miles to attend an industry event or literary festival? Are they prepared to stay up late emailing their manuscript to every agent in the Writers and Artists Yearbook? I have often thought that the difference between a writer who succeeds and one who doesn’t is nothing to do with the quality of their writing and everything to do with how resilient they are when faced with rejection and failure. Perhaps rather than a writing course, new authors should be partaking of some therapy or meditation practice that equips them to cope with this.
There is also the argument that it is who, not what, you know that will make you a writer, publication success sometimes resulting from the dumb luck of right place/right time. I don’t subscribe to this. If someone really wants to be a writer they make it happen. And they do so by honing their craft, improving their writing through any available means, acquiring every vital skill, never letting an opportunity pass by, no matter how insignificant it might seem, and never giving up. That way, when an opportunity presents itself the writer is ready for it. Luck is best defined as the moment when opportunity meets preparation. Given that, I would argue that there is a genuine role for the plethora of creative writing courses currently running because they help prepare writers for their chosen career.
Hopefully I have clarified my ‘yes and no’ answer. There are teachable skills in writing but that doesn’t mean we can all learn them, just as we can not all be ballerinas, plumbers or quantum physicists. Students should not enrol on creative writing courses expecting to be miraculously transformed into brilliant writers. I found evidence of this when marking Creative Writing A-level exams this summer. Some students achieved top marks; others barely scraped a pass and this among candidates from the same colleges who had the same teachers working through the same schemes of work and lesson plans. As far as experiments go this is probably as close as one can get to a scientific assessment of whether or not all students on creative writing courses come out as good writers. Sadly, some do not and are best served accepting that writing is not for them, either because they don’t have the natural ability needed to augment the teaching and become a truly outstanding published/produced writer or because their circumstances and other commitments do not give them the chance to fully pursue their writing ambitions.
Mindful of these arguments for and against creative writing courses, my advice to aspiring writers would be this: learn the writer’s craft, either through a formal, qualification-led course or an informal writing group/mentoring scheme/retreat etc. Enjoy the experience, uncover the extent of your natural talent and mine it but don’t expect to ‘graduate’ a writer.