Friday, November 21, 2008

The Writer's Eye

Can creative writing be taught? There is a cult of genius that suggests it cannot. Great writers are born great, they do not achieve that quality or have it thrust upon them. But if that was the case, what would be the point of all the creative writing courses in universities and colleges across the country? I have heard it argued (by people who believe creative writing cannot be taught, and yet still work as lecturers in the subject) that the purpose of a creative writing MA course is simply to give the naturally talented a space in which to develop what they inherently posses. It does sound like a rather convenient argument.

On the other hand, there are those who state that creative writing is technique, is craft, can be taught. Just like bricklaying or any other technical task. Give enough lessons and exercises, give enough feedback and repetition and anyone can get it.

Witness courses on creative writing at FE colleges. People with a wide range of initial ability levels sign up. They plough through writing exercises, read their work back to the group, get feedback and then repeat the process. Week by week learning the literary equivalent of putting one course of bricks on top of another. But if it could really be taught, wouldn't they all end up as successful writers? Some do. But not all.

Having taught technique for some years now, I do believe there is a significant element of craft in creative writing. I have seen many students develop through this process. Happily several have written excellent novels. A couple of them will be published in the coming year. (I will mention it here when that happens.)

That would tend to put me on the "writing is a craft" side of the argument. But I have been thinking recently that there is an element of the creative writing process that I don't know how to teach. Some people seem to have it to a greater extent than others. And that is what I call the 'writer's eye'.

The writer's eye is that ability to see the world that little bit more clearly than other people. It isn't a matter of eyesight. It is the ability to experience things with intensity - whether it be colours or sounds or smells or emotions. So that when you do sit down to write, there is a store of experience that you can dip into. And when you write about that experience it enables your readers to taste a vividness that they might not have been able to capture on their own.

Could it be that the "cult of genius" argument wins out? It is true that I haven't worked out how to help people develop their writer's eye. But I haven't given up trying. Not yet.

No comments: