Monday, May 18, 2009

Can Creative Writing be Taught?

There has been a fair bit of discussion recently on various blogs that I follow and on Facebook about the question “Can creative writing be taught?”

Some people subscribe to the ‘pure genius’ theory of great writing. To characterise it (possibly unfairly) this is the idea that great writers emerge spontaneously. They are born. It is in their genetic code. Thus, creative writing cannot be taught. You’ve either got it or you haven’t.

Set up in contrast to this is the ‘sweat and suffering’ theory. This states that anyone can become a great writer, given enough effort on their own part and given enough teaching. Great writing is achieved. Thus, the teaching of creative writing is highly desirable.

If this dichotomy sounds familiar it's because it is a re-statement of the age-old nature verses nurture debate.

My views begin from an observation: creative writing classes definitely helped me. I’ve been fortunate to attend classes given by Graham Joyce, Simon Brett, Sarah Maitland, John Gallas and others. I have also been privileged to see some of my own students progress very rapidly – particularly when they were prepared to listen to criticism and willing to work.

There is also evidence to support the other side of the argument. Some students never seem to progress, however many classes they take, whilst others jump forward at an astounding rate. Difference in capacity seems to be in-built.

Instead of the ‘pure genius’ and ‘sweat and suffering’ models, I subscribe to a third theory. The ‘buried treasure’ theory states that every individual is like a mine rich in gems. The nature of those gems will be different from person to person. Some people may have the capacity to become great novelists. Others great poets. Others still will never achieve anything as writers and will have strengths in different areas. But whatever the potential, it will remain unexpressed without a process of education.

“Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value.” - Baha’u’llah

As teachers of creative writing it is not our task to put writing ability into our students. That ability is already there in potential form. Thus I partly agree that creative writing cannot be taught. However, I do think it is our role as teachers to create the environment where the students’ innate abilities can develop. In this I agree with the ‘sweat and suffering’ theory - creative writing can be taught.

It all depends what we mean when we say ‘teach’!

As always, I would love to hear what you think on this subject. Do post a comment or send an e-mail.


siobsi said...

I tend to believe that we all have huge reserves of creativity within us. When this issue comes up I always think back to a drama workshop I did one time with a group of FE teachers from very diverse backgrounds and occupations. None of them had done any kind of roleplay since they were kids in the playground. And yet they produced an extraordinary group improvisation which astounded them as much as me.

Somewhere, they had abandoned those skills of 'playing' - perhaps because in school they had learnt the need to specialise. All my students have innate ability - whether they are capable at this moment of learning this skill to this level will depend on a whole range of things, including the experience of learning they have had before. Motivation. Confidence. Their perception of what they can do and who they are etc. The journey will surely be different for each one.

I also heard of a study somewhere that showed there was a proportionate relationship between the achievements of 'genuises' in a given field and the hours and hours of time spent at an early stage on pracising and grasping skills. That in doing so, you are literally rewiring the brain by constantly treading certain neuronal pathways.

There's a huge amount of craft involved in writing - and buckets of sweat and tears. There are attitudinal factors too. And then there's the whole journey that's brought us here to this moment where we just let go and play.

Rod Duncan said...

Thanks for this really thought provoking contribution.

Rewiring of the brain - a very good point. The plasticity of the brain is one of the things that indicates we all have fewer limitations than we might believe.

There's hope for me yet!

siobsi said...

and we use SO LITTLE of it - especially me today!

Paul Lamb said...

I took a number of creative writing courses, and what I found they did for me was force me to write. I had an assignment due next week, and it was going to be analyzed. This caused me to "sweat and suffer" and hone whatever innate or acquired skill I had. Without that compulsion, I might have languished about, always meaning to write something and never quite doing so.

As for the theory of fiction that the classes taught, I remember that I already knew most of it. I'm not sure where I acquired it, but it was all inside my little brain.

I found the teaching of writing techniques to be the least useful, and I'm sure this is simply due to the fact that what works for one may not work for another. I think I have found a good technique for me, and I suspect I'll continue to evolve it.

One surprising resource I have found for learning to write is the active participation in book discussion groups. The analysis and diverse thoughts on a book we've all read gives me immense insight into how other writers have done it, and so how I might do it as well.

Whether creative writing can be taught or not, I think the greater part of the equation lies with the writer who much listen and synthesize and practice and practice and practice.

Anonymous said...

I tend to believe the tools of writing can be taught. From basic grammar to structuring a story you can give people the tools to create fiction. How they work with them is them really only within each persons own control.

I've come to believe that what separates a competent or even good writer from an exceptional writer is a deep insight into what makes the world tick. And especially into the oddities of human nature. These are things that can be taught, but probably not in a creative writing class. Learning about people and the world requires both a great deal of study and even more experience. Its the lack of this broader learning that holds most writers back, rather than technical expertise. Writing exposes our deepest understanding of things. If that understanding is shallow and incomplete, so is the writing that grows from it,

Pam said...

I love to write and have always done it in some form or another. I took a technical writing course a few years back, but never anything specific to creative writing.
I wonder, how do you teach someone to be creative? Another reader shared the comment that we all have an innate creativity. I like to think I do too, and wonder if I wouldbe improved as a writer if I took someone's formal course, or if I would wind up trying to conform in some way.
Right now, I write what flows freely. I almost never edit, only correct spelling. Sometimes I sit down to write and feel as if the keys are writing without any inpout from me, and then I look at what I have written and marvel, where did that come from?
I have people say tome all the time that I am an excellent writer,a nd that Ishould think about a book, but how do I know if I am a really good writer? Do you just trust other's judgements of your work, and try to get noticed?
Is there a chance that a blog can become a niche book?

Rod Duncan said...

Many thanks Siobhan, Paul, Damien and Pam. Really interesting comments.

It seems to me that the process of developing ourselves as writers involves a change in the way we perceive the world around us. We may already have clear-sighted observations about the world around us to share. But the process of spending so much time focussed on writing seems to me to open our eyes. So that when we are going about our ordinary lives we notice more than we would have done.

I believe everyone is creative to some degree. But what most of us do is filter the raw stuff of our creativity. The stamping down on anything strange happens so quickly that we may not even notice it.

By spending time working creatively I believe we are learning to reduce this filtering process. In the last couple of years I've noticed myself coming up with far more creative ideas than ever I used to. (Not that this is saying much!)

My interpretation is that it was there all along and I wasn't seeing it.

So - no, I don't think we can teach someone to be creative. But I do think we can help people to unlock the creativity that is in them.

You all make such a lot of good points. I am going to have to think about it all far more, I can see.