Thursday, 22 April 2010
Teaching myself: N M Browne
What do you think of when you think of a creative writing tutor? I summon the figure of an older woman with wild hair and a ‘sensitive’ nature and come up with Margaret Rutherford’s medium in Blythe Spirit. I try again and produce Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawney, in short, faced with the words ‘creative writing tutor’ I rather fear that my imagination supplies an image of a charlatan. Oh dear.
You see I now teach creative writing and I don’t believe that I am a charlatan. I may be heading in a Professor Trelawney direction sartorially, but I’ve got it under control. However, if responses to my new career are anything to go by, I am not the only one whose first instinct is to mistrust the very idea that creative writing is teachable. Those who write already are suspicious - I mean we all just write don’t we? We read lots of books and liked them so much we started writing them for ourselves - what is there to teach?
Rather a lot as it turns out.
‘Ah but you can’t teach talent,’ as several people have said rather sniffily. I think that is probably true, but you can encourage, stimulate, challenge and direct it. Most people have a spark of it and it is kindled by enthusiasm, by the opportunity to work with people who take writing seriously. Where can you get helpful feedback on a mss if not from my peers and teachers? Agents and commissioning editors rarely have time these days. Who cares enough to discuss whether something works better in first person or third but those selfsame teachers and peers?
It struck me recently that we treat writing as something quite unlike the other arts. There is nothing strange about being taught to dance, or draw or sing and yet people (often the same people who send their children off to tap and modern, piano and Saturday art classes) find it very odd that people should be taught to write. Could it be because people think it is easy? That yes indeed anyone can just write a book and it will be a good one? Maybe.
I fear I have fallen into the same trap. I used to believe that nobody taught me to write, which is of course ridiculous hubris. Back in the day I was encouraged to write all the time, story writing was an essential part of the curriculum. I wrote stories every day for years not just in primary school but at least until I was sixteen. Teachers read my stories out in class. I was taken seriously and I was encouraged, stimulated, challenged and directed.
I don’t know that many young people get that kind of teaching these days. I don’t know that creativity is valued as it should be.
I do know that the undergraduates and graduates I work with have things that they can learn and those things are, by and large, things that I can teach them. I must say I love it.
It is a cliche to say how much I’ve learned too, but it is true. I think the most significant revelation has been how little I have valued the part my own teachers played in fostering my creativity and taking my writing seriously. So it’s a bit late and some of them are probably dead - but thanks all of you! I would never have become a writer without you.