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.


Farah Mendlesohn said...

One can definitely teach skills: anything from how to play with the syntax to shift pov/focalization/time structures to ways to plot, new ways to think about characters, etc. etc. Admittedly, much of this is what I think of as critical reading.

Do you know Francine Prose's Reading Like A Writer? I now use that as my main text book.

Nicky said...

I will go and read it the minute I finish my novel ( the one I'm writing , not reading)

Candy Gourlay said...

i wish i had more opportunities like this when i was a little girl. maybe i wouldn't have taken me as long as it has to get published!

Lucy Coats said...

Nicky--this is a great post which I have enjoyed reading. It's also made me think (with my creaking brain, that's a miracle!). You say: '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 would change that 'Maybe' to an 'almost certainly'. I was listening to Martin Brown yesterday at the London Book Fair, who was speaking about the (importance of illustrating books for older kids) along with Anthony Browne and Marcia Williams. He was saying (and how many times have we heard this?) that somehow writing, especially for children, is not seen as a proper job--and the same goes for illustrating for children, which is not seen as 'art' but just 'pictures for kids'. That's another discussion--but perhaps creative writing is not seen as a legitimate thing to teach in part because we writers are not seen to have 'proper jobs'. We just doss around on sofas, languishing and having an idea or two according to the popular public perception. As far as I am concerned, your creative writing class is lucky to have you as a teacher--and they wouldn't be there unless they wanted to learn from you. Good luck--and may they learn what hard work coming up with those 'easy' good ideas and getting them into shape really is!

Gillian Philip said...

Nicky, stop it! Someone less like Professor Trelawney it would be hard to imagine!

I agree - you can't wrap up raw talent and give it like a gift, but of course writing can be taught, encouraged, directed. I had one particular teacher without whom I'd never have believed I could write - she *is* dead, so I hugely regret that I'll never be able to tell her that.

Maybe 'creative writing courses' get a bad name from the very few. There are plenty in Scotland that seem to want to teach anything but the kind of writing anyone would want to read. But perhaps that's a uniquely Scottish problem - a snottiness about anything commercial and a fetish for the experimental or the self-consciously literary. Here's hoping the English are more open-minded. (End of rant.)

Farah Mendlesohn said...

Hi Gillian

If I may promote my rivals for a second: Napier is now offering an MA in Genre Fiction.


Gillian Philip said...

That's excellent news, Farah, and long overdue! But I am wary of the very term 'genre fiction' - if it's meant to signal something more commercial but less worthy. That's a mindset promoted by much of the Scottish media, too, though, so there may be a long way to go...

Farah Mendlesohn said...

I believe in this case it's crime, sf, fantasy, horror. I have a few contacts although I'm not in direct touch.

kathryn evans said...

Absolutely writing can be taught. I began to learn this at 17 when my A level drama teacher said ' You know a lot of stuff but you can't write an essay.'

I haven't stopped learning - everything i read, every crit I get, all the feedback from my agent and editors, every seminar I attend - would love to have time to do MA in Creative writing...

Like Candy said - if I knew half of what I know now 10 years ago, what a lot of time I'd have saved.....great post Nicky, good luck with the teaching.

Katherine Langrish said...

I never thought I'd been taught to write, but it's true about schools encouraging creative writing, back in my own schooldays. It was encouraged, mind you, but not in any sense taught.
You just got the tick, the mark, and a brief red comment like 'Lovely', or 'Enjoyable composition, Katherine.'
I can't say I minded. There are times when I think editors could do likewise!

Nicky said...

Well I think encouragement is a huge part of teaching - providing an opportunity,having a certain expectation and then giving positive feedback is part of what I think of as 'teaching', learning from that is always the part you do on your own : )

Stroppy Author said...

I think there *is* a difference between teaching writing and teaching other skills such as dance and music. Firstly, teaching dance and music is about teaching a skill that enables performance of something already created - so teaching writing would be the equivalent of teaching composition or choreography, not of playing an instrument or dancing (which skills may lead on to, and are necessary foundations for, the more creative work).

Secondly, the people who sign up for a creative writing course often *expect* that they can achieve the standard necessary to be published just by following a course. People who learn an instrument don't generally expect to end up at a professional level, they accept they are doing it for their own pleasure.

Which is not to say that writing can't be taught - the nuts and bolts can be taught, and talent nurtured. Teaching can crystallise talent or improve an adequate writer. But top-quality writing takes both talent and skill. Some people will never get there, no matter how many courses they go on. Just like I will never be a decent tennis player or saxophonist, no matter how many courses I might take.

Nicky said...

yes and no - I think it is more akin to teaching drawing or painting actually. Very few of the students who fill our art schools and courses will be making any kind of living from it in the future.
Teaching adults anything but facts is always about facilitating their own learning for most subject isn't it?

Ee Leen Lee said...

it's true that you can't teach talent,but talent per se isn't everything; you can be lazy and talented, for example.
Creative-writing courses never hurt and can point you in the right direction, MFAs are for people who can take the criticism and rigour