(I'm about to start teaching another course on children's writing for Curtis Brown Creative, and I wrote a blog post for them with some thoughts about the teaching of writing. It had to be edited down, so I'm taking this opportunity to give you the whole thing...)
Over the last few months I’ve been watching Friday Night Lights, a US series about a Texas high school football team and a range of characters associated with it. Like all the best contemporary US TV drama, it has high production values, great storylines and acting, and the kind of cliffhangers that make you want to watch the next episode as soon as possible. As someone who has now lived through The Sopranos in its glorious entirety four times, and who was a big fan of The Wire, I was born to love Friday Night Lights. That said, I realised a while ago there’s a parallel between this show and the thing I’ve been doing in recent years – teaching people who want to write for children.
Friday Night Lights is full of storylines about relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and people who work together. It’s about the ordinary things of life and just how important they are. But (and this is where it differs from almost any other long-form drama I’ve seen) it’s also about a sports team, and the questions in the minds of all those affected by its success or failure. In those episodes where the storyline turns on a young player’s feelings or behaviour, the question is direct – is this player any good? Does he stand up to pressure or buckle when things go wrong? Most of all, does he have any talent and is he using it to the best of his ability? There’s lots more in the show, of course, but the importance of talent is at its heart.
A key figure in this is Coach Eric Taylor. He’s the guy who has to take young boys and mould them into football players. He has to discover what they can bring to the team and help them develop their talents, whatever those talents might be. Some of the boys have limited abilities, and then it’s a case of getting the best out of them, or perhaps even lowering their expectations. Others have extravagant, amazing talents, but find it hard to exploit them – perhaps because they lack self confidence or have personal problems to deal with.
You can probably see where I’m going with this. OK, I’ll admit that using sport as some kind of metaphor is a cliché – we all know that scene in a Hollywood movie where a father and son bond during a one-on-one game of basketball. But even a cliché can reveal a human truth, and sport – like writing – is an area of human activity that’s based on the idea of talent. Anyone can play football, but very few people have the kind of talent for the game of players such as George Best, David Beckham or Ronaldo. The extreme specialisation in Coach Taylor’s chosen sport of American football makes this even more clear. Anyone can throw a football, but very few people indeed can throw the kind of passes a quarterback has to in every game, even at high school level. You need some kind of natural ability to start with. Coach Taylor knows that – but he also knows how to spot that talent in a boy and how to help him develop it.
Creative writing courses have proliferated in recent years at every level, and understandably there has been a bit of a backlash. Some commentators have even called into question the whole idea of teaching such a hard-to-pin-down skill as writing. I’d be the first person to agree that just as you can’t turn an un-athletic klutz into an NFL quarterback, it really is impossible to teach someone to write well unless they have some talent in the first place. But if you do have talent, then it sometimes really helps to work with people who can help you identify exactly what that talent is and teach you ways of enhancing it.
At a very basic level, this could simply save you a lot of time. Take someone like me, for example. As a teenager I read a lot of poetry, and for a long time I was convinced I could become the next Dylan Thomas or Ted Hughes. I didn’t have anyone I could show my work to, and produced lots of awful poetry that I sent off to small magazines with very little success. It wasn’t until I became a parent and started to read children’s books to my own kids that I began to realise my future as a writer might lie elsewhere. I did write poetry for children, but it was only when I started writing young fiction that I was successful enough to make a career as a writer. I’ve earned my living from my writing ever since, but I sometimes wish I had been able to work with someone who could have seen that future trajectory in me. It might have saved me more than a few years of trying to find my way in the wilderness.
Traditionally it was editors who were supposed to do this, but most of them don’t have the time to be talent spotters and work with writers who might have a long way to go before they can produce publishable work, even if they clearly have some kind of talent. Publishing is a business and times are hard, so it’s no surprise that in the Darwinian struggle to survive publishers are less inclined to be patient and think of the long-term. That’s why it’s also no surprise that there are so many writing courses these days – it’s almost as if publishers have out-sourced the whole process of developing talent.
So what can a course do for you? As with anything in life, I’m pretty sure courses vary enormously, so I can only talk about the way I approach it. To begin with I tell students that writing well is never easy – as Thomas Mann said, ‘a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people’. I tell them to put out of their minds any ideas of big advances and film rights and earning vast sums from your work. The important thing is to study the craft – and I do think it’s possible to teach people with talent a lot about the mechanics of writing, about character and plot and how to grip readers. It really is the same as sports coach working with a talented player. Like any good coach, I study the students and try to help them improve on what they’re doing already. Sometimes it’s about making them see they need to work on a particular area – story structure is often something people find it hard to understand, at least to begin with. Sometimes it’s about helping students look into their hearts and ask themselves what kind of stories they want to tell – or whether they do truly want to write, and have something interesting to say.
I believe that a good course should be pragmatic, and taught by someone with real experience on the field of play (to slip back into a sporting metaphor). I’ve got plenty of editing experience – I’ve edited lots of anthologies of short stories and quite a few novels, so I know that even published writers need some coaching sometimes. But I’ve made my living as a writer for many years, so – as Coach Taylor might say – I can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. In the end it’s all about being pragmatic, about getting the students to see what works and how to improve it, or occasionally persuading someone to stop crashing into a particular wall. There’s an emotional side to writing as well. Good writers are sometimes hamstrung by a loss of confidence or a refusal –based on the insecurity we all feel when we write – to take honest, objective criticism and act on it. I like to think that any student who finishes one of my courses knows what it means to be professional.
Part of the appeal for me is also in the idea that I might find someone who is a fantastic talent, a Pelé among writers. There’s a thrill in finding a new voice, in reading something and knowing it’s unique and original, and also that you might be able to help that writer become even better. Coach Taylor’s team has a motto, one he quotes to them before every game – ‘Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.’ I’m thinking of saying that before every lesson I teach.
There are several books I’ve found enormously useful both as a writer and a teacher of writing. They tackle very practical matters, but they’re also excellent on the whole area of motive – why you want to be a writer in the first place – and how to deal with the emotional side of the writing life. They are:
Body of Work – 40 Years of Creative Writing at UEA (edited by Giles Foden)
The Creative Writing Coursebook (edited by Julia Bell andPaul Magrs)
An Editor’s Advice to Writers – The Forest for the Trees (by Betsy Lerner
You can also find details of the Curtis Brown Creative Writing School on their website: http://curtisbrowncreative.co.uk/writing-school/