Friday, 18 April 2014

Creative Writing- can it be taught? - Linda Strachan

There has been a lot of debate about whether creative writing can be taught and whether it should be taught.  
I do believe that you can teach certain aspects of creative writing - but then I would say that, having written a book about it!   
Some say writers should be free to find their own way, to experiment. That is fine, but why reinvent the wheel?
I think it is akin to someone who wants to draw buildings or street scenes being told that no one should teach them about perspective, they should find out by trial and error.

There are aspects of any skill, including writing, that can be taught, there is always something new to learn and I think the best teachers in any field will encourage students to go out and experiment, but they give them some kind of board to dive from.
It is important that the people who are teaching have some kind of credibility and publishing credentials. There are so many universities and colleges offering creative writing courses and I often wonder how many of them give their students any insight into the realities of what it takes to survive as a writer in this day and age. Do they tell them how uncertain a career path it is, that even if the book they write on the course gets published (with lots of time, help and support when writing it), that is no guarantee for the future?

I get a real buzz from working with emerging writers of any age. I love encouraging people to explore their creativity, and watching as they discover they have written something that surprises them; seeing ideas blossom into stories and their characters growing into fully fleshed out people.
We all know that writing can be scary, and sharing it with others is sometimes the most difficult thing, which is why creating a sense of trust within a group of students is so important. They should feel safe, and confident that any comments though honest, will not be destructive.  Whether a novice writing in secret, or an experienced writer waiting to hear what people think of your new book, we all feel wary when putting our latest creation out there. People may not like it!  But we keep on writing, because we love it, and hate it, and we just have to do it.
Moniack Mhor

I recently spent a weekend at Scotland's Creative Writing Centre, Moniack Mhor.  I've been there a few times before, tutoring Arvon courses much like those discussed in the post last Sunday The Arvon Habit by Sheena Wilkinson.   

This time I was working with a group of adults both at Moniack Mhor and at the Abriachan Forest Trust, on a short course called Words in the Landscape, and what a landscape it is!
View from my window at Moniack Mhor

We spent one day at Abriachan walking in the forest, being inspired by our surroundings. 

It was wonderful to stand quietly in the middle of the forest and -

LISTEN to the quiet, and the noises we often miss because we are talking or making noise ourselves -
Abriachan Forest Trust cabin classroom

LOOK at everything around us from the great majesty of trees to the smallest insect walking on the water - 

FEEL the wind against your skin, the warmth of the early spring sunshine -

IMAGINE what creatures might have inhabited these woods thousands of years ago, or in an imaginary world far away.  

Artist's Impression of Straw Bale Studio

On the second afternoon at Moniack Mhor some of us were lucky enough to be the first to try out the newly finished Straw Bale Studio, an 'eco friendly tutorial space. It was really exciting to see it finished.

I had watched some of the early stages of the build when I was there in August last year.

The group created some great stories and ideas for further writing.

I always come away inspired and ready to get back to my own writing. 

Running courses in creative writing reminds me to make sure my readers will care about my characters; to make the plot layered, the characters flawed and fascinating; to work harder on dialogue, and at making the plot grab the reader and pull them through the story.  It sharpens my critical senses and reminds me of all the things I have been working on with my students.  

Teaching creative writing is hard work but rewarding in so many ways.


Linda Strachan is the author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage novels and the writing handbook Writing For Children  

Her latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me  

Linda  is  Patron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh 

blog:  Bookwords


Sue Purkiss said...

Sounds a lovely setting! I teach a weekly class, and my students amaze me with their imagination and enthusiasm. I always learn something from them - not always to do with writing!

Joan Lennon said...

Moniack Mhor - heaven on a hill!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I have never taken writing lessons. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, but I haven't, just did the trial and error thing and somehow managed to sell plenty, if not as much as you ;-). You do well to wonder who is teaching creative writing - I have often wondered myself when some debut novelist with no actual publishing credentials has a blurb saying they teach writing. A friend of mine who did a full scale professional writing course many years ago actually found out she had sold more than her teachers!

Penny Dolan said...

Sounds like bliss to be there!

catdownunder said...

I would need to keep my back to the view!
I think there are some things you can teach but I wonder if there is also an essential creativity that has to come from inside the writer? Do we have to want to say something?
What I do know is that getting two pages of "feedback" - the first I had ever had - was more help than the person who gave them to me could have imagined.
Perhaps people need more of that - the idea that someone else cares enough to say something.

Linda Strachan said...

Yes it is a wonderful spot! I like 'Heaven on a hill, Joan!

Sue B. Yes not everyone needs to be taught, but for many it is a real help to hone their natural talent.
I am always amazed and a little perturbed when I hear about those setting themselves up as creative writing teachers who have little experience. The problem with one idea i.e. creating some kind of qualification to teach creative writing, is that it could, as has happened in other areas, become something that more people with little actual on the ground experience of writing and getting published, but who then have a piece of paper certifying them as qualified to teach it, may look to the potential students as better qualified than well-published writers? In some cases that may be so and not all published writers are natural teachers, but it could make the problem worse.
Also I can't see such a qualification appealing to most established writers if they had to 'prove', other than their publications that they are qualified to know what they are talking about! So a bit of a quandary, but really it is up to students to make their own decisions and to research the teachers before paying their money!

Linda Strachan said...

Hi Cat
Yes, the view makes it tempting to dream away the hours but once started it just makes a wonderful backdrop!
I do think the writer needs to have a powerfulurge to tell a story but sometimes people have no idea how to start.
So glad the feedback was helpful. Honest non destructive feedback is so important for writers at any stage. It is one of the reasons that working with a great editor is such a positive experience. They are involved with your story and invested in it almost as much as you are, and that is an amazing experience.

Sue Bursztynski said...

All I meant was that I would hate to take lessons from someone who hadn't actually sold anything.

Jennifer Draper said...

There is a huge and growing demand for creative writing courses, but there are universities out there that simply see it as a money-making enterprise.

Tama Lancaster said...

By attending a creative writing course, one can’t become a great writer, but can improve and hone his already acquired skills.