Sunday, 17 October 2010

Can you teach creative writing? - Linda Strachan

There are more and more creative writing courses springing up so there are obviously plenty of people interested in being taught how to write, but it occurs to me that the question really being asked is - can you teach someone how to write a book/play or short story that will get published? 

Are these students honestly so keen to write that nothing else will do or have they been tempted to embark on their writing career by the media's portrayal of fame and fortune, as they imagine their first book as an instant best seller? 

I have to declare an interest, having written a book on how to write for children.

Like many children's writers I visit schools and I often run writing workshops for children, of all ages. I also run writing creative writing workshops for adults.

So does that mean I believe that creative writing can be taught?

Imagine a young man sitting at his computer. He's got an idea for a novel and although he has never done any writing since he left school, he loves reading books and dreams of writing a best selling thriller.  He writes in his spare time, for days and weeks until he gets to the end of the story. Congratulations are in order at this point because actually getting to the end of 90,000+ words is a lot of hard work and an achievement in itself.

The problem is that he thinks the book is now finished and in reality it is just the beginning.  His novel is slow to start, there are too many characters and no real sense of who the main characters are so there is little focus for the reader.  His dialogue is generally well written but his point of view shifts constantly making it confusing to follow.  He has heavy passages of what he thinks is fascinating research, which lie like indigestible lumps at the beginning of several chapters.    This young man can write well but he needs to learn a bit about writing because although he has talent, he needs to be able to recognise what is wrong with it.  Otherwise he might spend a lot of time re-writing (or sending it out to publishers and agents just to have it returned).

In the case of this (fictitious) young man some kind of creative writing course or tutor might help him make the best of his talent.

Although it is said that everyone has a book in them - it is also true that a lot of the time that is where the book should stay!  Not everyone can write something that deserves to be published, but until you have the chance to try and perhaps some help to find out how to hone your writing skills, how can you know if you can do it or not?
I firmly believe that everyone can be creative, in some form or other, but often creativity is dampened down by everyday life, or by insecurity or a feeling that it will never be good enough.

I love to go into a classroom and see the children getting so excited about the characters they create that they are full of ideas about how these characters will behave in their story.
 I don't see it as teaching creative writing, it is more about opening the door to their imagination and pointing out that there are lots of paths they can take.

Can you teach creative writing?   I remember hearing debate about whether you should teach art or were you stifling the artist's creativity by imposing the teacher's ideas on the student.  The same could perhaps be said about writing.

What do you think?

Linda's latest novel is Dead Boy Talking (Strident Publishing)
Writing for Children (A & C Black) for all aspiring and newly published writers
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Jan Markley said...

I agree with you that there are things to be learned about story structure and conventions of whatever genre you are writing in. If a writer has a good instructor/feedback and is willing to listen to advice, s/he can save years of their development as a writer.

verilion said...

In regards to your last point. I think that's a moot point nowadays. If the teacher stifles the student's creativity it's because they are a poor teacher. I totally believe in teaching writing (and will be looking into your book), but first, you, as the teacher have to build up your student's enthusiasm and love for writing so that they want to learn the tools that will make them more effective communicators. The imaginative part; however, has to come from them. And another thing I point out is that my way of doing things is one way and the way that works for me. Over time (as I have 8 year olds) they will discover what works best for them. And maybe at the end of the day, some of them will end up in your creative writing class wanting to know more and others will decide to keep the book inside of them.

Martin H. said...

In the 80s, I had a column in a westcountry Sunday newspaper. My editor described me as having a 'native, if unschooled, talent'. I picked up a lot of useful hints and tips during the two years I wrote for him.

I think it's true to say, some writers need to be steered in the right direction, but any amount of creative writing tuition can't create talent. Fear of failure is the biggest hurdle for most would-be writers, which is why children have such unbounded enthusiasm. Most of them haven't experienced the stigma we attach to 'getting it wrong'. My advice? Have a go, but don't beat yourself up if you don't become an overnight success.

Linda said...

Writing isn't one single activity, I think. There's the imagining/recalling of the story, which can be therapeutic or for personal pleasure. Then there's being accessible to the reader. It is this second part which needs techniques, which can to some extent be taught.

Miriam Halahmy said...

I've been running CW workshops for quite a few years and I do feel that by teaching the craft and techniques of writing you are helping writers to move forward more quickly. If they want to go all the way to publication ultimately that will be down to their talent and an enormous amount of perseverance which cannot be taught.

Linda Strachan said...

Thanks for the comments, I agree with you Miriam it seems people often underestimate the determination and perseverance it takes to get published.

Linda, I think writing involves a whole lot of different activities and skills. As you say some can be taught and but not everyone is aiming for publication.

Martin - I am often sad to see how many adults, especially those with real talent, do not believe in themselves- although there are others with little talent and BIG voices!

Verilion- I too think that teaching anything is about encouraging enthusiasm and joy in your subject. I hope that my passion for writing comes across so that I can encourage others to improve their skills and enjoy their writing as much as I do.
You are correct - there is not just one way that is right. Everyone who looks hard enough will find their own way and if you speak to a room full or writers they will often have completely different ways of working. It can be fascinating!

Jan - that was exactly what I was thinking. A good teacher or trusted advisor can save a lot of time that can be better used to improve your craft - we are always learning.

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

I don't know anything about teaching, so I can't comment on that, and I haven't done a creative writing course or workshop myself (although it sounds like fun). But some of the work I do is for a literary consultancy, helping people improve their children's fiction manuscripts. A number are genuinely awful, a lot are going to be enjoyed by the writers' families and friends, then there's the odd one that's really great and might make it to being published. What I have found, however, from feedback I get sent, is that a lot of people are pleased to pick up one or two things (Show don't Tell, etc.) from the consultancy report that they didn't know before. This isn't anything like teaching creative writing, but just an observation that sending your ms off for consultancy appraisal seems to be an activity that is attracting a growing number of people, and a sector of the population that will not get up the confidence to try and get on a creative writing workshop - although if they did, I think it would benefit them more than requesting a consultancy report.

Leila said...

I do both manuscript critiquing and teaching (or tutoring, or facilitating) CW to adults. I think that first off you have to want to write , but if you have that desire and if you have a positive attitude to learning, you'll certainly get something out of a CW course. You can't teach someone to be a writer, but you can enable them to write, you can broaden and improve their technical writing skills and you can help them develop the necessary psychological tools they will need to be a writer. Just as you can teach someone to play a sport, but you can't give them the desire or the ability to be an Olympian.

Katherine Roberts said...

I found Jan's comment interesting "You can save years in your development as a writer". Maybe you can learn a few shortcuts, and if you're an exceptional student with the right attitude this might even turn your early books into published best-sellers... but what happens after that? Do you just continue to churn out books to the same formula for the rest of your writing career? I can't think of anything more boring!

Part of the joy of being a writer is the challenge of trying new things and bringing new discoveries into your work... and I think this sort of development can only happen slowly in its own time. Writing is like life - why should you want to speed it up?

Of course I'm not talking money here - learning how to make money from your writing and learning how to write are two different things.

Linda Strachan said...

Katherine- I agree that development as a writer happens over a longer time - there is no magic bullet but why would you lack that challenge in your writing after taking a creative writing course or workshop?
As you say, learning about techniques and ways to improve your writing can mean you might get early success with your writing (and equally you might not) but there is nothing wrong with that. There is no reason why that same person would not continue to learn their craft, looking for new ways to write and new avenues to explore.

I cannot see why you'd imagine they would think they knew it all and keep turning out the same thing again and again - any more than anyone else.

I wonder if creative writing teaching is best where it can help people who have no idea where to start, or those who might continue making the same mistakes and getting nowhere if they have no one to point out where the obvious mistakes are?

Stroppy Author said...

Whether people can be taught partly depends on whether they are willing to learn. I have had students who, when told what is wrong with their work and what they need to do to fix it, become defensive and angry and won't listen to advice. I'm not bothered if they assess the advice and then reject it - but those who won't even consider it are not going to learn.

And if someone doesn't have any talent, no amount of CW teaching will ever make a good writer of them.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Interesting post, Linda, and lots of interesting comments too. I've taught creative writing on and off for years, and still wonder how much good I'm doing! Possibly, this is because people have such different aims and ambitions. Increasingly, these days, I encounter rather too many people who think that writing is going to be their means to fame and fortune. It's a little like those talent show entrants who want to be celebrities, but don't actually have any talents, or any application! On the other hand, I have seen people improve dramatically, with the right kind of advice and help and it's very gratifying when it happens. Essentially, you're helping them to find their own voices, rather than imposing your own. Talent can't be taught, but technique can, I'm sure. At university level, I sometimes think that Creative Writing should only be taught at Masters level - although I've taught undergraduates too, so who am I to complain?!