Sunday, 1 June 2008

Teaching Creative Writing

I used to believe that writing was an innate talent and that good writers were born, not made. I also used to believe, encouraged by my grammar school English teacher, that I was a good writer. I dreamt of being the next George Orwell.

But when I left school I was discouraged from airy-fairy dreams of being a writer by my level-headed careers master, who gently pushed me towards ‘office work’.

I was taught a lot of different ways of writing during my office-based career:

- I was taught how to write business letters and internal memos.

- I was taught how to conduct an interview and how to write case notes.

- I was taught how to write minutes of meetings and briefing notes and reports.

- I was taught how to write policy documents and guidance notes and official directives.

I was taught well, yet if I did all these things well it surely wasn’t because of my training. It was simply because I was a natural-born writer.

Wasn’t it?

All the while I was working at my day job I was scribbling away at appallingly bad one-draft novels that deservedly never saw the light of day. They were terrible. I knew they were terrible, but try as I might I couldn’t put them right.

I began to become despondent. If I was such a good writer, how come my fiction writing was so bad?

Then four years ago I bit the bullet and enrolled on a creative writing class at my local university. I was taught to actually do the things I already ‘knew’.

- I was taught to shape and plot a story.

- I was taught to create realistic characters.

- I was taught to make these characters speak believable dialogue.

- In short, I was taught the craft of creative writing.

Even before the course was finished I’d had my first short story published.

I’m not suggesting the course taught me to be more creative or inventive as a writer. No more than a painter is made more of an artist by being taught to mix colour or which type of brush suits which type of paint.

But I am suggesting that teaching the craft of writing can help unlock innate creativity.

So I guess to that extent I should disagree with Hanif Kureishi when he said last week that such writing courses are 'the new mental hospitals'. Having worked in mental health care, I was intrigued by this analogy. It seems the reason for this headline-catching assertion was his belief that ‘creative writing courses set up false expectations that a literary career would inevitably follow’.

To that extent, I think he has a point.


Tom said...

Fascinating. Living with a writer, I know how frustrating it is for Him sometimes to get out what it is He is really trying to say, in written words. He too once undertook a cw course. It was the beginning of something good. Unlocking innate creativity, yes, I'd agree with that. There are rules to learn, then break, then re-invent. If writing isn't enjoyable, it's probably not worth it. I see cw courses as guide ropes on a steeply winding path down to the beach, where all the writers are having a swimmingly good time. The ropes keep you on track, but there's nothing stopping you from breaking free at any point and going wherever you want to. i.e.find one's own way down to the sea.

Woof woof,


Paul said...

That's a good analogy, Tom. Not bad for a hound dog!