Can Creative Writing Be Taught?

March 28th, 2014 § 0 comments

Last week, writer Hanif Kureishi caused a media storm in the UK when he said that creative writing courses are ‘a waste of time’ and that 99.9 percent of his students are without talent. He went on to say that a story is ‘a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.’

Kureishi’s comment is made all the more stranger by the fact that he teaches creative writing at Kingston University, apparently ineffectually. In response to his statements, some of the UK’s leading writers and creative writing teachers joined the argument to prove that writing is a craft and like any craft, can be taught.

Philip Hensher is professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University. In 2003 he was included on Granta’s Best Young Writers List and his 2008 novel, The Northern Clemency, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.

He says good writing is a mixture of the ‘calculated and the instinctual,’ and he is flabbergasted by Kureishi’s criticism of creative writing students. He says, ‘what lies, or ought to lie, beneath the growth of creative writing as a subject is the conviction that a good deal of the best writing derives from conscious craft, if not all of it.’

He acknowledges that bad creative classes exist and they’re typically the courses where students are not encouraged to constructively criticise each other’s work, which means they miss out on the valuable lesson of editing. As the writer C. J. Cherryh says, ‘it is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.’

In writer’s circles, it’s common knowledge that first and second drafts are typically ‘garbage,’ but it’s the craft of editing that turn them into potentially award-winning novels. The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami writes at least five drafts of his novels, while British novelist, Jeanette Winterson, throws her work in the fire if she feels it’s not up to scratch.

Hensher points out that anyone who sits down to write a story will confront questions of technique and craft quite quickly. Though he admits that he is self-taught, today, when he looks at his first three novels, he can see that they lack an understanding of technique.

He says the explosion in the number of creative writing courses now available in universities and online is part of the changing publishing world that deprives even established writers of the chance to earn a decent living from writing alone.

So while it’s true that many writers have become teachers out of financial necessity, it’s unfair to think they’re not passing on hard-earned experience and invaluable tips on honing technique.

In Hensher’s classes he encourages his students to observe people, to watch their body language, how they build gesture into conversation. He says this exercise quickly teaches students that their vocabulary of gestures – ‘he shrugged, she grinned, he frowned, she shook her head, he rolled his eyes, she sighed – is totally inadequate.’

He also reviews works of classic and contemporary fiction and impresses on students how fundamental it is to be avid readers, and up to date with the current trends on the publishing world. This is critically important when students begin the process of trying to find a publisher, as they have to know where their own work fits in the market.

Winterson, who is professor of creative writing at the University of Manchester, takes the practice of reading one step further by encouraging her students to read texts that they don’t know or don’t like.

She says, ‘My classes use texts I am pretty sure [students] won’t know because I want them to see how wide is the world of books and thought and imagination. I am trying to reposition them in relation to, in response to, language.’ However, she advises that no one should take classes with a writer who hasn’t published a significant body of work.

Rachel Cusk is professor of writing at Kingston University and she aims to stop her students thinking in terms of persona. She gets her students to focus on the world of objects and encourages them to add an unusual object to their stories. She says, ‘the more alien [the object] is to their subjective processes the better.’

Joyce Carol Oates defends the integrity of writers on writing courses by saying, ‘students in graduate writing programmes are already seriously committed writers by the time they enrol for a workshop; prospective students must apply, and only a small number are selected.’ She describes her classes as ‘intensely focused editing sessions.’

Blake Morrison who teaches on the MA at Goldsmith’s University says that his classes focus on building techniques such as point of view and narrative pace. He says that ‘workshop exercises have the same end in sight – to help aspirant writers find the right form for the story they want to tell.’ And he believes that even students who don’t find acclaim as writers learn a valuable lesson: how to put ‘writing at the centre of their lives.’

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