Friday, January 20, 2012

Born or Taught?

What do you think of creative writing? Or at least the teaching of it? Can people be taught the craft of creating convincing character, constructing plot, writing vividly and passionately? Many think so. After all, despite the troubles the publishing industry faces, creative writing courses, in the UK at least, are oversubscribed. Or perhaps it's because of those troubles; after all, it has never been easier to make a book available to the public. Yesterday I downloaded the new IBooks Author app. It came with a free damaged liver. I was crestfallen to learn you still had to supply the text. What are Apple playing at?

There has been a bit of a brouhaha about creative writing courses over here in the UK recently. A very important and prestigious writer and critic - or at least that's what he sees when he looks in the mirror - called Philip Hensher attacked the plethora of courses and said that academic institutions "will always prefer the second-rate and self-limited writer to the dangerous maverick." You don't need to be Freud to realise that Hensher sees himself as having a foot, clad in a brightly coloured sock to prove how really crazy he is, firmly placed in the maverick camp.

Giles Foden, another very important and prestigious etc, who is professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, where the first UK graduate creative writing course was founded 40 years ago, hit back in suitably bitchy style. Hensher, he claimed, wanted his job and lost out to him after interview and is therefore bitter. UEA has just produced a collection of work written by its alumni, edited by Foden, and features stories from the likes of Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. The point of it being, 'Look how many great authors we've produced.'

But that's the UEA course, and even then only around 20 of the 300 or so who have taken the course could be counted as household names, according to Hensher. Many more have been published. But that still leaves the majority who never have been. There are hundreds of other creative writing courses now. Most of those who attend will never be published. Does that mean they have failed? Are they eaten up by anguish and regret? Or are they thankful for the experience? Do these courses still offer the talented writer a route to the book shops (or the route to the Amazon online store)?

I'm not sure. I know several writers who teach on some of these courses. Most enjoy it. It gets them out from behind their desk and into a room full of people, whose enthusiasm for and appreciation of literature energises them. There is great satisfaction, I've been told, in helping a student formalise their thoughts, structure their story and produce a convincing piece of fiction. Many of them tell me that they encounter some fabulous writers, who start the course hesitant and self-conscious, but then grow more confident and assured as it progresses. It is for that reason, they say, the courses are worthwhile.

But that also means, and these friends confirm it, there are those who are probably wasting their time. But rarely are they told this. Their presence means funds. In this climate, it's a rare and bold academic institution that will turn down cash.

For what it's worth, I think there's some merit in these courses. But only for those with a bit of life experience. I'm talking about those who have always wanted to write but have worked in other jobs, or raised kids, but are teeming with ideas and just need some guidance to turn those ideas into a sellable work of literature. I'm less convinced in the merit of taking teenagers straight from school and breeding them for a life in literature. They would be much better off getting a 'proper' job, living a bit, better still living alot, writing for their own pleasure, and then producing some work when they or it is ready, and attending a course if they need to.  (But still keep the proper job. It's a bloody snakepit out there.)

And if I needed any proof to back up these thoughts, then I would need to look no further than two of my fellow blogmates, Stan and Michael, whose Edgar nomination for Death of a Mantis - richly deserved - proves the adage that age and experience beats youth and a terrible haircut any day of the week, and that a wine gets better as it matures (and that when it does, Stan and Mike are likely to drink it...)

Well done chaps!


Dan - Friday


  1. Thanks, Dan. It's almost surrealistic. It had never entered our minds that we had a chance or even that we were in the running. Now we have to decide who makes the 22-hour trip to NYC. The other (winner or loser, I'm not sure) gets to be a host at the Knysna Literary Festival in which we are heavily involved, which starts the day after the Edgar Banquet. How I wish Scotty were around to beam us up.

  2. I'm sort of split on this issue. It seems to me that academic writing programs tend to produce academic writers, and that given the number of people who have gone through them, it's just statistically unlikely that some of them won't turn out to be good, either because of or in spite of their experience. But the vast majority of those who go through these programs are never published, and a significant number of them go on to teach in other writing programs -- not, perhaps the best mechanism for turning out adventurous new writers.

    The programs that seem to work best are the ones such as Iowa, where a writer of real distinction (Kurt Vonnegut, Jane Smiley, Barry Unsworth, John Cheever, etc.)comes in for a year and works with a relatively small group of students. "Real" writers, if I can be allowed the distinction, tend to focus on practical matters, while theoretical/academic writers tend to focus on general principles and classifications. It's of much less interest to most young writers to know that they're not living up to postmodernism than it is to learn how--as Raymond Chandler famously said--to get a character's hat off.

    I'm currently reading a biography of Laurence Olivier, and when the rage for Stanislavski struck British theater in the 1930s, Olivier's response was, "It would be better for an actor to go out and get a job on a building site." I'm not sure that's not true of writers, too. Surely, unless we want to write about life in the classroom, we should get some of our schooling outside of it.

  3. Great piece, Dan, and as one who made a living before making a novel I take great personal joy in Stanley and Michael's success following that same road.

    To me, a seminal take on approaching the craft of writing is found in a passage from Stephen King's (add the superlative of your choice) "On Writing":

    "[W]hile it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.

    "I'm afraid this idea is rejected by lots of critics and plenty of writing teachers, as well."

  4. Stan, I hope you can sort it out without mediation. One of the few downsides of co-writing.

    Tim, I agree wholeheartedly. I suspect the best writing courses are the ones with the best teachers. I did a postgrad journalism course. Some of the tutors had been teaching journalism for longer than they had actually been journalists. That's not a problem when we're talking theory but this was a course that was supposed to be shaping us for a career in hackery. Needless to say, it was barely adequate.

    Jeff, On Writing is a truly superb book, and one which should be on every writing syllabus. Sadly it probably isn't, because the sort of people who teach creative writing often look down on a genius like King even though they couldn't write 'f*ck' on a steamed up window.

  5. I also really felt On Writing was a great book - not least for the honest autobiographical context. And there were lots of good tips in there too if one takes them seriously.
    Another really excellent book is: The Lie That Tells a Truth by John Dufresne.
    I don't know what I missed from "formal" education in creative writing, but catch-up is good!