I tend to avoid re-posting articles like this one because this topic has sort of been done to death. Or so I thought. But actually, there’s a really interesting conversation developing on this post, and I recommend you check it out.
via Life and Art
What makes me shy away from these sorts of articles and posts is the similarity among them. Usually when people write these sorts of things, they’re academics arguing that writing can be taught, frustrated ex-students arguing that it can’t, or working writers arguing both ways (“I learned my craft, you lazy gits, and so can you” vs. “I’m a uniquely talented little butterfly and don’t even try to do what I can do”).
But this post is different: It’s written by a former lawyer turned working visual artist, and she’s simply musing on her experience in training as an artist and how that might work in a creative writing classroom. Also, it’s worth noting that she’s a Brit who was prompted by an article she read in The Guardian: For those of you who might not know, the idea of a classroom, much less a program, devoted solely to teaching creative writing is — or was — a uniquely American concept, and from what I’ve read, most Brits are puzzled by our notion that creative writing is somehow a separate curriculum from general literary studies. They are coming around, though, and creative writing programs have begun popping up in the UK and other parts of the world; indeed, some of the commenters on the Life and Art blog post are current or former students of UK writing programs.
All of which has led to a fascinating array of comments. Usually, when one of the regular ranters on this subject writes an article, the responses are either wholly supportive or wholly derisive — the writer is either preaching to the choir or wasting her breath. But in this case, the blogger has managed to accomodate posts from the whole array of possible readers, including her usual readers (ex-lawyers and current artists), and that diversity of opinion is making for a truly invigorating conversation in the comments.
For the record, I’d like to point out that I believe creative writing CAN be taught. I say this primarily for three reasons:
1) as a creative writing teacher with a PhD concentration in creative writing, I’m more or less professionally obligated to argue that it can be taught. Otherwise, I’ve wasted several years and tens of thousands of dollars and would never be able to find a job to recoup those dollars. So of course I have to say it’s possible.
2) Because I came through a PhD program specifically focused on creative writing, I know it can be learned; and because I’ve taught it, I know it can be taught. That doesn’t mean all students can be taught nor that all teachers can inspire learning; neither does it mean that I learned everything I know in the classroom, nor that I have managed to reach every student. I’m just saying it’s possible. And,
3) The most logical reason is that the combination of ideas that go into creative writing curriculum, namely literary analysis, writing skills, and creative thinking, already are established and accepted in academia. Okay, the terminology of the latter is relatively new, but it’s getting a lot of emphasis these days, and not just in the humanities: the sciences and the corporate world, too, have recognized (or rediscovered) that creative thinking is an invaluable partner to critical thinking. Business people (like Peter Thiel) call it entrepreneurship, the US Marines called it the ability to improvise, Albert Einstein just called it what it was. But people understand how important it is, and they understand that, like critical thinking skills, creative thinking skills can be taught and developed in a classroom. (Well, Peter Thiel doesn’t see this, but that’s his shortcoming.)
What a creative writing classroom does is put these three areas into play together, in varying mixtures, to help writers develop their abilities as writers.
The main argument against teaching creative writing is that you can’t teach talent, and in principle, I generally agree. But that assumes two things: 1) that only a rare few have talent, and 2) that talent is the only necessary ingredient in the process of creative writing. Obviously, I disagree with the latter, but I also disagree with the former. Do I think that every person possesses equal talent, not in degree but in kind? No, of course not. If every successful writer enjoyed the same kind of talent as every other writer, Dan Brown would be as respected at Tom Franklin, and Tom Franklin would sell as many books as Dan Brown. If only it were so. But it does mean that everybody has the capacity for creativity in some form, and the right classroom environment can teach a student how to develop that.
The other main complaint against the idea that creative writing can be taught is that all teaching is built on rules and regulations, and “true” creativity cannot be confined by any rules. I’d like to say this is hogwash, because it is, except here in the States (and, I learned from the comments in the original blog post, in other countries as well), political and corporate pressure is indeed forcing more and more restrictions, regulations, and standardization onto education, which can render it pretty suffocating if you’re unwilling or unable to find a way around that.
I also can’t dismiss this notion because I used to be one of those defiant, independent-minded writers who said to hell with the rules and wanted to do things my way. I didn’t get very far. No one does. That’s because you have to know the rules before you bend or break them. I know it’s cliche, but it’s also true. Ask a chef. If you’ve never cooked anything before in your life, you’ll be awfully lucky to make an edible dish without some kind of recipe. But once you’ve practiced cooking for a long time, you understand how flavors work together and what amounts are appropriate for which types of foods, and you can throw out your recipes and start experimenting. Can you get to that same skill level through simple trial and error, without ever looking at a recipe of any kind, ever? Maybe. But it’d take you a LOT longer and I doubt anyone would enjoy the food you make in the process.
But don’t take my word for it. That’s what’s so great about this conversation over at Life and Art: the spectrum of voices there has made me rethink some things, not necessarily what I believe but how I present it to others, and to be perfectly honest, a lot of commenters there with whom I’d ordinarily disagree have made some really interesting points. The blog post itself is excellent — a terrific moment of honesty and curiosity — but do yourself a favor and read the comments as well. And maybe leave one of your own.