Can Creative Writing Be Taught? (via Life and Art)

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.

Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Catching up on some reading yesterday, I came across an interesting item published in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago about whether you can teach creative writing. Unsurprisingly, it prompted mixed views. But I found it of interest because over the last few years I have found myself wondering about precisely that question in relat … Read More

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.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

5 thoughts on “Can Creative Writing Be Taught? (via Life and Art)

  1. Great post, but I don’t know what to believe. I’ve seen people go through the creative writing process and continue to write just as clueless as they were writing before thousands of dollars were spent. Some people have it, some people don’t. And some people are stuck somewhere in the middle.

    1. Mickey! Glad to see you’re still around.

      You’re right, of course. I’ve said in other posts on education that students have to put in at least as much effort as teachers — that students have to invest themselves in the long, difficult, but rewarding (and, for nerds, fun) process of education, or else they’ll never get anything out of it. What I find fascinating about this question is that it always asks only if creative writing can be taught, and leaves unanswered whether creative writing can be learned. It puts the onus on the teacher, which I think is a mistake. True education isn’t about what the teacher can teach OR what the student can learn, but about the collaboration between student and teacher, writer and mentor. And if one side isn’t bringing anything to the table, it doesn’t much matter whether writing can be taught or not. The learning requires mutual investment.

      So glad to have you back in the comments. I hope all is well with your own writing. Shoot me an email sometime and fill me in. 🙂

  2. My dad reads my blog regularly but, in his words, is “not one for bloggin’.” Which means when he comments, he usually does so via email. That’s fine by me, but the comment he made on this post was so interesting I wanted to share it publicly, so I post it here with his permission:

    “Don’t I get any credit? Just kidding. Depending on definition of creative writing of which I’m open to be enlightened, I’d say even the talented and creative souls need teaching. I admire the ‘creators’, those that spin multi-plot novels out like as if their brain is an assembly line of stories. I admire them even more as I’m not creative in that sense, I create arguments surrounding facts but a story of interest from beginning to end, as much as I read, seem to escape me. However, I do believe I can be taught creative writing if I were inclined to pursue. Even the talented athlete needs coaching, training, discipline, preparation, motivation and inspiration. A talented story teller can benefit from the experiences of others, guidelines, disciplines, parameters. Finding an audience that enjoys a particular style may need same coaching. So, I’m in your corner, as naive as I may be.”

    Thanks, Dad! 🙂

    FYI: I love his analogy of the athlete and coach — I think it’s very apt. And yes, my dad and his dad alike get a lot of credit for my interest in storytelling. The tales they weave…. 🙂

  3. I fully agree with your dad. I am still around, still writing. I try to detach myself from the internet as much as possible while I’m writing to keep distractions at bay. Recently I got a bite from an agent. Two weeks later she passed on my novel. It has me questioning my knowledge of the craft. I get bites, but never any takers. I don’t know if I fully understand the structure of a novel or the elements needed to hold interest or build tension. How are things with you and your agent hunting?

    1. Let me tell you, in today’s market, if you’re getting nibbles — let alone bites — you’re WAY ahead of the game. Questioning everything you do is great (it keeps us honest), but only to the extent that it drives the work, and never when it interferes with the work. Seriously: the fact that you’re sending stuff out puts you high up the list of “Things Successful Writers Do,” and getting anything like a positive response makes you a pro, in my opinion. Keep rocking it! You’re the real deal.

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