Always one with his finger on the pulse, I’ve been feeling for some time that I would like to say something about creative writing courses and their worth. In an up-to-the-moment riposte, I’ve been thinking about Hanif Kureishi’s comments just over four years ago that “most [courses] are going to teach you stuff that is a waste of time”. And this from someone who teaches the subject at Kingston University.
In an article in The Guardian, Kureishi was quoted at length from remarks he made at the Independent Bath Literature festival, saying amongst other things that; “it’s probably 99.9 per cent [of my students] who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent“, and “a lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can,” and “people go on writing courses for a weekend and you think, ‘A weekend?‘”
That’s all pretty damning from an author as well-regarded as Kureshi, and he’s not the only one who shares these views. I teach once a year or so with organisations like Arvon and Ty Newydd, I was Author-in-Residence at Bath Spa University for three years, and when I talk to people about this work, it’s a very common reply that “you can’t teach people to write, can you?”
Let’s leave that question to one side for the moment – because there’s something important that Kureishi and the others are missing right from the start, and that’s this: being able to write is not the only thing you need to be a writer. My step-son, not a professional writer, and only 17 at the time, realised this when he told my wife and me that there’s a lot of other qualities you need to have in order to be a successful writer. He’d spotted that just being able to ‘write sentences’ is not enough. You need to be able to manage the process in some way, either more or less chaotically, you need to be able to tap into and mine your obsessions (which is way more important than the ‘discipline’ that people suppose you need to be a writer), you need to be able to find an overview of what you’re trying to achieve, though again this can be more or less unconscious.
In fact, Kureishi is aware of this when he talks about the importance of knowing how to tell a story, not just compose sentences, but telling a good story is another thing you can get better at.
In fact, these are all things you can help people with. How does one learn anything, but by spending time with it, by living it, by doing it, over and again? Many of the subsidiary skills around writing are things you can develop. They are things you can focus on, ponder over, get wrong and then get better, and someone who has trod this path before you ought to be able to help you. If they’re a good teacher. If they can show you what is working and why, and what is not working, and why, then they are a good teacher, and the best teachers are those who know that they are still learning too. That they are as interested in exposing themselves to new thoughts and ideas as they are in exposing you to such things.
Writing is a life-long journey of learning, and any writer who doesn’t appreciate this, who doesn’t always see that there is something more to learn, is probably not a very good writer. A few years ago I was standing in a friend’s bookshop when Alan Bennett (a local) came in and bought a book called something like How to Finish a Novel. He put it on the counter and said ‘never too late to learn something.’ There speaks a great writer.
What about the thought that it can take years to begin to learn how to write? That ‘a weekend’ is a total waste of time? Well, I have given one-hour writing classes and still seen people find something of value; one single, but important thing that surfaced, an insight that was not there before they sat down. And during week-long retreats at Arvon and Ty Newydd I have time and again seen people make breakthroughs; sometimes small, sometimes very large indeed. How can this happen in a week? For one thing, it’s about space. Travelling in space, as Thomas Mann pointed out, is as effective as traveling in time, and works powers to remove us from our ordinary lives far faster than time can. By going away to a new space, with strangers, one is immediately connected to one’s inner self more strongly, which is a big moment in the creation of any art work. The mere act of being somewhere outside of one’s normal life can be enough to open the well springs of inspiration.
For another thing, consider the word inspiration. In French, it means to breathe in, and that’s truly what inspiration is – a breathing in of something before you have something to breathe out. And again, by immersing yourself in your unconscious, in the space and time afforded by the writing retreat, this inspiration can suddenly strike. I’ve seen it time and again. It happened to me, one week when I was teaching at Arvon, and when, feeling a fraud and feeling guilty for teaching writing when I was two years into a period of block, the breathing in suddenly occurred, and a year later I’d written The Ghosts of Heaven.
For a third thing, it’s about validation. It’s about telling yourself that you are serious enough about what you are doing that you will spend your valuable time and money focussing on what you really want to do – write. This validation can be vital for some people, and again, I’ve seen it occur during the course of a single week, when someone who has had a worried expression for the first couple of days suddenly appears with a relaxed face and a blossoming pen and can see for the first time that they have the right to write.
But what about that original thought – that you can’t teach writing – the basics – the actual making a good sentence. This is certainly where natural talent comes in. Some people are basically more musical than others, some more athletic, some naturally better writers. But no one suggests that music lessons don’t help people play an instrument, or that a personal trainer can’t help get you fit. Is writing any different? Certainly not everyone is going to become Mozart, or Usain Bolt, just because they practice, and the same is true with writing. But it depends what your goals and dreams are, and I believe a good teacher can move everyone one, or several, steps forward along the lifelong journey of being a writer, and that could be enough to move from being unpublished to published. I know this because I did it myself – I never went on a creative writing course, but not because I don’t believe in them. I never went on one because I would have been too scared to expose my work – so instead I taught myself to write, by writing four books that remain unpublished. The first was terrible. The last was approaching something. And the fifth book I wrote got published, won an award, was published in over ten languages, and led to a career in writing that is now 20 years long.
You can learn to write and a good teacher can help you along the journey. And that is the point of creative writing courses.