Thursday, 7 February 2013

Can Writing Be Taught?

In a recent Guardian article, the writer Rachel Cusk explored the rise of creative writing classes and asked the question, ‘Can writing be taught?’ It is a question that polarises opinion.  For example, there are certain writers: the ‘special ones’ who insist that writing cannot be taught. According to these writers, their talent is god-given and you’ve either got it or you ain’t.  This point of view annoys me to say the least.  The exclusivity of it; the sense of entitlement – ‘this is mine, you can’t have it.
My take on this issue is similar to Rachel Cusk’s and Raymond Carver’s (Great people to share opinions with). I think that encouraging students to think seriously about writing is tremendously helpful.  For anybody who doubts the value of teaching writing, I would urge them to read Raymond Carver’s foreword to John Gardner’s On Becoming A Novelist. ( It is also included as an essay - John Gardner: The Writer As Teacher - in Raymond Carver’s Fires.)  In it, Carver discusses the profound influence that Gardner had on him as a teacher; how he shaped his attitude and values. He also states:
’It was his experience – and it has been mine, in my role as a teacher of creative writing – that certain aspects of writing can be taught and handed over to other, usually younger writers.  This idea shouldn’t come as a surprise to any person seriously interested in education and the creative act.  Most good or even great conductors, composers, microbiologists, ballerinas, mathematicians, visual artists, astronomers, or fighter pilots, learned their business from older and more accomplished practitioners.  Taking classes in creative writing, like taking classes in pottery or medicine, won’t in itself make anyone a great writer, potter or doctor – it may not even make the person anygood at any of these things.  But Gardner was convinced that it wouldn’t hurt your chances either.’

Of course you may say that Raymond Carver was a naturally gifted writer – he probably would have become a writer anyway, had he not had the good fortune to find himself in John Gardner’s writing class. But without Gardner’s influence, Carver’s writing may have been very different.

Carver also makes the point – a point I agree with, ‘That no teacher or any amount of education can make a writer out of someone who is constitutionally incapable of becoming a writer in the first place’.  But for writers with an aptitude, and a willingness to learn and to think seriously about their craft, then writing classes can be hugely beneficial.

I am currently running a series of free writing workshops called What’s Your Story? and have been impressed by the efforts shown by the participants to incorporate the narrative techniques that we discuss each week.  We did a workshop recently on dialogue and writers who had previously shied away from dialogue – got stuck in with fantastic results.  The classes are – I hope – making the writers think critically about their own work and their own methods of writing.  Which can only be a good thing.

Some of the participants from What’s Your Story? will be blogging in the next few weeks about their experiences on the course.  If you’d like to find out more about what goes on in the sessions check out our guest bloggers to find out all the ins and outs…
Paula Currie 

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