Can anyone write?
It’s an odd thing. When I mention at a party, or some other gathering, that I occasionally teach creative writing courses, people quite often put a sceptical smile on their faces and ask me whether creative writing can really be taught. Now, I’ve never heard anyone ask whether science can be taught, or dancing, or yoga, or French.
Of course creative writing can be taught. What can’t be guaranteed is that someone enrolling in a creative writing course will become a successful novelist, poet or playwright. Just as taking science or French at school, or even at university, doesn’t mean you are going to become a nuclear physicist or a translator at the UN. As far as I know nobody in my weekly yoga class is aspiring to becoming a Hatha guru. And even though Anne Widdecombe was (eventually) able to master a few dance moves in Strictly, nobody seemed to expect her (or indeed any of the other contestants) to be the next Flavia Cacace.
So what is it that makes people treat creative writing differently? There seem to be two somewhat contradictory attitudes. First is the commonly held belief that almost anyone could write if they only put their mind to it. Several writers I know have complained of people who say things like ‘I’d write a novel if I had the time.’ The second is that the ability to write is somehow innate and no amount of classes or lectures is going to make any difference.
There may be an element of truth in both these positions. It’s a difficult one to prove either way. But I feel that if someone is drawn towards creativity, (just as some people prefer Maths to English,) that interest/talent should be nurtured. It would be a poor art teacher who, finding a child able to represent a 3D figure instead of a stick picture, just said, ‘oh there you go, you obviously know how to do it,’ and then leave them to their own devices. That cavalier approach might work for the child prodigy, but most of us would expect any self respecting teacher to give some advice on form, style, appropriate media etc.
As far as I can see it is pretty much the same with creative writing. Yes, some people may have more natural ability than others, but that doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from some understanding of how to handle story structure, characterisation, tension, imagery etc. Some writers, especially the ones who are also prolific and analytical readers, may glean these skills from other people’s books. But for others a creative writing course, or a good ‘how to’ book would at the very least save some potentially time wasting trial and error, and perhaps some disappointment too. Not everyone is going to win an Oscar for best screenplay, but in my view a few handy building blocks and a bit of helpful advice never goes amiss in any venture.
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I completely agree that it’s both. A bit of innate talent fostered by a love of storytelling, as well as the technical knowledge of craft that must be learned and continually honed. Practice is a vital part of artistry.
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I guess anyone could write,but to write like you Ms Carey they have to have many different skills, real desire,the ability to stand back and truly understand how hard it is to write something that stands the test of time.and these are only a couple of what it takes to be a good writer.
When I read my greatest satisfaction is when finished putting a book back on the shelf because I know I will read it again sometime, so keep writing, keep giving me insight, teaching, and such pleasure,
At nearly 85y’rs who knows I still might have enough time and courage to try and put pen to paper because of you.
Thank you for the lovely comments! You are kind. Yes you should put pen to paper – I, for one, would be fascinated to read your story! H xxxx
I’ve heard this question asked many times – and this is the best answer ever! It covers all the bases, and really resonates with my own experience (I think I always had a certain amount of talent, but it has taken learning about form/structure/pacing – and lots of practice – to develop it.
I have a growing stack of how to’s on my shelf and saved on my wish list on Amazon and Writer’s Digest. I even carry around some in my bag every day to review during my lunch-writing break. When it comes to creative writing, as well as other subjects, you’re always learning. Once you start thinking there’s nothing to learn because it looks so simple and easy, you’re in trouble.
I teach creative writing to adults four classes a week. Enthusiasm sometimes outweighs skill – but over time I’ve noticed that there is always one genre that each person can excel in. It’s up to us (those who teach and hold workshops ) to find that one spark – however limited. And I’m sure you do that, Helen. Mind you, I do get fed up when, on one social occasion or another, I’m asked what I do besides ‘writing novels’ Er …WTF – I say I teach creative writing and the other person nods wisely and says,’I’ve always wanted to learn calligraphy!!
I believe you can’t teach the passion for words , or the creativity of a mind. But to produce a novel, you need the tools and instructions if use… that you can teach.
I agree that someone with talent can polish that talent up, learn how to plot a novel, get improving feedback, etc, with a creative writing class, and so, yes, they can be useful. One of my favourite (well known) authors, John Boyne, did a creative writing degree; I asked him why, if he could already write, and he said he wanted to learn the art of novel writing. Well, it worked for him!
Generally, I am more in the ‘it can’t be taught’ camp. I think that being able to write compellingly is as much a talent as being able to sing, or paint, or write music – ie, not many people have it. Yes, you can learn how to sharpen up your prose and describe smells and tastes, you can do exercises on how to build suspense and how to structure a short story, in the same way as you can learn the technique necessary for painting watercolours or playing the guitar. If you work hard you may produce something quite good, but unless you have a real flair for it, ‘quite good’ is all it will be. Having said that, there is nothing wrong with ‘quite good’, and I imagine many people attend such classes simply because they enjoy them.
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Good to see the mighty Ms Carey back at her desk and sharing her knowledge and skills – for readers and writers alike.
Another thought-provoking post.
I still have a stack of ‘How to’ books on my shelf and I often browse through them. Just the other day I needed fresh ideas on how to begin a new story, and found a specific and well-thumbed page. I think I can say that I began my writing career with a flare and enthusiasm. As a prolific reader from childhood, I had an innate instinct for story form. However, in my case, the art had to be learned. Through classes, workshops and self-teaching and many, many pages of writing. I wonder if some people confuse talent with performance? A surgeon is only any use after she/he has done years of clinical experience. Being talented is a good start, but scarily inadequate without practice.
Not that anyone’s necessarily going to stand there and give you enough space at a party to explain, but, I think, once you get into the key aspects of good writing, as you say “understanding story structure, characterization, tension, etc.” — it seems like that might convince them that there is something to learn and be taught in regards to creative writing. Maybe it’s just like people who watch athletes make super difficult action look easy and think, hey, I could do that!