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.