It is a debate curiously unique to artistic disciplines; while few would argue that mathematics or physics are unteachable, a Google search for the question “can writing be taught?” retrieves 130 million results. Substitute the word “painting” or “acting” and it finds, respectively, 23.5 and 51.7 million pages. There are many who believe that creative writing can (and should) be taught, but just as many who believe that formal pedagogy is at best irrelevant and at worst actively harmful. The question is really two-fold, however; can writing be taught, and can creativity be taught?
In a quote from this article on the University of East Anglia, which was the first school to offer a creative writing degree in the UK, Sir Malcolm Bradbury questions whether ”writers of small talent can be transformed, by the touch of a hand or the aid of a handbook, into significant authors.” Keep in mind that Bradbury is the man who founded the program, and even he isn’t convinced that it can teach what it sets out to.
“Significant” alumni of UEA include Kazuo Ishiguro, author of Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, and Ian McEwan, author of Atonement. (From that limited sample, apparently UEA is the place to be if you want your book to eventually be a film starring Kiera Knightly.) And me, of course, although I only studied there my senior year and didn’t take any writing classes because I was too busy drinking at the uni bar. What’s really amazing, though, is that the oldest creative writing degree program in the UK is only forty years old. What did aspiring British writers do before 1971? Read and write on their own?
In America, the first writer’s workshops began cropping up in the 20s and 30s. The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop established the idea that creative writing was a teachable discipline. Here’s an interesting read from The New Yorker about the rise of the creative writing program in American and its impact on post-war literature. The author, Louis Menand, is both skeptical of the ability of these programs to produce great writers and grateful for his undergraduate poetry workshop experience, even though he never published a single poem. He also claims that the programs themselves are skeptical of their ability to produce great writers. He cites the Iowa Writers’ Workshop’s bashful statement, “[t]he fact that the Workshop can claim as alumni nationally and internationally prominent poets, novelists, and short story writers is, we believe, more the result of what they brought here than of what they gained from us,” from the program’s own website.
In researching this post, I read another article about UEA’s program from The Guardian, in which well-known writers offer their opinion on the teachability of writing. They seem evenly split on the issue. Unsurprisingly, those who have graduated from or teach at university programs are in favor of them. Will Self argues against formal courses: “I say, go and get a job, a fairly menial one instead. Otherwise what are you going to write about?” This idea, that you need to go out and live your life–preferably with some interesting hardships–in order to be a proper writer, seems to be prevalent among those who disdain creative writing degree programs. Andrew Motion, who is a teacher at the University of London, counters that “[t]here was this idea that creative writing was something that had to take place in a garret. But aspiring dancers go to the Royal Ballet School, and actors to Rada – why should writing be any different?”
I can see where Self is coming from and even agree with him to an extent, but there is an element of reverse snobbery in his statement. His recommendation to get a menial job seems to imply that honest hard work is a better teacher–and motivator–than formal education. If one interprets the old chestnut “write what you know” literally, then writers should go on safari, fall in love, sail around the world on a tramp steamer, punch someone in the face at least once, and possibly sleep with a foreign spy. If one interprets the age-old advice to include emotional experience–after all, Emily Dickinson wrote poems of great depth from the comfort and safety of her Amherst attic–it would still be true that writers with small lives must, perforce, write small books.
I’ve had bad things happen to me. I’ve been through dark times and I continue to wrestle with clinical depression. I’ve worked menial jobs, too. At the end of those days, when I was tired and sore and sad, and I was hungry but I couldn’t afford anything other than pasta for the third night running, all I could manage was to fall in front of the TV or directly into bed. Menial work doesn’t promote creativity. At best, it motivates you to do something–anything–to get out of the rut in which you find yourself, but, like clinical depression, it leaves little energy to take the very action that would improve your situation. Menial work leaves you emotionally drained and uninspired. It quite literally sucks.
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Here is Stephen King, who is unarguably one of the most successful writers in history, giving an interview in 2006 about the teachability of creative writing:
Even though he begins the video by saying that writing can’t be taught, he immediately turns and says that it must be taught because writers need jobs and would-be writers need space to develop. ”…[P]utative writers need two things: okay, they need positive reinforcement and they need to be collegial, for a while, with others of their type.” The reason, he says, that creative types need to be collegial is to get laid. He also argues that writers who are ensconced in academia tend to produce work that is “pale,” “mannered,” and “self-conscious and defensive about what its up to.”
In addition to experience–maybe including a little adventure and hardship–writers need time and support. Unpublished writers, in particular, may lack those things. A full-time, residential, and fully funded MFA program allows writers the gift of two or three years to focus on writing, reading, and teaching. Doctoral programs, most of which are really PhDs in English with creative dissertations, allow an additional five years of research, pedagogy, and workshopping. These programs also offer a community of other writers and validation in the form of good grades, positive workshop comments, and professorial approval.
King is also right, however, that too much academic is bad. Writers need to escape their ivory towers at some point. The danger of over-intellectualizing is actually the thing that concerns me the most about pursuing an MFA. There are few crossover successes between the worlds of literary fiction and popular fiction, and I don’t just want to write–I’d actually like to making a living from it, too.
In the introduction to his 2000 memoir/guide On Writing, King wrote that although he had been kicking around the idea of the book for a while, he didn’t want to come off as a “literary gasbag or asshole transcendentalist,” which I think sums up his opinion of formal creative writing pedagogy. A conversation with Amy Tan changed his mind. He recalls that the question Tan, as a popular novelist, is never asked about the language and craft of her work. “They ask the DeLillos and the Updikes and Styrons,” he writes, “but they don’t ask popular novelists. Yet many of us proles care about the language, in our humble way, and care passionately about the art and craft of telling stories on paper.” There are degree programs now for popular writing, such as the MFA at Seton Hill or the MA in Professional Writing from USC. I’m pleased that popular and genre fiction is receiving more academic recognition (Vermont College of Fine Arts even has an MFA in writing for children and young adults), but I also worry that having separate programs reinforces the stereotype that writing can have either literary merit or popular appeal, but not both.
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I began studying creative writing as a high school junior at the South Carolina Governor’s School the Arts. We took intense, college-level classes in fiction, poetry, playwriting, and creative non-fiction, as well as a short unit on editing that has proven to be the most useful class I’ve ever taken. After high school, I continued studying at Sarah Lawrence College, where I eventually got burned out on workshops and ran away to England (see above). Now, after ten years, I’m seriously considering an MFA. And after that, maybe a doctorate. My reasons are fairly straightforward:
1. There are no jobs for librarians. Also, I am not a very good librarian. I’ve always considered myself a writer who was just working in a library to pay the bills, and that attitude does neither me nor my patrons any good. The MFA programs I’m looking at are not only fully funded (meaning no additional student loans), but many of them also offer teaching assistantships with tidy little stipends and health insurance. As someone who has been living below the poverty level for most of the last year, that sounds like heaven.
2. I want to write and teach. I love teaching. It’s rewarding and invigorating to me, even when I was teaching remedial English to students who might have shanked me in the parking lot over a bad grade. In order to get a gig teaching creative writing at a college, I need to publish and have an advanced degree. While browsing the job postings on highered.com, I found that many of the schools wanted a PhD as well as an MFA. While getting the degree, I hope to write publishable stories and at least one novel. I’m also looking for a program that teaches, or at least acknowledges, the practical side of publishing.
3. I’m sick of South Carolina. Objectively, Greenville, SC is a great place to live. It has one of the best downtown districts in the country, a lively arts scene, and easy access to the mountains. However, I’ve lived here off and on since I was in middle school, and the town has a lot of baggage for me. Also, being a godless, liberal heathen in a socially conservative place like South Carolina is no fun. I want to move north and/or west.
4. I want to study writing novels. All the fiction workshops I’ve taken have focused on the short story. When I first started writing Grey Magic, I discovered that novels are not, in fact, just really long short stories. There are things about pacing and balancing a plot that I hope to learn.
*FYI: Admissions boards, if you’re reading this, I think I’d make an excellent addition to your program. Ignore the bit about being drunk for my entire senior year.*
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I believe that writing can be taught. There are skills and tools, including how to take criticism, that can be learned in the classroom. And although writing is a solitary act, I find that I am more inspired when I’m in a community of other enthusiasts. However, to return to Bradbury’s quote, I don’t believe that talent can be taught. It can be shaped, honed, and channeled, but it cannot be learned. Call it talent, creativity, or genius–that ineffable spark that is both innate and divine–but it doesn’t come from a workshop or textbook. Study, however, can make make it easier to translate talent through one’s medium of choice.
I’m reminded again of Malcolm Gladwell’s rule that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something. There’s a similar saying that you need to write a million words of crap before you get to the good stuff. Here’s Neil Gaiman’s take on it from a 2002 blog post:
Chuck Jones told would be artists to draw, explaining that “you’ve got a million bad drawings inside you and the sooner you get them out, the better”. Raymond Chandler is reputed to have told would be authors that they have a million words of crap to get out of their system. And in both cases there’s a lot of truth there — if only because it allows you to keep going despite your technical limitations and inability to get the words or the pen to do what you want, and eventually find yourself, well, competent. And some of the words and pictures you turn out on the way can be pretty good too.
Despite periodic bouts of sniveling uncertainty and a knee-jerk instinct to avoid sounding full of myself, I think I’m a good writer. Years of classes have given me confidence in my technical ability, and response from readers has made me feel proud of the things I’ve written. I’ve been in workshops with people I thought were really bad writers. Just terrible. Couldn’t string an anecdote together, let alone a compelling plot. Totally pedestrian worldview. And yet many of them studied hard and wrote hard and kept their eyes on the horizon. They collected rejection slips, but they remained undaunted. At the time, I didn’t know whether to feel sorry for them or hold them in awe. Of course, while I was busy pitying and/or sneering, they were honing their skills and toughening their hides. They may not have had much raw talent, but they had discipline and perseverance, and I was wrong to have felt superior. My mistake was in thinking of talent as a zero-sum game. The goal is not to be the best writer in the workshop; the goal is to be better than yourself.
MFA and PhD programs give writers the room they need to work as well as a community of like-minded individuals in which to thrive. That room away from the grind of a menial job–a room of one’s own, as Virginia Woolf might say–will accelerate the time it takes to write a million words. The requisite 10,000 hours, when sneaked into lunch breaks and early Saturdays and thirty minutes after the kids have gone to bed, would take decades to complete. Graduate programs give you two or three or five years of non-stop, living and breathing nothing but writing. While creativity can’t be taught, it can be fostered. A creative writing course can’t teach someone how to be a good writer, but it can give them the time to be a better one.