This weekend I received an invitation to the graduation ceremony for my writing course. I don’t really like such ceremonies and I’m not sure I’ll attend. But it got me thinking about the question – can you really teach people to write?
Twenty five years ago, when I was an aspirational, rather than active, writer, I’d have probably said “No”. After all, there were never creative writing courses around in Shakespeare’s day. The great novelists of the 19th Century didn’t need lessons in their craft. Nor did Eliot, Auden or Larkin. Besides, back then there were few such courses around. The only one I really remember hearing about was the East Anglia MA, because its alumni included Ian McEwan and Rose Tremain, but it never crossed my mind to apply myself.
I think it would be true to say at that time, I believed that writers were born, not made and that if I plugged at it long enough, I’d get good enough. I think I still believe that to a certain extent. But as the years passed, and I kept putting off my writing career, I noticed creative writing courses beginning to flourish. And then one, by one, everyone I knew who was a writer signed up for a course of some sort or another. They all found them helpful, and although I was a bit dubious, I began to consider doing one myself. When I finally got a place on a course, it wasn’t my first choice, but I decided that it was worth going for anyway. I couldn’t get a grant, and we don’t have much money, so in the end, I bit the bullet and took out a Career Development Loan.
So , was it worth it? I think on balance it was. There were certain aspects of my particular course that drove me absolutely crazy. It felt over academic to me – the constant grind of assignments wearing me down, and the Reading for Writers module being particularly obtuse. I’m fairly sure the marking system was fixed so that only a certain number could reach the higher grades – frustrating at the best of times, but the standard in our group was very high, and it felt like sometimes tutors were forced to give spurious reasons for their marking. There was an over-emphasis on the copy-editing function of critique, which often meant that artistic aims didn’t get a look in. All of this often made me despair and wonder what on earth I was achieving. Particularly, when I thought of the costs – balancing with my family life, heavy work commitments and paying back the loan we could barely afford.
But the course did bring me a number of benefits. From the best tutors, I learnt a range of techniques in drama, fiction and poetry that I can use interchangeably between different types of writing. I discovered, to my surprise, that dialogue (which I thought I wasn’t very good at) comes more naturally to me than description (which I know is important but stops me from getting on with the story). I learnt that I have a strong sense of narrative and a natural desire to work on a big canvas, fitting in with my aim to be novelist, but making the precision of poetry really difficult for me. I learnt that, even so, if I have a lot of time, I can occasionally produce a poem that’s worth something (even though I don’t intend to write poetry ever again). I learnt that I have a better sense for drama than I thought, and that screenplay excites me. Most importantly, I realised that I’m the kind of writer who has to get something out first, however bad, and then I can work on it. That means it takes me several drafts, and a very long time before I get something right, which explains why so often my early attempts miss the mark (see this week’s Friday Flash) and why it’s taken me the best part of 6 years to get 2/3 of the way through a novel that will take a further year at least to complete.
The course also brought me into contact with some wonderful writers – Catherine Chanter, Rachel Crowther, Wendy Osgerby, Dan Stott, Roger Bannister, Janine Oliver, Adipat Virdi, Jing Lee, Gaby Crewe-Read, Jools Poore, Mary-Lucille Hindmarch , Joseph Nwokobia -all of whom have it in them to produce something wonderful some day (and some of them, like Catherine already are). They provided me with honest, supportive critique, and challenged me to be the best I can be. The highlight of the two years was the Summer School at the end of the first year, where we workshopped, wrote, talked in equal measure. And I realised the best way to BE a writer, is to be WITH writers – to share work and learn from each other.
So – do I think writing can be taught? No, not really. You’ve got it or you haven’t. But, can a writer attending a course be nurtured, prodded, challenged, pushed todeliver their best work? Absolutely. And the crunch question? Am I better writer for having done a course? Undoubtedly.