Forgiveness, chocolate, and why enough is ... satisfactory
Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt: "Am I single-handedly ruining my career by not talking personally?"

But can you teach Creative Writing?

I get asked this amazingly often, considering that no one ever asks if you can teach the doing of other arts, but, just as I took ages to get on to that other old chestnut, "What is literary fiction?" and my own personal Ancestral Elephant, it's taken me till now to sort out what I think clearly enough to answer the question. My answer, mind you, depends on how long I've got, but it comes from someone who wrote for fifteen years before being taught, (and my thoughts on the pros and cons of writing courses are here) but now teaches, and knows hundreds of writers who have been taught, and hundreds who haven't been taught, and not a few who teach:

1) Yes.

2) Yes, you can teach it, just as you can teach painting or sculpture, or choreography or writing music. Writing's no different.

3) Yes, you can teach within the limits of what that person has in the way of potential, but it's impossible to know what a student's potential is until you have been teaching them for a bit. What I'm really saying here is that all "teaching" should really be called "helping students to learn".

The next question is often about whether it's unethical or unkind to take money off people, 99.9% of whom won't ever be published. I do understand the anger that snake-oil salesmen induce in the rest of us, and scriptwriter Jon Spira has written about this (and draws a fascinating contrast between the scriptwriting-teaching industry he knows, and the atmosphere at the York Festival of Writing). But the fact that some sellers of courses and how-to books are deluded or dishonest doesn't mean the rest of us should refuse to teach something that people want to learn. Here's why:

1) Getting better at something creative is always a good, human thing, whatever the outcome. And helping others to get better is part of that good, human stuff. Many of the good reasons for doing creative things are nothing to do with the objective aesthetic value of the result; they're about making something which in some essential way speaks of that person's self.

2) Besides, as good teachers know, if a thing's worth doing it's worth doing badly. That's partly because it's only by doing something badly (those wonky ducks) that we learn to do it well, and partly because of those other good reasons for doing something creative: just for the value of doing it.

3) I'm not so arrogant as to say that I can tell for sure whether a potential student will get published [insert your criterion of choice for writerly success], and so I'm not going to refuse to help anyone with their writing, just because I don't think they've got much hope. Of course I won't suppress the truth about what I think needs doing, or about how much (or little) hope I think is realistic for them, even if that means they flounce off in a huff and tell dozens of writers conferences not to hire me. And when it comes to talking about the industry, I'm always explicit about how I'm neither an agent nor a publisher. But to quote Vaughan Williams, who was rebuked for being too encouraging to weak students, "I would rather encourage a fool than discourage a genius".

4) Provided the teacher and the promotors of a course are honest about the height and nature of the bars in our art and our industry, and that it's not in the course's gift to get the students over those bars, then caveat emptor: some students just don't want to hear what you keep saying about how far they still have to go, while others are genuinely and honestly detached from extrinsic criteria.

The difficulty for the teacher with 3)  is that if a student's going to learn, they have to feel that all the hard work is worth it, just as professional writers do. So it's not enough to just tell them endlessly how difficult it is and how hopelessly bad they are. And yet it's not enough either to tell them endlessly how terrific their work is - which it may be at the micro level - without ever relating that to the brute fact that it may not be terrific enough, or not terrific in the right ways. Keeping both kinds of feedback in relation with each other is perhaps the hardest and certainly the most emotionally demanding part of my job.

So, what are you teaching when you teach Creative Writing?

1) You're teaching craft: what makes a well-built story or paragraph or poem, a compelling voice or a beautiful or powerful phrase, and then how to build some of the students' own.

2) You're teaching technique: how to control the materials of the craft such as words, grammar, syntax, prosody. Then there are the tools: point-of-view, showing and telling, narrative tense, psychic distance, rhyme and rhythm, structure, and so on. Sometimes you're just supplying names and ways of thinking for things which instinctive writers have been doing all along, so that they can wrestle with them more consciously; sometimes you're dropping a bomb-shell, such as writing a scene from the other point of view, which will re-configure their writerly instincts.

3) You're teaching process: how to recognise materials and ideas when they arrive that might make a story or a poem; how to go looking for them when they don't arrive; what to do with them next; how to develop them, work them, draft them, refine them, revise them.

4) You're teaching how to read great writing and fellow-students' writing, not just to train instincts and conscious craft and technique, but also because it's the only way students can learn to read their own writing as others do.

5) You're making trying to write better manageable, by breaking what it takes down into individual ways of looking at it: by showing that how it comes out isn't just chance, but something you can control and change. No one expects tennis players to learn solely by playing whole matches, or art students to do nothing but 6ft canvases. The teacher's job is to help the student to separate, understand and develop the myriad elements (foot position when serving, say, or drawing hands) and then put them back together.

6) You're giving permission to experiment, and to try things which may not succeed - those wonky ducks again - because no one ever learnt anything by staying within the boundaries of what they can already do well.

7) You're giving permission to fail, by setting small exercises there's not much riding on. And by pointing out the successful things inside a piece which overall doesn't succeed - why the failure was still worth it - and what's been learnt from the experiment.

8) You're giving permission to take writing seriously, which some students aren't able to give themselves. It is worth it, you're saying explicitly or by implication: writing better is a worthy ambition. If you're saying they're entitled to take writing seriously, then you're also saying that they're entitled to grieve when their hopes are dashed by a failure, and entitled to get back on that horse once they've got their courage back.

9) You're providing a mirror by reflecting a student's work back to them, and facilitating the rest of the group's acts of reflection. In expressing how others read something, you're helping the student's imagination to jump the gap between what they read in it, and what the rest of the world reads.

10) You're reflecting the student's writerly self, so they develop their understanding of how they're wired as writers. And you're offering a place to think about different processes which might work better.

11) You're providing a framework of reality, and not just about the extrinsic rewards and demands of the art form, and those of the industry if that's what your students are interested in. You're also providing information about the intrinsic qualities of the student's work: you're teaching them to be bad, if you like. If they really are bad, the challenge for the teacher is to help them through this stage so they don't give up, but reach a place where they genuinely feel they're getting better, and that it's worth it.

For all of these, of course, what you're really doing is helping the student to learn to do these things for themself. (Or you're trying to do: I've never come out of a teaching session without kicking myself for not saying something, or not having handled something better. Every time, I have to forgive myself for those.) And, no, you can't, by sheer force of teaching, make a student into a writer that they're not equipped to learn to be. You can teach technique and process, but how the student puts it all back together on the racetrack or the canvas or the page is no more in your gift than it is for the trainer to give the runner that longed-for gold medal.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't offer to teach them. And it doesn't mean they're foolish and deluded to ask - or even pay - to be taught. If those who can do, then those who can and can teach that doing, are doubly skilled. And yet I was once accused of being arrogant when I said that, as a teacher, I believe almost anyone can be taught to be at least a somewhat better writer than they are, if only by the teacher's reflecting back the writing and pointing out some possible roads the writer could take it down.

Double-skilled, but not miraculously so: teaching and learning, arguably, are two of the most fundamental but most highly evolved social skills of a highly evolved and social species, whether what's being taught and learnt is the art and craft of hunting woolly mammoths, or building Salisbury Cathedral or creating the Olympic Opening Ceremony. If all these things can be taught, it would, rather, be arrogant to say that creative writing can't be.

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