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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Can Creative Writing be Taught?

Yesterday, an article in the Guardian raised an important question: can creative writing be taught?  The article listed opinions from various authors, many of whom believe that creative writing degrees are moot because the writing process can't be taught.  Others believe that writing can be taught, but only by writers who have already been published because they know how to write something of publication quality.  As a writer and teacher, I'm not sure I agree with most of the authors interviewed in that article.  Here are some of my thoughts on the matter:

The best way for a writer to learn the craft is to read.  I think a lot of people underestimate the power of reading.  As a creative writing teacher, I incorporate readings from literature into all of my lectures.  My students read something--either a short story or a poem or an essay--for every class.  I believe that writers who don't read are doing themselves and their work a disservice.

Not all great writers make great teachers.  Some of my best writing teachers have not been big-name authors.  In fact, one of my best teachers had not published her first novel until after I had taken two or three classes with her, yet she taught me more about writing than many other more prominent novelists.

While the Master's degree can be great for some writers, you can get a lot of the same benefits on your own.  I'm a firm believer in do-it-yourself, otherwise I wouldn't have devised the DIY MFA.  There's no reason why writers can't get many of the benefits of a Master's degree, even without enrolling in school.  You can do the literature study on your own by reading with a writer's eye, and a great deal of craft can be learned through practice.  Connecting with other writers in conferences, critique groups or online can be a great way to gain perspective on your writing.  Most importantly, just write!

What do you think?  Can creative writing be taught?

9 comments:

E.J. Wesley said...

Love the topic! I absolutely think the mechanics can be taught, but the imagination and creativity required cannot be. Can you learn techniques to unleash the things that bounce around in your mind? Sure! But the stuff that's there can't be forced into existence in either amount or quality.

That's why ideas are the real gold in writing. I believe anyone can learn to craft great dialogue, ace paragraphs, well-rounded themes, and zipping plots. However, only one mind was ever going to conceive a story about a boy wizard who lived, for example.

I know there are tons of exercises out there to help with the creativity aspect, but I'm pretty certain they are simply mining what's already in your mind. I guess some people are just naturally crazier than others ... :-)

EJ

Jenn said...

I think classes can help you perfect the craft, but if you don't have that talent to begin with, there's only so much you can be taught. Same would go for any performance related classes such as art and music. But if you do have that talent, then the exercises you learn are invaluable. :)

Shallee said...

This is a great topic! I think that craft is definitely something that can be both taught and learned. One of the best ways I've learned is by practicing. Another big help is my critique group. There are a million ways to learn.

Gabriela Pereira said...

Great comments! As a writing teacher, I firmly believe that creative writing can be taught (otherwise I'll be out of a job :) While a certain amount of innate talent does help, I don't think that not having it is a deal-breaker. I think any writer can be taught the craft and can improve their writing. Those who have boatloads of talent are just a little more ahead of the game.

The only thing really that can't be taught is attitude. Writers who want to improve and are hungry to learn will learn. To learn how to write, they need to have an open attitude and be willing to learn. In my opinion, the only writers who can't be taught are the ones who think they're already great.

Cacy said...

Writing is something can be learned on one's own, but having a dialogue about writing with other writers - whether teachers, critique groups, or even reading and interpreting books on writing, can help you learn things more quickly.

One's own style maybe isn't something that can be taught. I know it can be encouraged and cultivated, but as a writing teacher, do you think style can be taught. That's something that I'd think comes through a writer actually reading and being influenced by other authors, and writing and making discoveries.

Joel Le Blanc said...

Thanks for this post. I felt inspired enough by it to make a reply on my own blog - http://therabbithill.blogspot.com/.

ash said...

I think it's interesting, though, that the Guardian's first sentence is missing a word...

"It has [been] featured on US higher education programmes for more than a century..."

And I agree with my fellow commenters. You can't teach style, but I feel like guidance from other writers is very helpful. I get a bit of tunnel vision when I'm writing, and to have outside critique and suggestion seriously helps.

Drizel said...

I agree that you can learn how, but the what is imagination. I always say you can have all the paint in the world that does not make you an artist. This is true for writing too! You can also have a published book but not be able to teach people, and the thing is not everyone is good at everything. Really awesome post thanks for that!

Gabriela Pereira said...

I definitely agree that style can't be taught (though it can be influenced... I know my style often changes in subtle ways depending on what I'm reading or what's going on in my life).

I definitely think that there is some innate element (imagination, perhaps) but I think all people have that. We all have stories to tell, it's just that some of us hesitate to tell our stories. Whether it's because we feel they're not good enough, or not worth telling, some people never share their stories.

Writing teachers can't write people's stories for them, but they can give them the tools so they can write those stories for themselves.

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