Creative Writing

IMG_1278Can creative writing be taught; moreover can you learn creative writing? It’s a thought that crosses my mind now and again. It usually happens when I am stuck with my own work and feeling creative constipation as I like to call it. I then think over what I have written and contemplate if it could be improved by taking a creative writing course, specifically I think of an MA in creative writing. I then ask myself if the sole act of being accepted onto the course might be a validation of latent talent.

When the moment passes I decide the answer to the above question is no. I don’t believe it would be an automatic validation, but it is a temptation to think that it is and that a chance of being published or at least being publishable would be increased by a creative writing degree. However as I have never applied for one of these courses perhaps I am not really in a position to comment?

My personal suspicion is that you cannot really teach anyone to be ‘creative’ in their writing or anything else, I think that comes more from internal motivation and passion. Perhaps innate talent can be improved if your students are willing to put the time in and are obsessive enough to invest in their ‘required’ 10,000 hours. At the minimum perhaps a course could improve style or technique? But even these concepts are subjective, and in the final analysis I think many of us who write (including myself) do not realise quite how ‘not publishable’ we are – if only because our writing does not fit with the current market – if being published is indeed what novel writing is about.

Perhaps many of us who write are wrong even to think of publication as if this was the only goal worthy of our time. Perhaps reading, writing, finding your voice, relishing the use of language, feeling a story come to life, bringing something new and original to the world free from expectation is enough for anyone?

Hanif Kureishi caused a stir at the Independent Bath Literature festival earlier this month when he said that creative writing courses are a “waste of time.” He considers that “a lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.”

I am still undecided on this, what do you think?

6 thoughts on “Creative Writing

  1. I tend to think talent is more common than people think and that honing that talent can definitely be taught. OK, so a lousy writer will never be a great writer. Most of us won’t ever be truly great writers, But I think a course could turn an average or good writer into a very good, publishable writer. In my experience, those little bursts of inspiration/passion are not what really writes a novel – it’s the day sentence-creating, plotting and editing. It’s a craft. There are rules that can be broken but generally exist for a good reason. Of course there’s a lot there’s subjective but more often than not, when a group of people feed back on a piece of writing, the gist of comments is in agreement as to its strength and weaknesses. 90% of the feedback I hear of my own writing makes me think ‘of course – that is RIGHT’.

    The good news is I don’t think you need a qualified teacher to give that feedback. Most of us are not aiming to impress only the literary but seek a broader readership, and all you need to learn your own strengths and weaknesses is a group of readers – just enough to not put undue weight on the subjective. That said, I do think courses are incredibly helpful for motivation, deadlines, competition, contacts, and yes, that bit of self belief or validation. I’d love to do an MA.


    • I agree that the benefits you list are there, but I also wondered as these courses grow in number if at some point having a formal qualification could become a mark of how serious or rather committed you are as a writer, a form of unofficial benchmark by industry gatekeepers to sort the wheat from the chaff…

      I think that would be a shame as it would take away some of the democratic nature of storytelling. What drew me to writing was that at its most basic level all you need is a pad of paper and a biro, or a basic computer. It would seem a shame if a degree or an MA becomes de rigueur especially when you factor in the cost.


    • I totally agree Jenny. It’s a craft and a lot can be taught. I think Kureshi is probably focused on literary fiction which only few do successfully.
      However, I also agree with Peter. I think an MA is already an unofficial prerequisite for lit fic. However, this will o only lead to homogeneous lit as teaching goes in trends. Risk adverse publishers love that of course.


  2. I’ve never done a creative writing course but I know others who have and have found them invaluable. It sounds like a perfect way to learn the craft, find out about how the industry works and network with all sorts of fascinating and likeminded people.


    • I attended a writing course many years ago, it was just an evening course, nothing as formal as a degree or MA. I did get a great deal out of it, especially what gems people can write given twenty minutes and a subject to write about. It was great fun and I learned a great deal. I am not saying I would ever rule out a formal course but it is a huge commitment in time and money.


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