p u l p i t c a r o l e a n g i e r
Teach Us to Write Well
Ihave just retired from several years of teaching creative writing. It seems a good moment to face that old question: has it all been a waste of time? Is it really possible to teach imaginative writing?
One of the first things we discuss on our course is suspense – don’t give everything away in your first line. I shall ignore this basic rule and reveal my answer straight away. Of course it ’s possible. In fact this is a silly question, and it ’s a mystery how it came to be seen as a serious one. Does anyone ask if it ’s possible to teach music, or maths? Naturally, if someone is tone-deaf, or terrified of numbers, they’ll learn poorly or not at all. As Wittgenstein said, the necessary condition for teaching someone a mathematical operation (eg ‘Add 1’) is that once you’ve shown it to them a few times they can go on. You can’t teach maths to a banana, or music to a stone. There has to be a receptor in them for the lesson to take. Similarly, creative writing students do have to have some native talent. But this doesn’t distinguish the teaching of writing from the teaching of anything else. You couldn’t teach me to sing or do particle physics; but those are my limitations, not the limitations of teaching.
That is all anyone means when they say, ‘Surely you can’t teach anyone to write’: you can’t teach anyone to have talent. It ’s just a truism; and it leaves everything to play for.
What most people don’t realise (including many first-year creative writing students) is how much technique is involved in good writing. No one would expect a child to pick up a violin and play well without years of expensive lessons and hours of practice every day. Similarly with becoming a mathematician, a scientist, a painter: the technical element is clear, and must be acquired from expert teachers, with hard work and dedication. Somehow, writing is different. Music, science, painting – these are all things that most of us never do, and even their exponents do only at certain times and places (concert halls, laboratories, studios). Whereas we all use language constantly – ie talk – and writing (notes, emails, texts) is an ordinary part of most people’s daily lives. We seem to think, therefore, that becoming a writer doesn’t require any special training or expertise, but is just doing what comes naturally.
This is a big mistake. Even talent is mostly technique: as Thomas Edison said, 99 per cent of genius is perspiration. It ’s all very well having a good story, even having intelligence and imagination. If you cannot manage to express them you might as well not bother. You must be able to manage structure (of sentences, paragraphs, books); narrative pace and voice; time (flashbacks, tenses); character (psychology, dialogue); plot (what to reveal and when). When you start to think about it, it ’s astonishing that anyone ever writes a line. (And some students can’t, for a while.)
So how do we do it? How do we teach people to form sentences that are not just correct (punctuation!) but clear and shapely? How do we teach them how to construct scenes, how to create characters? Just as Wittgenstein’s maths teacher does. First we show them – ie they read. Then they go on – ie they write. And then we tear into their writing with passion and precision, and show them where it stumbles and where it soars, and why. And then we make them do it again, and again. Just like a music master with young musicians; just like a ballet master in a dancing class.
Couldn’t you learn to write by yourself, via a lifetime of reading and practice, as people did before the last century? Of course you could; and so can musicians and dancers, up to a point, at least. But it helps to work with other craftsmen, both those more experienced and your peers. You can benefit from the exchange of ideas, the constant requirement not just to write but to rewrite. Perhaps Kafka wouldn’t; but if you think you’re Kafka, it may not be a creative writing course you need.
It’s always been clear that an apprenticeship in the crafts is invaluable. The great Renaissance painters kept fleets of students in their studios; musicians and dancers have always had long and gruelling trainings; and most actors work their way up from drama school to spear-carrier to main roles over many years (if they’re lucky). A creative writing course is the same: a practical apprenticeship under professional masters. As such it is one of the most tried and tested forms of learning offered in our universities – and one of the most in demand. The doubters come from outside, as usual. Anyone who actually tries to write soon realises that a bit of guidance through the dark wood can save much blundering about, and light up paths you didn’t know existed.
Apart from the hard work, and the cold eye of a tutor who isn’t your mother or best friend, the great gift of a creative writing course is meeting other writers. Well, writers have always had writer-friends, and again it might seem something that happens naturally. But it happened most naturally in the past, among the narrow elite who provided our literature for most of our history. Things are different now.
Will all creative writing graduates will be good writers? No. May they tend to a certain sameness? Possibly, since only technique can be taught, and if there’s no extra spark, only technique will show. But if there is a spark, it will be discovered and developed. The existence of creative writing courses means that more good writers will emerge. And more good readers, since a better grasp of writing is also a better grasp of reading. Even, perhaps, more good people. For reading and writing involve imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself; and that, as Ian McEwan says, is the essence of compassion. Working with people to get better at that cannot be a waste of time. r f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 3 | Literary Review 1