Thursday 29 July 2010

Creative Writing: Can It Be Taught?

Earlier this summer I attended the annual meeting of the Writers' Union of Canada, and amongst the sessions was a panel on the teaching of creative writing, chaired by Cate Bush (click here) Director of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. She said the teaching of writing has become progressively more popular since the Iowa Writers' Workshop began in 1926, and that the teaching of creative writing is dominated by the workshop method in which students give feedback to each other on pieces they have written. She was skeptical about the value of this method, and said that teaching writing can't really be done except by teaching reading. There's a need to create a culture of readers.

First on the panel was Genni Gunn (Click here) who agreed that writing can't be taught without teaching reading. She is, she said, a firm believer in the idea of craft. Just as one has to put in 10,000 hours to become a good pianist, so you do to become a good writer and, as with playing the piano, craft and technique can be taught. Sometimes, for writers, this process is short circuited by too-early affirmation. Courses can help writers to become better readers and, once you have studied the craft, you can better appreciate what you read. You become better able to articulate things you may have known, but not known explicitly. Teachers and editors should not mince words, but they should also be encouraging.

The second person on the panel was Tim Wynne-Jones (click here) who thought that the format of some creative writing courses, of meeting intensely for 10 days and then going home and writing and communicating, was good. He recommended learning to write through emulation. You should study and emulate a writer you admire. And, even if you can't learn to write, you can learn to re-write. You can produce a novel that has been touched by many hands. When he is teaching, he says, he constantly asks: "What is the motivation of this character?" One can't stress this enough, he said. He was shocked one day to receive a letter from the editor of one of his books in which the editor asked: "What is the motivation of this character?"

The third person on the panel was Ania Szado (click here). She said that people join a Master of Fine Arts program to achieve a publishable piece. She had been working on her second novel but not getting anywhere. She wouldn't have done all the work necessary, reading and writing, if she had not done a Master of Fine Arts program. In visual art, there is respect for folk-art, and a market. There is the equivalent of this in self-published on-line pieces, she said. Perhaps we are developing a respectable folk-art tradition in writing, which may mean that creative writing programs become less important.

Image: MFA Creative Writing Program, University of Guelph  

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formerly a wage slave said...

Interesting, but...

Keith, at the risk of being rude, I have published a novel on line and would be highly insulted if you told me it is "folk art".

I had a rather unpleasant experience with a friend of a friend who was supposed to be an editor at Penguin.
He offered to publish the book if I paid him a bribe.

So, I self-published.

You can read the first chapter on line at

It is not a great work of art, but people find it amusing, and one reader actually found insights in it. But, I assure you that it was supposed to be a comic novel, and it is short, not monumental.

Best wishes,
Mark L., aka formerly a wage slave

no_slappz said...

It appears that all the writing instructors believe there are successful methods for the teaching of creative writing.

But, what else would they say?

Meanwhile, what is the goal of teaching? Clearly people have developed techniques for writing just as athletes have developed their skills.

Yes, it appears the 10,000-hour rule is a fair measure for the time it takes to get near the height of one's game -- any game.

Then there is the goal itself. If the goal of writing school is to turn out people who can produce publishable material, well, no problem.

However, if a student looks at his writing education in terms of an investment on which he expects a decent return, it's probably best if he measures his return in something other than dollars.

Everyone has probably read enough good and bad books to wonder why some get published and why others are brilliant but go unnoticed. Another example of life's unfairness.

And money. I suppose plenty of people at this site think of Raymond Carver as a god. I do. But when he died, it appears he was living pretty lean and possibly had no health insurance. On the other hand, there's Stephen King's bank account. Not bad.

Anyway, if I were to write a novel that sold like The Da Vinci Code, readers, critics and anyone else on the planet would have my approval to define it any way they liked.

Anonymous said...

Folk art? Ahahahahaha.

What a twit. I can just see the furrowed brows: How did Joyce achieve such sophistication without benefit of so much as a summer writing workshop?

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you Mark, and Anonymous, for your remarks about folk-art. The idea abo in my post was, of course, not mine but that of Ania Szado, and I passed it on because it was not a comparison I had thought of, and I imagined that people might find it interesting. My opinion is that to write anything worthwhile one must put a lot of time and effort not just into learning to write, but into the piece itself.

I don't know much about folk art. The only folk artist I have looked at carefully and at any length is Alfred Wallis (images of whose works you can find on the internet). He was a fisherman who lived in St Ives, Cornwall, who had very little money and painted on cardboard taken from cardboard boxes using paint from a ship's chandler. Wallis may not have had formal training in painting, but he developed a vision and a style. He could well have put in his 10,000 hours, and I think he stands up respectably beside his British contemporaries of the pre-World-War-II period. If I could write as well as he could paint, I would be very pleased.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, No-Slappz, for this comment. I agree that Raymond Carver comes pretty high up the list of writers of short stories but, as you say, he didn't make money in the way that Stephen King does. I don't really know how to think about this. It would have been much better for Carver to have made more money and, for all of us writers, it would satisfying to make a decent amount of money from one's writing, on the basis of the labourer being worthy of his or her hire, but ...

formerly a wage slave said...

Forgive me if I make one very quick post script.
It was not prudent for me to mention the name of a very famous publisher. Strictly speaking, I do not know that I was --even so indirectly--communicating with an employer of that company. I had only the words of my friend to go on. I never received any communication on company letterhead, or any email from a company address.
Therefore I cannot, in a public forum, legitimately mention the name of the famous company.
I say this because I would not want to cause any difficulties for you, Keith or for your on line magazine On Fiction.
Mark L.
aka "formerly a wage slave"
PS I don't know what the laws are like in Canada, but there are countries where the laws protect large corporations and powerful individuals from any hint of negative publicity; and as On Fiction is essentially international, I would not want to have said something that was harmful

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Mark, for what you say about the person who seems to have made an offer about getting your book published. I don't think any harm has been done, and your statement clarifies the matter. I can imagine that the person who spoke to you about being able to get your book published might have fancied himself to be more influential than he was. Although editors-in-chief do, I think, sometimes make publishing decisions on their own, for the most part several people at a publishing house read a manuscript and need to like it, and think it will be profitable, before it is taken on ... and that, of course, makes it more difficult for authors.

I would love to hear how well you get on with your self-publishing enterprise.

formerly a wage slave said...

Thanks Keith! --for both comments.

To be sure, there may well be works of
so-called folk art that are admirable.
And, I should not suggest otherwise.

But, I think that if my writing skills
had not been influenced by my educational
experiences--and influenced in a positive
way--then American culture would be in
even worse shape than I think! So, I had
better not be totally naive. --Though, of course, I studied philosophy, not literature.

I am afraid I am a bit less sympathetic
to the world of publishing, however,
than you are.

I've seen too many books published (and movies produced) which were unoriginal and unimaginative. Most recently, my sister showed me a book she was reading. It was essentially third-hand psychology, but had been written by a successful businessman. It's not too hard to imagine that the book was published because his company had name recognition and someone had made the calculation that based solely upon that factor it would sell X copies.

And I have had my book rejected by legitimate

Thus far self-publishing doesn't seem to be
getting me anywhere--except that, from time
to time, I think about the next book I would like to write--if only I had a "room" of my own!

Best wishes,
Mark L.

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