What can you get out of a Creative Writing class?
By Emma Segar
There has been some scepticism in the press recently on the value of creative writing courses. If Horace Engdahl, Hanif Kureishi and Will Self are to be believed, fiction writing is not a skill that can be taught but some hallowed mystery that emerges from divinely ordained writers with an “innate” talent. All it takes to nurture this is a collection of gruelling life experiences (Self suggests taking on “menial” work, as if this were a fascinating diversion rather than an everyday necessity for most writers) and perhaps the luck to fall into the vicinity of an already successful writer’s aura, whose talents will presumably be absorbed by mystical osmosis.
This is, of course, ridiculous. Any creative endeavour requires a degree of natural aptitude, but nobody suggests this as a reason not to teach painting, drawing, sculpture, music, dance, acting, cookery, fashion design or architecture. Writing is just the same as these: an art and a craft, requiring both imagination and technical proficiency. You can’t teach somebody how to be imaginative, but you can teach them how to use the materials and tools of their craft. For a writer, these are words, syntax, punctuation, narrative structures, poetic forms. Guidance in these makes the difference between raw talent and polished skill. There are exercises that practice technique, hone skills and develop not only knowledge of writing but the application of self-critical judgement. Inventing these exercises (and making them enjoyable) is the art of the teacher.
These exercises do not, as critics fear, cause graduates to churn out standardised work to a narrow set of formulae. Any good creative writing teacher will use a broad range of source material to examine a variety of styles and genres, look at the techniques and conventions behind each and teach students not to simply imitate them but to understand the mechanics of them, to combine them in unique ways and develop their own voices. Learning the ways in which short sentences can create a crisp, terse sense of tension will not turn every writing student into Hemingway, any more than visual arts students will start turning out copies of Seurat paintings if they try pointillism. The most successful and original experiments in all art forms come out of a sound grounding in basic technical skills. Picasso could not have subverted traditional uses of colour and perspective if he hadn’t thoroughly understood them. Creative Writing courses teach narrative structure and poetic meter not so that students can follow the rules slavishly, but so that they can break them well.
This grounding in technique isn’t the only thing a creative writing course provides. Time set aside for writing, and for talking about writing with other writers, is invaluable for motivation. Giving and receiving feedback is rewarding in itself, and essential for anybody serious about improving their work. Most creative writing teachers are practising writers themselves, and can give practical advice on how to go about publishing. Often, so can other students. Evening classes and short courses tend to attract writers of a wide variety of ages, backgrounds and levels of experience, each with their own particular interests and expertise. Writing students benefit from each other’s experience and form productive collaborations. This isn’t just a case of benefiting from others’ talents, either. The most accomplished can get a great deal out of working with beginners, as well as the other way around. Group exercises with people who think and write in unfamiliar ways can be an inspirational jolt for even the most experienced writers.
It’s true that there are some exceptionally good writers who work alone, never plan, hardly edit and rarely think about how their choices of style and technique reflect their structure and theme, but these people are rare. Most successful writers have had to put some conscious effort into developing their skills, and this is much easier with guidance. Those who haven’t taken courses have invariably benefitted from friends and mentors giving honest criticisms of their work, from editors suggesting ways to improve it and from writing circles broadening their horizons and developing their critical skills. A creative writing course combines all of these advantages, as well as being a sociable and enjoyable way of kick-starting the creative process and working regular time for writing into your routine.
Emma Segar teaches evening classes on Writing for Children (enrol by clicking here) beginning on Tuesday 20 January at the Continuing Education department at the University of Liverpool. She is currently studying for a PhD in Blog Fiction at Edge Hill University.