Can you learn how to write a great story? A great novel? Does it matter where you are to be successful at this?
In the last couple of weeks, these are questions that have been floating around the media side of books. It started out with the release of a book of essays – MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction (edited by Chad Harbach, which is an interesting choice of a second publication from him, if you ask me – not that you did, of course). The biggest debate came from the question, “Should you seek an advanced degree, or will workshops smother your style? and then morphed into “Do you need an MFA to be considered a qualified writer?”
I have lots of thoughts about that which fall somewhere in the middle of those who think an MFA is useless and snobbish (because they didn’t get one) and those who are the snobs (because they did or are in a program right now), but more interesting to me was when the Telegraph published an article about a Kingston University professor, Hanif Kureishi, who spoke at a festival and told everyone that taking a creative writing course was a waste of time. From the Telegraph, he said: “…99.9 per cent of pupils, including his own, are talentless and only “the little bit that is left is talent’.”
He believes that you can’t actually teach how to make a story keep a reader’s interest, and story is what trumps all in writing, more than the prose itself. I can’t argue with the basic premise of his argument, but if you read the entire article, and especially how the Telegraph author decided to end it, it sounds more and more like a re-telling of Mr. Holland’s Opus, except his students haven’t done anything for him yet – such as crediting him for their success in reaching the best selling list.
Kureishi might be a great professor painted in a bad light here (although, obviously he must know that his words will have effect?), but he’s not alone. The Guardian posted a follow-up article by Hannah Jane Parkinson that agreed with Kureishi. She says:
When all of that exists, joining a creative writing course seems redundant. I would often be frustrated by being given a handout of writing tips that I could have just Googled, say, or a photocopied excerpt of Stephen King’s On Writing, which I had already read.
The question I have is what did students then do with those supposedly Googled writing tips? Did they take time to apply them? Did the professor ask students to use certain ones in a focused writing activity? Would all of these same students have really known how to work at their craft with the plethora of writing “advice” out there?
My point isn’t to argue that anyone must take a creative writing course or should take one, merely that the articles I are misleading. Like any course, a student will only get out of it what she puts into it. And while creative writing courses are not magical and transformative, here’s what they can help teach you:
Discipline. I loved writing when I was younger. However, I didn’t do it very regularly. My first creative writing course – in high school – was the best one I took. Roman Borgerding taught me that writing begets writing and that just like reading, the more you do of it, the better at it you will get. That lasted me awhile until it didn’t… subsequent creative writing courses had me back into the habit again.
Craft. In spite of everything, creative writing course endeavor to teach you craft, which might not lead directly to creativity or even imagination (which, according to Kureishi in the Telegraph article says can’t be taught), but it does help a writer learn techniques and tools that enhance story. Story may trump all, but seriously, it still has to be told well enough to keep readers turning pages.
Criticism. For many writers, a creative writing course will be their first real experience with a critique group. Here they will learn how to give an honest and useful critique of others’ writing and more importantly, how to accept and use honest critique about their own writing. This is hugely valuable and this part of the process is what seems frequently overlooked when a writer is seeking publication (or jumps too quickly into self publishing with Amazon).
I took one creative writing course in high school and two more in my undergraduate career. I don’t remember much about the college ones except for the “workshop” time that Parkinson puts down in her article.
Could I have still written my novels without those courses? Absolutely. But let me change that question by simply adding emphasis to one word in it, “Could I have still written my novels without those courses?” Or would I have done so? That’s maybe the bigger question. I took all of those courses because I wanted to keep creative writing in my life, not because I thought it would launch me into a novel-writing career. If I hadn’t taken those courses, would I have kept writing? Would I have ever returned to it? Hard to say, but I don’t mind crediting them with being successful in getting me to write and to write more.
Both Kureishi and Parkinson have a point, though. Something creative writing courses are missing is reading. One of the best teachers of writing is by reading, reading, and then… reading more. This is where we get imagination and this is where we assimilate what makes for a great story. This is where we learn what has been successful. If I were to teach a creative writing course, I’d want to throw in this requirement: you must read a different book every 2-3 weeks. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece; in fact it should be what you enjoy. What do you enjoy about it? Why? What makes it work? (And if you are writing something that isn’t something you would normally like to read, that is something to learn as a pitfall, too.)
Ultimately, I hope I am not trying to extoll creative writing courses such that they are necessary, only that they are of value to those who are looking for something more to help them in their writing journey.
What about you? Have you taken any creative writing courses? How did they help you? What frustrated you about them?
(BTW, if you’re not sure why I chose this song, take a look at the title of this post.)