I RECENTLY READ A POST asking whether creative writing programs were worth the bother. As usual, responders (most of them writers) had many different opinions on this question. One writer claimed that creativity just couldn’t be taught: end of story.
As someone who has both taken and taught creative writing classes, I felt a bit of a knee-jerk reaction when I read that. But on reflection, I wondered if he was right. Can creativity be taught? Probably not. Human beings seem to be born with this impulse, the impulse to create. On the artistic level, it seems to answer no clear-cut evolutionary need, and yet we all hum, doodle, whistle, gossip, skip (okay, I used to skip), and make up silly songs for dogs and babies. Or at least I do.
But is that what creative writing programs teach? How to create? No. Not at all. For those of us who want to go beyond telling a good story at a party, there are tools and methods and an arsenal of devices that will help us spin a better tale. And by better, I mean more effective. And by more effective, I mean the reader doesn’t stop reading after a page and switch on Netflix instead.
We can keep a reader’s attention through a number of means: a compelling story (you can’t put it down); characters that you care about and you want to know how they end up; prose that is so beautiful that it is like reading poetry, a visceral pleasure; a world that you find yourself immersed in and don’t want to leave. Different writers have different strengths, but the ones who are successful are masters at delivering at least one of the above.
I’ve had good creative writing teachers and bad creative writing teachers. The worst was the one who made us sit and listen to him for six hours without eating or going to the bathroom. Since I was pregnant at the time, I did both anyway. The best teacher was able to look at a particular piece of writing and identify what the writer was trying to do. And then, of course, help that writer take the next step forward.
Another dividend of a writing class is quite simply this: it makes you write. Writers, maybe all creative types, have a strange pull between wanting to do their craft and not wanting to do it. Maybe that’s because the story in your head is always better than the one that comes out on paper. But like any craft, persistence and practice are the two best weapons we can cultivate. Why is it that no one says oil painters should be able to produce a masterpiece without any training? Or musicians? Or sculptors? Or programmers? Telling a story well is not exactly intuitive. Voice, perspective, points of view, compressing time or the reverse—all of these can be learned and should be learned, in my opinion.
That’s not to say that creative writing classes don’t have their drawbacks. They do. I can look at a number of books and see exactly where they’ve been workshopped because the prose suddenly become both stilted and pseudo-meaningful. The writer has taken on someone else’s voice, some classmate who says, I wanted to know why she decided to become a doctor.
So I understand why the debate continues. And as a writer, I would kind of like to think that I don’t need anyone else to help me write my story. On the other hand, I would also like to think that I can get help writing my story. But I definitely believe that as I learn more about the tools of the trade, I use them better. More effectively. More creatively. And listening to other writers talk about their work is definitely more productive than listening to the little voice in my head that says: Oh, you don’t need to write today. Take a nap instead.