BRIDGET WHELAN writer

August is archive month. Posts from the past

Can writing be taught? And what do writing teachers teach?

Musicians take lessons and artists go to art school, but people frown if you mention casually that you’ve enrolled in a creative writing course. It’s almost as if writing is like charisma – you either have it or you don’t.

The great writers of the past didn’t go back into the classroom before they penned their masterpiece, non-writing friends mutter darkly, but it seems to me that courses are another way of doing something writers have always done: learn their craft, experiment while they learn, and share the results with others who understand the challenge, before sending it out to the wider world.

While art comes from within, you can learn literary techniques that will help you to be the writer you want to be. Against-the-clock writing exercises might seem very contrived, but the poet Ted Hughes believed that they help writers to overcome their inhibitions:

“The compulsion towards haste overthrows the ordinary precautions … Barriers break down, prisoners come out of their cells.”

But I have to admit not always. Ten minutes can seem like an awfully long time when it’s the wrong exercise, you’re in the wrong mood, or you’re saddled with the wrong tutor (It happens). Mind you, even that experience is an important lesson for writers. We are too ready to beat ourselves up if a passage of writing refuses to sing. What we need to do is accept and move on. Work through it. Write.
Here author, tutor and mentor ROZ MORRIS gives her view on the age-old question

Nail Your Novel

2658174628_049a403892_bThe other night I was watching The Rewrite, in which a Hollywood scriptwriter reluctantly becomes a writing teacher. In the early part of the film he asserts that writing can’t be taught.

In some ways, I agree.

But wait, you might say. And you might brandish a kettle at me, or a pot as black as night. What, Ms Morris, are you doing here? On your blogs, in your seminars, with your nifty tips and nailing books?

Well, I hope I’m being useful, but it’s interesting to consider how much of a writer is made by what is taught, and how much is … something else.

You do the work
No matter how many courses you take or books you read, they won’t build your facility for you. You’re the one playing the instrument, and you need years of practice and exploration. The fabled 10,000 hours to achieve…

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5 comments on “Can writing be taught? And what do writing teachers teach?

  1. Roz Morris @Roz_Morris
    February 23, 2015

    Love your contribution here, Bridget! We don’t have much evidence for how the writers of the past learned their craft – except for these great examples you give here. And there’s definitely a perception that you’ve either ‘got it’ or you haven’t, because writing is a skill we’ve all done ever since we were at school.
    But writing as an art is not the same as the writing you use to do your geography homework, pass a chemistry exam, make a shopping list, fill in a job application. It’s not even the same as the writing you use to do a job in journalism. It’s its own discipline, and to do it well takes time and dedication. Most of us who have the inclination are working at it in perpetuum, on a constant quest to notice what works and what doesn’t. Taking classes, being edited, reading specifically on our subject are topping up a process that’s already going on.
    I didn’t know about Ted Hughes and his timed exercises. I like that! Thanks for a great comment and a generous reblog.

    • bridget whelan
      February 23, 2015

      Thanks from coming by Roz. Writing is one the creative arts, but unlike music or the visual arts, nearly everyone acquires the basic tools at an early age and from that I think comes the assumption that everyone could write a story. I do think we all have a story to tell – usually several stories – but that doesn’t mean we all have the skills to command the attention of a readership, just as I enjoy painting and drawing but I’m not going to mount a Bond Street exhibitation…

  2. Ann Perrin
    February 23, 2015

    I believe that everyone has an innate ability to tell a story. I had limited formal education myself, but I was once a primary school teacher and you try and stop thirty seven year old’s telling stories. Writing some of them down was, of course, the next step.
    But then I believe teaching is an art too and just because one is a writer does not mean one has the necessary skills and empathy to teach,with noticeable exceptions, which is where Bridget should take a bow!
    However many established writers in the past must have had had their own informal networks of trusted friends and associates with whom they could share their work, writing was a living but also a journey?
    I am also reminded of Charles Causley who was once quoted as saying “the writing of poetry is not the prerogative of a small, peculiarly gifted group, but something that can be practiced with perfect validity and a considerable sense of achievement by anyone who, at certain moments in life, feels the need to do so. The importance, the value, lies always in the doing.”
    Something that those who are moved to write for their own enjoyment might like to note..

  3. bridget whelan
    February 23, 2015

    I do like the Charles Causley quote – thank you for sharing it. Like you, I think the creative arts fulfill a basic human need. As soon as a toddler walks, she dances. As soon as she can hold a stick of chalk she draws and as soon as she has words she needs stories. And not long after that she tells her own stories…we can learn how to become better writers (or dancers or artists) even if we don’t have magic in our fingertips or our feeet.

  4. J. E. Hallows
    March 23, 2015

    This is a really interesting topic. I’ve never taken creative writing courses but I studied English Literature at university and that was a huge help. I see no problem with courses helping people to write, but it depends on how they are taught I think. There is no set way to write, no magic formula, everyone is different. So I don’t really like teachers that just show “how I did it”. I think the most important part of writing classes should be how to encourage belief, and how to get over common writers problems, concentrating more on the pyschological side rather than the technical side of writing.
    I watched a programme on TV a while ago where judges were choosing the best books from ones that had been submitted. One judge said that she could clearly see which authors had been to writing classes because they all wrote in the same way. I’m not sure how true this is.

    But there are award winning authors out there, like Kazuo Ishiguru, who went to creative writing classes to hone their art. So it must be worth something!

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