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Can writing be taught? Of course it can!

December 29, 2014
New writing advice site launching Jan 2015

New writing advice site launching Jan 2015

Several times a year, someone starts a debate about whether Creative Writing can be taught. It’s not clear why – after all, those who oppose the teaching of writing are ankle-deep in the ocean, yelling at the tide to retreat – but the recurring debate has been on my mind for some weeks, ever since the Guardian featured me and my experimental novel, The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub. The Guardian didn’t, you see, run a double-page spread in the Review section, allowing the usual luminaries to inform us that Thrub is the best thing to have happened to British literature since Tristram Shandy. No, I was in the Education section, displayed as an example of an author who has benefitted from – and who now delivers – formal education in the craft of writing. And while the Review double-page spread would have been nice, I’m more than happy to be associated with the teaching of Creative Writing.

The case against Creative Writing has two fronts. On one flank there stand those who claim that writing can’t be taught. Nobody doubts that music can be taught – we don’t read column after column questioning the existence of conservatoires. Nobody doubts that art can be taught – we don’t need a tri-annual debate on the value of the Royal College of Art. But writing, apparently, is a skill that defies instruction. This curious distinction may owe its roots to the ancients – to the distinction Plato made between poets (who brought new worlds into being) and painters (who merely imitated) – and certainly it’s inspired by the romantic myth of the creative genius, but, I suspect, it’s sustained by the self-images of certain writers who would like to see themselves as something more special than products of a good education (whether that education be formal or autodidactic). Why else do teachers such as Will Self and Hanif Kureishi draw salaries teaching writing while simultaneously condemning the teaching of writing as a waste of time?

On the other flank, there are those who allege that the emergence of Creative Writing has a negative impact on the diversity of our literary culture. In demographic terms, Creative Writing can only help increase diversity: in the last thirty-five years, every British-born winner of the Booker Prize has been white, and all but three of them were educated at Oxford, Cambridge, or LSE. But what of the argument that Creative Writing courses teach authors to produce ‘McPoems’ and ‘McStories’ – work that is formulaic and uniform? Well, the current generation of major American novelists have almost all had some university-level training as writers. And if we’re honest, we’ll admit that American fiction is miles ahead of what’s currently being published in the UK.

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I’ve been teaching writing for five years now, and I love it. I hate our market-Stalinist universities with their awful combination of neo-liberal ideology and centralised bureaucracy, but I love working with the students and helping them to develop their writing. Hanif Kureishi thinks 99% of his students have no talent and are wasting their time; my thinking is closer to that of Gordon Lish (who must know a thing or two about developing writing), who said, “I see the notion of talent as quite irrelevant. I see instead perseverance, application, industry, assiduity, will, will, will, desire, desire, desire.”

In 2015, assisted by my colleagues Lucy Tyler and Tyler Keevil, I’ll be launching online writing The idea is to take some of our best tips for developing writing, make them into short videos, and share them with the world – for free. Like the sound of it? We’ll be on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, and WordPress, and your early support won’t be forgotten.

Until then, enjoy the last days of 2014, have a brilliant Hogmanay, and here’s to a happy and healthy 2015.

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