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Do You Think Writing Can Be Taught?


How many times do we have to revisit this question of whether writing can be taught? Of course writing can be taught. Painters are taught how to use colour, or wash brushes, or draw a dog in motion or at rest. Gardeners are taught how to make acid soil more alkaline  or to adapt by planting acid-loving plants.

I have in my time frequently encountered the view that that writing can’t be taught, but I have little patience with dinosaurs and dullards who resist the idea of learning. I do however understand that sometimes the teaching of writing is uninspiring, clunky, or wrong-headed – or simply of a style unsuitable to what the writer needs right now.

The other day I read an interview with Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard where he answers the question ‘do you think writing can be taught?’ like this:

No. You have to learn it yourself. It’s like playing, you know? And you have to find your own way. So no, you can’t teach that. But there are so many other things you can teach.

This is what I believe. I’m a teacher, so I believe in the idea of teaching and learning and studying. I believe in the principle of improvement. Even the most experienced writers learn new things all the time, or learn to see things afresh (seeing things afresh is an important lesson for writers who are switching from, say, journalism to fiction, or vice versa).

I do think that writers need to take charge of their own learning. Sometimes writing students can seem to get a little locked into the idea of finding easy solutions, and some teachers or courses are perhaps a bit too tired or prescriptive in the expectations they create – that goes for publishers and agents too. And creative writing doesn’t really work like that. The imagination needs to find its own way.

Yet the best answers usually come through a process of searching, and there remain many things to learn (or be taught). Nowadays there are so many options available to writers: workshops, academic writing programmes, online courses, creative writing manuals, writers’ conferences, genre conventions, literary festivals,  manuscript critiques, writing groups.

I’m a big believer in writers and artists making their own way – and even if you’re following other ways (such as an MA or a PhD), they are rarely enough; a formal qualification usually needs extending in some way or other to become meaningful (to finish the manuscript; to get published).

I’ve discussed this in another blog post on the idea of a DIY MA in Creative Writing, and I shall be taking some of these ideas further in an afternoon-long course I’ll be teaching on the Friday afternoon of the 2016 York Festival of Writing, which runs from 9 to 11 September this year. I’ll be offering suggestions, guidance, and recommendations for writers who want to develop their own self-directed programme of studies, and I’ll be promoting ways in which writers can develop an instinct for what works in their writing, for what holds up, for what feeds their imaginations.

Also in attendance at York will be plenty of excellent teachers and writers (or teacher-writers?) offering their own perspectives too; the editors and agents who’ll be there looking for new talent will be there in some capacity as teachers too, with lessons to share for those listening.

I’m also teaching workshops on the related but distinct topics of voice and tone at York, and I’ll be book doctoring there too. Later in September in London I’m also hoping to teach a fuller, day-long workshop on voice, which will look more closely at aspects of craft such as point of view, narration, tone, and prose style, using examples from popular and classic books as the basis for discussion and spurring writers to try new things in their own work.

And before that I’m also leading a workshop on Showing & Telling & Storytelling at the Writers’ Workshop Literary Salon at Waterstones Piccadilly on Friday 27 May.

Can writing be taught? Of course it can!

This Week: Lines and Holes

  This week:

* I read the excellent Kent Haruf’s Our Souls At Night as well as this profile on the Making Of A Writer. For some reason, I paused and wondered if Haruf might have been more widely known if he’d been a woman. Not that he wasn’t widely known, but his prose style really excels in a way that few others quite match, and for that he should be one of those writers who has been read by everyone who’s serious about writing themselves, and that is far from the case. Is it that his novels have modest and domestic settings, and it’s okay for women to write about those, but not so much for men? Such pigeonholing limits both men and women, and if we are to break out of that perhaps we need to recognise that men can and should write about the domestic just as much as women can and should write beyond it. Never mind, he took me to small towns in Colorado with some haunting images and sharp turns of phrase. Fantastic dialogue too – some of the best.

* Talking of pigeonholes, I read a thought-provoking piece about desegregating literature. It made me think about the lines that writers write across: lines of colour, lines of gender, lines of otherness. Also lines of responsibility in writing.

* Some of these (and other) points were addressed more specifically in this Guardian-hosted conversation about African writing.

* I also read a profile of Frank Herbert’s Dune.

* And took a look at David Foster Wallace.

* I chuckled to read how Twitter taunted EL James. I’ve yet to read a word of any of her books, so what do I know? But I cannot forget the fact that her lawyers got heavy on a parody, while her book is itself just a piece of clit-friggy fan fiction.

* I celebrated Olivia De Havilland’s 99th birthday!

* I was encouraged to read a piece on growing fruits and vegetables in schools. After the teaching of history, I cannot think of anything more valuable for children to learn than gardening. (Except perhaps a foreign language.) Horticulture should be on the national curriculum.

The event I’m sorry I missed: the Classic English Whippet Derby.

Food experiment of the week: I made ice cream for the first time. Lemon and saffron. Jury’s still out – it’s in the freezer, doing its freezing (and apparently without needing a stir, though I have done). And I made one half with Xylitol, to experiment with alternatives to sugar.


Friday Writing Experiment No. 37: Old Friends, New Faces


Today I am in Rome. My life isn’t usually so Hilda Hatbox, but it’s my old flatmate Milva’s fiftieth birthday party (you’d never guess she’s a day over twenty-five, though she is wearing Harold Lloyd specs now). Various old friends have come in from different places – London, Sweden, New York, Germany – and also in attendance will be friends from Italy as well as Milva’s family. The party tomorrow should be a jolly event, and this evening some of us are eating at a restaurant in the Jewish quarter – deep-fried artichokes, I’m told. Also today squeezed in an exhibition on Augustus (their penises were really, really small in the olden days, weren’t they?! even the emperors! I mean, you’d think an emperor …), and some lite Xmas/selfie shopping at a market nearby (shirt, Tibetan singing bowl, nail file set, scarves, plus a final touch for my outfit for tomorrow night’s sixties-themed birthday party – it does feel a bit Grande Bellezza, doesn’t it?!). Even managed to fit in some shopping at the Basilica of San Giovanni. New pope tat abounds. Oh, and had a fantastic bowl of pasta and two glasses of fruity red wine for lunch.

But that’s all the selfish stuff. I am also remembering visiting Milva a couple of years ago. We looked at old photos from when she shared a flat more than twenty years ago. We were so young! We could have wept. Those innocent faces. Where did the years go?

It will be great fun to see people tonight and tomorrow. It’s been so long! Life moves along, but then fortunately it has occasions when we all come back together.

For this week’s writing experiment: write about a reunion. Old friends, new faces – because old friends have newer (and older) friends and lovers they bring along too. This can be based on a real-life gathering, or an imagined gathering of real people, or it could be purely fictional. Bring your people/characters to life with a couple of details, though not too much slavish description, perhaps. Let them come alive with interaction, dialogue, and memory, as well as a sense of where they might head next.

Friday Writing Experiment No. 17: O, Just-spring!

I don’t know about you, but it’s felt like a long and cold winter, and according to the calendar we’ve still a ways to go; this is only February the 1st, and we’re closer to Christmas than the official start of spring.

But this week I also felt a certain spring in my step, and a sense of the lengthening days; even if it was bloody cold out there, there was also something different in the light. The sun seems to get higher above that row of houses over the back, and the blackbird has returned, and the robin, and slowly, slowly those crocuses and daffodils and hyacinths are poking up through the soil in those pots in the back garden. Wonder when they’ll flower? Those green shoots have been patient for a few weeks now. The lawn is most definitely mud-luscious. Spring is ever-returning (thanks, Uncle Walt).

So, let’s take a stand against the darkness, and though it’s premature write a poem or an invocation or a gratitude that invites a bit of Just-spring to return to our lives. It’s something of a reach, but sometimes stretching is good for our writing.

Here’s a small sample of Just-springy poems (I nixed a few that refer to later months – that seemed to be rubbing it in too much, or tempting fate to bring back winter). Add others or links or your own in the comments below, if you wish.

E.E. Cummings, ‘[in Just- / spring]’

Tony Hoagland, ‘A Color Of The Sky’

Emily Dickinson, ‘A Bird Came Down The Walk’

Walt Whitman, ‘When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom’d’

William Shakespeare, ‘Spring’

William Wordsworth, ‘Lines Written In Early Spring’

Jane Cooper, ‘Hunger Moon’

Anselm Hollo, ‘Webern’