My first novel, In the Place of Fallen leaves, was published in 1993. I gave a nerve-wracking public reading in our local bookshop, and afterwards the first question from the audience was, ‘Do you believe creative writing can be taught?’
What a weird question, I thought. Of course it can’t be taught. As Ruth Rendell, the majestic crime writer said, ‘I get a lot of letters from people. They say “I want to be a writer. What should I do?” I tell them to stop writing to me and to get on with it.’
Two things happen, however, once you get published. First, you realise your dreams of financial independence were unfounded fantasies. Second, you get offered money to teach creative writing. To help aspiring writers hone a sophisticated skill at which they too can fail to earn a living.
So I asked a well-known poet for her advice. She said that she worked out who the most talented students were, and did everything in her power to dissuade them from the writing life. ‘It’s miserable’, she said. ‘Also, they’re competition.’
‘What about the others?’ I asked. ‘The less talented?’
‘It’s simple’, she said. ‘There are only two words of advice for aspiring writers. One: read. Two: write.’
As Samuel Johnson said, ‘The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.’
So I have taught creative writing in universities, on Arvon and other residential courses, in evening classes. Mentoring one-to-one. If you want to learn to write, opportunities continue to proliferate. Google ‘creative writing course, UK’; the list is endless.
We’ve almost caught up with America, where, over fifty years ago, Flannery O’Connor said, ‘Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.’
The problem is that we all dream of a bright tomorrow, of fame and glory. If a person has a particular skill – with paintbrush, for example, or musical instrument – that skill is their vehicle for such dreams. If a person possesses no such skill, but intelligence and literacy, then creative writing is a ready-made vehicle.
So people sign up for creative writing classes dreaming of being the next Julia Copus or John Siddique or Jane Rogers.
And the trouble is, these dreams are unrealistic not because aspiring writers lack a talent the aforementioned writers possess, but because success is a lottery. ‘The luck of having talent is not enough’, as the composer Hector Berlioz once said. ‘One must also have a talent for luck.’
Writing something worthwhile in the first place, out of one’s wild imaginings, has a huge element of chance about it. I’m sure any honest artist will acknowledge as much. Finding an agent, and receiving the kind of editorial feedback necessary to make your novel as good as it can possibly be, these take so much luck. Being offered a publishing contract, having your book reviewed – getting good reviews! – and watching the book achieve sufficient sales to convince the publisher to publish the next book, and with an advance that an author might actually subsist on…insane odds.
As John Steinbeck put it, fifty years ago, ‘The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.’
It’s much worse now. With so many aspiring writers around, the quality of literature has risen, undoubtedly, which gives the lottery ever longer odds.
This is only offset slightly by those published writers who neglect their own laptops in order to teach others.
Published writers invited to teach creative writing soon find ourselves caught in a double bind when confronted by the ambitions of our students. If we give advice on such practical matters as how to lure an agent, we are fanning the flames of delusion and fantasy. If, on the other hand, we say, ‘Forget about fame and fortune. Enjoy the process. The activity of writing itself’, then the students respond, ‘What about you? You have been given what we desire. (It does not seem to have liberated you into a realm of happiness and wisdom as we suspect it will for us, but no matter.) Do we not deserve the same? Are you so different from us?’
We got lucky. We didn’t let rejection stop us. We persisted.
‘It is my belief’, wrote Doris Lessing, ‘that talent is plentiful, and that what is lacking is staying power’.
It helps not to have better ways to spend your time nor to be good at other things.
So we don’t, I imagine, make the mistake of saying, ‘Forget your dreams.’ At least, not more than once.
And anyhow, quite apart from this question of the lottery of artistic success – in terms of both doing good work and having others recognise it – is the human capacity for fantasy not in itself a nourishment, an expansion, of the spirit? One that opens our minds and our potential quite as much as it allows us to delude ourselves?
Still, how does one teach writing? It’s not a craft. Last weekend I attended a one-day workshop in wooden spoon making, great fun it was, and that was a craft. Or in my case a bodge.
Literature is an art form. As Doris Lessing said, ‘There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.’
If we address particular aspects of storytelling such as Character, or Plot, or Dialogue, these are not to transmit the rules of engagement in such areas but are simply excuses for exercises that might stimulate the students’ productivity.
What writers need instead is simply a linguistic and grammatical competence. A level of literacy sufficient to express ourselves, and a naturalness in the medium of words. ‘Grammar is a piano I play by ear’, said Joan Didion. ‘All I know about grammar is its infinite power.’
That’s what I teach, if such an approach deserves to be called teaching. I hope only to act as a catalyst to the students’ own creative energy, in the hope that they might set off into the zone and come out of it an hour, a week, a year later with some unique, explorable mess of words.
Which we may then, with appropriate feedback, set about helping them chisel and squeeze and scratch into some beautiful kind of story. Editing. That (you may have spotted) was the missing third injunction of the writing process.
Ernest Hemingway recalled that, ‘I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.’
Some years ago the British Council kindly invited me to Sweden. At Stockholm University an American writer-teacher called Steven Hartman was leading a creative writing minor module for a class of undergraduates in the English Literature Department, and I joined him.
Now, urban Swedes speak English terrifyingly well. I couldn’t believe how well, when I first met the students. But then I read these young people’s attempts to write prose fiction in English and saw at once how much they lacked. Dialogue was cloth-eared, sentence construction bizarre, descriptions full of what Steven told me were literal translations of Swedish idioms.
What the students wrote was, in short, stiff, unidiomatic English. It improved, however, as they grappled with it, and I realised that in attempting to express themselves in fiction (with all its subtleties of point of view, indirect speech, irony and so on) they were getting inside the English language in a more demanding, far-reaching way than was possible in standard academic essay-writing.
The creative writing module allowed them to dive into this strange foreign language, and would allow them a far deeper understanding and appreciation of the literature they studied the rest of the time.
In the autumn of 2009 I was invited to be a visiting tutor on the English Studies course at Ruskin College, Oxford.
The English Department consisted of its head, Tom Sherry, and poet-teacher Helen Kidd, plus a couple of other visiting tutors.
The degree course’s title was English Studies: Creative Writing and Critical Practice. Its structure was simple: students took two modules each term, one academic analysis of texts, the other creative writing.
During that autumn term, teaching first and second year students prose fiction, I realised that I’d found what I was unconsciously looking for. That having creative writing and critical analysis intertwined was of huge benefit to both.
Writing your own poetry or fiction is to be working from inside the mechanisms of language and allows one insight into what and how and even possibly why successful writers did what they did.
While close reading, discussion, analysis of great literature is the best way there is of absorbing the lessons we may be given by those who have gone before. Joan Didion’s famous recollection comes to mind: ‘I liked Hemingway. Those sentences just knocked me out. In fact, I taught myself to type by typing out the beginning of Farewell to Arms and a couple of short stories. I was just trying to learn how to type, but you get those rhythms in your head.’
The advice to aspiring writers shifts a little:
- Read and Write.
- Write and Read.
This intertwining of reading and writing, of creative writing and critical analysis, answers ‘How to Teach Creative Writing’.
What is to be written may be divided into style and content. It’s tempting to imagine that a writer chooses the content, but you don’t, not really. The story you tell – its themes, its flawed people, their moral stance – arises from your inner neuroses, your deep preoccupations.
And in a way they’re beside the point.
Because style is what we read for. ‘To me,’ said Truman Capote, ‘the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.’
Style cannot be taught. It can only be spotted, and nurtured. I work as a mentor for Gold Dust, and recently worked with a writer called Alicia Drake on her novel, I Love You Too Much, which went on to be published by Picador. It’s narrated by a shy, neglected thirteen-year-old boy, who observes the narcissistic adults around him with a ruthless, damaged eye. And in doing so he reveals the world afresh. I didn’t teach Alicia a thing — in fact she sensibly ignored the one or two pieces of direct advice I gave her. All I could really do was encourage her.
Most of us lapse into perceiving the world much the same as one another. The great mistake most aspiring writers make is to imagine that what they need to do is to reproduce the world as others see it.
What entrances us, as readers, is the opposite. We want to see the world anew. John Gardner, the American novelist and early creative writing teacher, reckoned that, ‘the single most distinctive quality of great literature is strangeness.’
A writer requires linguistic and grammatical competence sufficient to render the world recognisable to the rest of us, and then he or she needs the style to render the world unique.
So read, write, find your voice, edit.
And never forget the wise words of Somerset Maugham. ‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no-one knows what they are.’
Tim Pears is the author of twelve novels, most recently Run to the Western Shore (Swift Press, 2023) and a short story collection, Chemistry and Other Stories (Bloomsbury, 2021). He was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Brookes University, and a Reading Round Lector in Blackbird Leys, Oxford.