Is it possible to teach creative writing?
Well yes, of course it is. Just as it’s possible to teach the skills of, say, football. You can train players to get fitter and stronger and faster, you can work on ball skill, you can spend time in the classroom teaching them tactics. Do all that with me and I’d still be a pretty poor footballer, of course – you can’t teach me to be Lionel Messi. But you can certainly help me develop skills and strategies to make me the best player I could possibly be.
Teaching writing is like that. I can teach attitude, I can teach basic technique, I can lead brainstorming on plot and character development. I can’t teach just anyone to be F Scott Fitzgerald (I don’t have the alcohol budget, for a start), but I can help you to become the best writer you can be, and it’s something I love to do. Over the years I’ve worked on various approaches to this, and maybe I’ll return to these in later blog posts.
One thing I always tried to avoid doing was telling writers what they should be writing.
It can be odd to teach in an academic university department for a writer who works in what is generally a commercial genre, but it’s something I’ve enjoyed doing for several years now. Universities are generally far more comfortable with more lit’ry types – “serious” poets and writers who labour over stories in some obscure form read by three people are a far better fit.
My approach has always been to talk to students about how it really is to work as a novelist: the ups and downs, the craft, the strategies that can help. And to push them damned hard at every stage. It’s all about finding the story you want to write and then working out the best way to tell it, whether it’s an experimental novel, flash fiction, an adventure story, a romance or whatever. I want you to write your story, not some approved and respectable form. Some of my favourite teaching experiences have involved working with a class of a dozen students, each working on completely different stories: family saga, witchcraft, children’s fantasy, cyberpunk science fiction, historical hyper-fiction, a 1960s pop-culture novel, a fragmentary mosaic novel…
Some writers are meticulous planners and plotters, working from reams of research notes and brainstorming mind-maps; others dump characters into interesting situations and watch them fight their way through. There are as many ways to write a story as there are authors. More: I’ve used very different methods for different stories. I love that process of working with developing writers to help them find an approach that suits them at that time, for that particular project. It’s fun, it’s stimulating, and it’s immensely rewarding.
Is that because I just happen to be drawn to that sort of thing, or might it have something to do with my background as a writer working in diverse fields where we have to discard prejudices and assumptions and concentrate on story? I don’t know, but I think there might be something in that: maybe it’s easier for a genre writer to be open to all the various and wonderful forms literature can take, than it is for those wrapped up in the more approved forms of writing favoured in some parts of academia.