One of the more or less truthful clichés of humanity is that deep down most people feel that they’re probably got a novel in them. Whether they are ‘actively’ pursuing this hazy dream: boring their friends for years with frequent assertions about how they’re ‘working on a novel in my spare time’ by occasionally writing down a potential name or one liner that pops into their head, or perhaps simply possess a general and only mildly arrogant feeling that if you could just get some time to yourself then you could spit out the Great American Novel in about three weeks, no sweat. Yet somehow even when the time is found, a million other things fill it. As though subconsciously there is a desire not to break this, rather satisfying, illusion.
One of the central things holding people back is that if a prospective writer ever does sit down and start rattling the keys, the work that emerges tends not to be an elegant fusion of literary influences but instead something closer to Jeff Goldblum in The Fly; a hideous mutant begging to be put out of its misery. These failures are as inevitable as if you tried to run a marathon without ever having exercised. Writing, particularly creative writing, is much like using a muscle and as in the physical world, most people are grotesquely out of shape. Whilst the best/only thing to do in this scenario is the old try-try-try-try-etc ad infinitum-again, aspiring writers of all ages are often drawn towards creative writing courses as the importance of having some kind of structure for learning is ingrained in us for almost every other subject, from painting to sports, so it seems odd to place creative writing outside the realm of the teachable.
However almost beyond any other subject, the debate over whether it can actually be taught has long been an academic battleground. In university level education, teaching generally takes place in workshops where the tutor (either an academic with a degree in creative writing or an actual writer, washed up or taking advantage of their fame for a celebrity level salary) tends to shepherd debate rather than lead it (in accordance with workshop protocol) with a focus on getting the students to workshop each other’s stories. This raises concerns considering that if no-one doing the workshop has been published then how can their opinions be taken seriously, isn’t there a danger of being put on the wrong path due to an overly assured undergrad in a beret and a goatee who convinces you that punctuation is bourgeois? The central concern however has always been the question of whether creativity and drive can even be taught, there is no single way you can teach ‘how to structure a novel’ because it is so personal.
This scepticism is widely shared, and one way for creative-writing programs to handle it is simply to concede the point. The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop is the most renowned creative-writing program in the world. Pulitzer Prize winners and Poet Laureates galore are graduates of the program. However whilst Iowa pseudo-humbly acknowledging the success of its students, the school’s official position is that the course had nothing to do with it. “The fact that the Workshop can claim as alumni nationally and internationally prominent poets, novelists, and short story writers is, we believe, more the result of what they brought here than of what they gained from us,” the Iowa Web site explains. Iowa merely admits people who are really good at writing; it puts them up for two years; and then, like an academic version of the Wizard of Oz, it gives them a diploma. “We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country,” the school says, “in our conviction that writing cannot be taught, but that writers can be encouraged.”
However the arguments against creative writing courses have the unfortunate side effect of helping to shore up the actively unhelpful and patently false idea that writers are chosen by some sort of celestial lottery like it’s a gene that flares up generationally and without which writing of a higher calibre than laundry lists is impossible. No one is born a writer, you are shaped to become one by your life experiences and your overall ambitions (one things that literary courses legitimately can’t teach is the hunger for success), but for many people trying to hone their skills by themselves can be a dispiriting experience and often enough to turn them off writing all together. Whereas the variety of techniques and processes taught in classes (creative writing courses are often accused of turning out ‘cookie cutter’ novelists who are functionally identical, but this is generally the accusation with the least validity) can be a helpfully demystifying springboard into writing for a teenager or adult who might want to learn the skill for any number of reasons.
For students looking to study creative writing as a means to become a published and successful author, there are plenty of reasons to undertake a course. Whilst the courses might not be able to make you into a good writer by themselves, for those who find themselves more receptive to communal teaching, they can hone skills faster, cutting down on a writer’s learning the ropes ‘woodsheding’ period, potentially by years. In addition, creative writing courses have an individualistic nature that can stand out from the well-honed machine of modern academia: the course is essentially focused on what the student is producing in a unique way compared to other degrees where the work of others is, necessarily, the central focal point.
Overall imagination is not something that can be standardised or marked, but much like art schools, institutions are capable of expanding the horizons of those willing to augment their own worldview. It’s hard to put a price on learning (although university vice-chancellors certainly seem to feel qualified to do so), but for those who want their relationship with the written word to be a two way street, creativity can be priceless.