Comment: Can Creative Writing Be Taught? by Dominic Smyth
A student of Creative Writing reflects on the path it took to get here.
About six years ago, out of college and unsure what to do, I had an interview with the head of a publishing house in London for an internship. It was to be part of the team that first handled and sifted through new manuscripts. In our interview, I mentioned I harboured aspirations of one day writing myself, and this prompted her to impart some common knowledge to me, which was entirely revelatory at the time, and effectively put me off the internship and general literary world altogether.
She told me that writers usually take one of two paths. There were those who study either journalism or literature and then pursue their own writing projects as they work, or there were those who go out and live, explore, travel and experience as much as they can, writing about life as they discover it. And my reaction was one of stupefaction. I mean – this is what I had to choose between? What an easy decision to make for an excitable and impressionable 19 year-old. I would choose life.
This somewhat representative but still massively sweeping distinction had a lasting impression on me. I’m still young and idealistic, but nothing like I was back then. If that’s all writers really had to choose between, I thought, then what were people doing at university? I looked to Bukowski, Kerouac, London, Lowry (not realising that some of them had actually been to college too) and thought: well, all they did was read lots and go out in to the world, why can’t I? I also held, for way too long, a confusing suspicion of any writer with a separate career, or, especially (funnily enough) those with backgrounds in journalism. But I like to think I’ve come a long way since then, and now don’t give those writers so much of a hard time anymore. Not all the time, anyway.
Partly this is to do with simply growing up, but also it’s to do with finally enrolling on an English & Creative Writing degree, which has exposed me to a lot of harsh truths about writing and the publishing world. But the first thing I wondered when I looked into the course – and the first thing people usually ask me about it – is how can you actually be taught how to write?
Before university, I’d been to a few different writing workshops and read a few books on the subject of writing, and though they’d been helpful in certain aspects of the craft, I was still confused about the actual ideas behind books. Ideas, I believed, were what made writers unique, whilst flair, imagination and spark were what created that magic within great books. So if ideas, insights and imagination can only come from the writer themselves, why waste time studying for a degree?
I think people can be forgiven for thinking that creative writing courses are a waste of time and can’t teach much because it’s generally assumed if you want to become a great writer, you need to read loads and write even more. But to dismiss creative writing courses as redundant is to not fully understand their worth. Just add, as creative courses do, a few more things to the reading and writing equation, such as guidance; feedback; support; time dedicated to writing; a safe environment to experiment; a writing network and community – and a writer’s scope, opportunity and chances of being read are surely increased.
In a workshop this week, our teacher gave us a relentless series of quick-fire questions about a story we were working on. We had under a minute to answer questions about our characters and their motives; our plot and our timeline; our world and our context; and then we summarised our story in twenty-five words before reading them out to the class. Now just imagine what sort of body and shape that exercise could give a half-formed idea. I’d tried similar exercises by myself in the past and asked similar questions of my stories, but never managed to give them such muscular and energetic legs.
The concept of creative writing courses still might be strange for a lot of people, and I think that’s fair enough. Sure, there are writing groups, online courses, NANOWRIMO (a marathon-esque writer-thon where writers aim to get 50,000 words down in a month), workshops, and shelves of books based on the subject of writing, and they all might be more helpful to you if you’re an aspiring writer. But so might an unusual character you meet or a deep, impactful conversation with a stranger.
It’s unfair, inaccurate and absurd to think that one way might be the right way – each is different for everyone, and will change depending on where we are in our lives and what we’re ready to receive. It’s for this reason I have no animosity towards my younger self – he did what he thought was right for him at the time. But I do wish I could have shaken him by the shoulders, made him look twice before crossing the road, if only just to make sure he knows how many books you read at university, and that studying is not a trap.
So if it’s a choice between studying writing or going out to experience the world – for want of a better phrase – be sceptical. It’s not as simple as that.
Everything feeds into our writing. As a creative writing student, whatever you do, you have a place to come where you can get things down on the page, and where people will support you in doing so. That, I think, is where the real value lies.
Dominic Smyth is a first year student in English and Creative Writing. He likes to write short fiction, adventure stories and songs. He also makes music.