Writers Don’t Need No Education

The time has come. You have decided to invest in a creative writing class or degree, feeling that you are ready to face the challenge of critical appraisal of your works in process, you may even want to do the same for others. Maybe the idea of being part of a wider community with the same passion, and goals fills you with excitement. But you are not sure whether it’s worth the cost of the tuition. 

For every writer in existence it seems there is an equivalent piece of advice floating around just for them. 

When author and college lecturer Hanif Kureishi gave a speech at Bath Literature Festival, he reignited the age old argument of whether it is necessary or even possible to learn creative writing.  Here is an extract:

“It’s probably 99.9% who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent,… A lot of my students … don’t know how to make a story go … all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.”

His comments led to an uproar within the literary and creative writing teaching community in the UK, here is a powerful and thoughtful retort to Kuerishi’s comment http://www.timclarepoet.co.uk/?p=2236 – but be warned there’s a fair bit of swearing in it.)

This argument over whether creative writing classes possess any valve can leave you more confused than informed.

It is better to remember education has always been a valuable asset. That knowledge never go to waste. 

What a good class or degree will cover:

  • Prose:
    • What prose is
    • What makes it good
    • What makes it bad
    • How to develop good prose and avoid clichés
    • The importance and necessity of language and how it one of the cornerstones of storytelling
    • Basic grammar and punctuation including
      • Adjectives
      • Adverbs
  • Character:
    • What  is character?
    • How to develop your characters
      • Including how to create depth and individualise/personalise your characters
  • What showing is without the endless telling –
    • The importance of showing and why it is a powerful skill to develop
    • To know how to utilise telling properly, and when to use it
  • Dialogue:
    • How to create realistic and believable dialogue
    • How to avoid bad dialogue
    • The necessity of dialogue
    • How to use dialogue as narrative
  • Scenes:
    •  How scenes work
    • How to create good scenes
    • The importance of movement in scenes
    • The effects a scene can have on the direction your story takes
  • Time:
    • How to use time in a story
    • The effect it has on the story’s dynamics
  • Pace:
    • What pace is
    • How to use pace in storytelling
    • The effect pace has the story’s dynamics 
  • Tension:
    • How to create tension
    • The purpose of tension in storytelling
  • Sense of place:
    • How to evoke place in a scene
    • How a sense of place can and does draw a reader in
    • The importance of place in story:
      • For characters
      • Tension
      • Time
      • Pace
  • Story:
    • What story is
    • How to tell a short effectively
      • The power of language
      • Character
      • Why we tell stories, etc,
  • Editing:
    • What editing actually is
    • How good editing tightening and strengthen your writing
    • How to recognise when you have over-edited
    • How it’s truly not something to fear or loath even!

What I have listed above is by no means a complete and exhaustive list, but a good teacher will know these to be the fundamentals that underpin any good writing.  That they are vital for their students to begin with when developing or strengthening any writing skills they already possess.

The cliches “Knowledge is power” and “Knowledge will set you free” rings as true for writers as it is for any other individual seeking to develop their skills and knowledge.

Essentially the nature of this age old argument stems from the myth that talent and skills are intertwined, interchangeable, even. This is nothing more than arrogant ignorance. A peculiar and subversive snobbery.

That is not to say talent and what it is exactly and how we access it doesn’t remain some kind of indescribable mystery shrouded in superstitious fears of limited supply or the continuous presence of potential writer’s block. 

Stephen Kings own take on this is covered in the ‘On Writing’ introduction

..writers are themselves often at a lost as to where their talent, and even where their ideas really come from, and any attempts at answering this is just conjecture.

I personally prefer Paul Auster’s comment for it’s simplicity and refusal to engage with such trite arguments

Becoming a writer is not a “Career choice”… You don’t choose it so much as get chosen.

Perhaps it simpler still, given that telling stories is as old as humanity. Wherever the remains of people or their dwellings are found, there is always evidence of storytelling: the carvings on their pottery and other possessions, painting on cave walls, or the remnant of oral traditions that survived through the serendipity of their written language, sometimes still in its infancy. The mechanic of why humanity needs stories is still unknown, but perhaps in recognition of this need that we all possess, we must start respecting the educational needs of our storytellers. 

 

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