I have two jobs. I have one job where I sit just exactly here on my rapidly expanding bottom and type words into documents that I hope one day people will want to read. In my other job I try to help people learn stuff. Sometimes I help them learn how to understand the welfare benefits system. Sometimes I help them learn how to write books. In the past I’ve helped people learn good interview skills, presentations skills, employment law, IT skills and various other things besides. It’s never crossed my mind that there might be some careers that you can’t learn to do. But some people think that my first job – the bottom sitting one – is just such a thing.
Back in March, Hanif Kureishi termed creative writing courses a ‘waste of time’. This caused a heightened level of eyebrow raising because Kureishi is a professor teaching in various areas of writing at Kingston University. It’s always good to see a tutor who’s confident in the quality of their own work, isn’t it? Having said that, other writers agreed with Kureishi about the limitations of creative writing courses, and he wasn’t the first to express reservations. Ray Bradbury, for example, told the Paris Review that college was a ‘very bad place for writers.‘
It seems to me that there are two things going on here. Firstly, there’s an unjustified leap in logic between identifying a bad course or poor teacher, and concluding that something can’t be taught. I’ve never been to one of Professor Kureishi’s lectures or tutorials, but if you find that a high percentage of your students are failing to learn the thing you’re supposed to be teaching, you’ve got to wonder if the problem is you rather than them. Many of Bradbury’s criticisms centre on the problem of tutors teaching based on their own preferences and likes/dislikes – that’s not a sign that’s something’s unteachable. That’s just a crappy teacher. There are lousy courses out there in plumbing, maths, crocheting, engineering and Japanese – it doesn’t mean that any of those things can’t be taught and learnt either.
And that brings me to the second thing I suspect is going on here. Us writers do sometimes have a slightly unattractive tendency to think that we’re special. Again, that’s not something that’s exclusive to writers – we all like to think that we are special unique snowflakes sometimes, but I think that sometimes as writers we tell ourselves that what we do is somehow different from other jobs. And in some ways it is – there’s a lot more pajama wearing than the average, for example. But we’re part of a whole raft of creative careers – from writing to fine art to theatre to engineering to graphic design etc. Any job that involves a moment where somebody says ‘What if we do…’ and the next thing that comes out of their mouth is an idea that wasn’t there before is creative. Creativity is brilliant, and precious, and, if you take a minute to look, absolutely bleeding everywhere.
I share my living quarters with EngineerBoy, and people often assume that we must have little or nothing in common in terms of how we work and how our brains work. But actually we talk about work all the time.* Designing engineering solutions and writing a book have a lot in common. Both start with an idea of what you’re trying to get to. Both suffer from the fact that that idea will, inevitably, change part way through the process. Both work best when you keep things simple. Both are marked by a bit about a third of the way in where you’re absolutely 100% certain that what you’re working on is a massive pile of poo that will never work. And then another bit like that about two thirds of the way through. And then another one just around the time you have to hit send and deliver the thing to your customer/publisher.
Writing a lesson plan is another act of creativity with lots in common with writing a story. A good lesson has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has a point that you hope the student will take away, and is has a great unknown quality that is beyond your control – for a lesson, that’s the student; for a story, it’s the reader. Both are going to take whatever you offer and respond to it, hopefully in the ways that you anticipated, sometimes in a completely different way, and sometimes, if you’re really lucky, in a way that makes the whole thing better, and richer and more successful than you ever thought.
Lots of jobs are like writing – some in small ways, some in much bigger ones, and generally we have very little problem with the notion that you can learn to do all those other jobs, but somehow we want writing to be innate. It’s not innate – at least not beyond the level at which human beings have a shared instinct to communicate and storytell. It’s something you can develop and improve. You can learn to be more creative, and you can learn to channel that creativity in specific ways. You can learn the skills of plotting and characterisation and editing and point of view.
And yes, part of the reason I’m saying this is because I’m a creative writing tutor and I have an upcoming workshop (spaces still available – click the link for details, go on, you know you want to) to promote. But it’s more than that. Telling people that certain skills can’t be taught is an example of people who’ve already achieved success adopting a mindset that keeps those who are still trying firmly in their place. It’s about saying ‘Well, I made it without any help. Why can’t you?’ And that’s just a bit of a miserable, divisive way of being. So bah humbug to that. Jolly good.
* Sounds dull, I know, but look. We’ve been married a really really long time. Any conversation beyond ‘What’s for tea?’ is frankly a marvel to be cherished at this stage.