In which I wonder whether you can teach someone how to write a novel

I spent the weekend here:

The Fish Hotel

That’s part of the Farncombe Estate in the Cotswolds where I had the pleasure of leading a tutored novel writing retreat, with the awesome Janet Gover (my co-tutor and photo taker) and the lovely writers pictured hard at work below. It was a fantastic weekend. I love tutoring novel-writing – increasingly I find that I think of myself as a tutor who writes, rather than a writer who teaches. Either way, I’m stonkingly fortunate that I get to do both.

Farncombe 2015 students

And as a writing tutor, it irks me somewhat when I hear people saying ‘Well you can’t teach someone to be a writer’ or other words to that effect.

So that’s my question for the day? Can you teach novel writing?

Well yes. Of course you can.

Hmm… on reflection, this is turning out to be a really short blog post. I’m going to have to expand my thoughts a little, aren’t I?

Right then. Here we go.

The idea that writing is a special ethereal thing that springs forth from the great spiritual well and can not be taught be tawdry human means irks me, as a teacher, because I think it belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what teaching is.

Too often we think of a teacher as somebody who stands at the front of a room and imparts definitive knowledge. There is one right way to wire a plug. There is one right answer to 2+2. Those things can obviously be taught. There isn’t one universal right way to write a novel, so that’s just something people have to work out for themselves. Right? Wrong. Because standing at the front and saying ‘Do this. Do only this and always this,’ is a very tiny slither of what teaching can, and should, be.

Another way of approaching the question ‘Can x be taught?’ is to, instead, ask ‘Can x be learnt?’ Essentially if something involves skill or knowledge then those things have to be be learnt, and a good teacher can help a receptive student learn them more quickly or more effectively, because learning is a process. It’s a process of trying things, recognising successes and failures, revising your approach, and trying again. A large part of teaching is about suggesting what to try, identifying success and failure and helping the student revise their approach. All those things can be done more effectively with somebody, who understands both the process of learning and something about the thing you are trying to learn, holding your metaphorical hand or kicking your metaphorical butt.

What you can’t teach is passion. You can’t make somebody want to write a novel, but if somebody has decided on that path, then a good creative writing tutor can absolutely help them to get there. I was helped massively on my journey to publication by two incredible tutors – Deb Catesby, who is now a visual artist, and Julie Cohen. There are, however, a lot of not so good creative writing tutors out there, so here are my tips for finding a good tutor and the right course for you.

  1. Work out what you want to learn. Are you writing for personal pleasure or for publication? Are you interested in exploring your creativity, or developing a skills to write in a specific form or genre? Different writing courses are different – some focus strongly on writing for publication, some give exercises in lots of different forms and genre to explore different types of writing. If you know what you want, then don’t be afraid to ask whether the course suits your needs.
  2. Ask about the tutor’s writing experience. We’ve all heard stories about tutors running ‘masterclasses’ in genres they’ve never written or published. Find out what the tutor’s experience in the subject they’re teaching is.
  3. Ask about the tutor’s teaching experience. Teaching is a specialist skill. Writing a bestseller or a Booker Prize winner doesn’t necessarily make you a good teacher. If you’re handing over money for a course then there’s nothing wrong with asking the tutor what they’ve taught before, or even asking if they have feedback from past students that you can look at.
  4. Be wary of tutors who promise to impart the secret to writing a novel/play/shopping list or who offer definitive rules on what you must and must not do to get published. There is no secret. The only rules are ‘write the sodding book’ and ‘make the sodding thing work’ and I’ve just given you those for nothing.

So there you go. There are my thoughts on tutoring writing and creativity. If you’re interested in hearing about courses I’ve got in the pipeline, including next year’s tutored retreat, then head over to the Contact Me page and drop me a message with your details to join my courses mailing list.

In which I randomly assert that writers are not special

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.