Can Creative Writing Be Taught?Feb 28, 2021
Our new tutor at The Novelry, the bestselling author, Harriet Tyce, weighs in on the big question with her own experience as a student.
From the Desk of Harriet Tyce.
We all remember the good teachers that we’ve had. We also remember the bad. I’ll never forget Mrs Podd, who told my parents I’d never be any good at English (never let it be said that I hold a grudge). Or Mr Marsh, who first introduced me to TS Eliot, and the idea that I might study English at university. He also told me that my poetry was too self-indulgent. (I found some recently – all I can say is that he wasn’t wrong.)
I’ve had a lot of teachers over the years. I’ve done a lot of courses. After school, I’ve been taught English Literature, Law, Cookery, Gardening, Piano.... and Creative Writing. Lots of Creative Writing.
A course was my first introduction to writing; a course led me to being signed by an agent, and ultimately being published.
There’s some debate about whether creative writing can, or even should, be taught. I see the force in the argument. Anyone can pick up a book and read it, analyse how it’s been put together. Anyone can pick up a pen and a piece of paper and start to write. If this is something that you’re able to do, I think that’s brilliant. But I know that I had no idea what to do when I was at the beginning. I needed a teacher. I said this in an earlier blog I wrote for The Novelry, but I had no idea even how to present dialogue on a page. I was completely intimidated by speech marks, so much so that it took me at least five years between realising that I wanted to write, and actually daring to give it a go.
One of the traits for which my daughter mocks me is that for every problem or question that arises, I’ll buy five books that address the solution. She has a row with a friend, suddenly she’s hit with a pile of tomes about rebel girls and self-empowerment. Learning to write has been no different. As I sit at my desk I can see at least twenty books about writing on the shelves next to me. Here is a selection:
The Thirty Six Dramatic Situations – Mike Figgis
Character, Scene, and Story – Will Dunne
The Art of the Novel – Nicholas Royle
Release The Bats – DBC Pierre
Bird By Bird – Anne Lamont
The Art of the Novel – David Lodge
Aspects of the Novel – EM Forster
How Novels Work – John Mullan
The Art of Creative Writing – Lajos Egri *
How Fiction Works – James Wood
On Becoming A Novelist – John Gardner
Consciousness And The Novel – Lodge again
First You Write A Sentence – Joe Moran
Steering The Craft – Ursula Le Guin
On Writing Fiction – David Jauss
Crime Fiction – John Scragg
The Noir Thriller – Lee Horsley
The Science of Storytelling – Will Storr *
Storytelling – Paul McDonald
The Art of Writing Fiction – Andrew Cowan *
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain – George Saunders *
That’s just the shelf to my left. I mean, where do you start? (The ones I’ve marked with an asterisk are the ones that have stayed most with me.) I’ve read them all, once upon a time, and the wisdom contained in their pages has, in my more hopeful dreams, percolated into me so that these aspects of the craft are intrinsic to me, written down in my bones (another great book, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg). I’m not so sure it has, though.
Every time I come to start a new novel. I look at the blank page and I panic, my mind blank too. As Eliot puts it in East Coker,
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.’
Then I google, ‘How to write a novel’. Beginnings are the hardest thing. Other than endings. Or getting through the middle. There’s a forest of words out there offering help, but which the best, which the clearest guidance? You can read all the books there are out there on writing, but sometimes, the more you read, the less you understand. That was certainly my experience.
At the beginning, when I understood how little I knew about how to write, despite all the books I’d read, I sought out a guide. I signed up to a writing course in the hope that I would find a teacher who would lead me through the forest to a place of clarity, or at least show me how to use inverted commas properly. I might not have learnt about inverted commas, but I read the short stories of Hemingway and Chekhov. I learnt about Raymond Carver and the power of a good editor, how Gordon Lish transformed his work from the slightly mawkish to the sublime.
I wrote a short story. I talked about this short story in my previous blog post for The Novelry. It was good, in that it had a beginning, a middle and an end, but it was very limited. The course had done what it set out to do, though. I had begun writing.
I kept on writing. (In that last blog post, I listed the courses I did. The evening course at City University, the MA at UEA. One that wasn’t so great.)
I’ve had a lot of writing teachers, good and bad, and I’ve learnt a lot from all of them, even when the experience has been negative in parts.
We are all be familiar with E.L. Doctorow’s comment, that “Writing is like driving at night in the fog You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” It’s very true that you can make the whole trip this way – it pretty much encompasses my approach to writing, especially when I throw away my carefully developed plan and wait to see where the characters lead me – but it’s so much easier if there is someone kind and encouraging in the seat beside you, holding onto the map, pointing out the obstacles in the road ahead.
Starting to write is a strange and nervy time. I’ve never felt more vulnerable than in the early stages when I exposed my overwrought sentences to the glare of full daylight, reading a paragraph aloud in front of a group of people. I think if I’d met with discouragement at that stage, sneers or laughter, I would have given up on the spot. I was lucky that what resistance I did meet came much later down the line, a comment of very ‘professional’, a putdown so subtle it took me a while to realise quite how damning a comment it was.
Writing itself is strange and nervy, let alone being published. When I’m at my worst, my most anxious, I spend a lot of time looping between Amazon and Goodreads, checking out whether books by authors in the same genre as mine have more or less one-star reviews. In those moments, the idea of competition is terrifying. I can quite see why some writers who also teach might find it hard when they’re confronted by someone who could be a thrusting new talent. I can understand why the temptation to be crushing is almost irresistible. After all, they can justify their meanness to themselves, if someone can’t take criticism from a teacher, how will they ever be able to negotiate the horrors of rejection by a myriad of agents and publishers?
It’s not helpful, though, to be on the receiving end of this. Many of us have experienced it, and to the emerging writer, green and fragile, it’s worse than a hard frost in March.
Much more helpful are those writers who see teaching as a collaboration, who have the confidence to admit how much they themselves still have to learn. I know from the work I’ve done with other writers how much there is to be gained from working on a problem together. In analysing someone else’s narrative, I crack issues with my own. To borrow a quotation from the world of medicine, by which I was really struck when I read it:
“The safest thing for a patient is to be in the hands of a man involved in teaching medicine. In order to be a teacher of medicine the doctor must always be a student”.
The craft of writing is something you can teach yourself, but it’s a hard and lonely lesson if you’re on your own. I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to learn from so many great authors, so many great teachers. From so many fellow writers, too.
I’m very excited to be starting as a tutor at The Novelry. I know that with every writer to whom I may be able to impart some knowledge, I will learn from them too. And I really hope I’m there to discover the next Highsmith, Gillian Flynn or Pelecanos. Who wouldn’t want to be thanked in those acknowledgements?
A very warm welcome to Harriet Tyce. We're so excited to have her joining our team to work with our wonderful writers. Join us and enjoy inspired advice from Ms Tyce!
To find out more about our Positive Teaching Method and collaborative approach to helping writers 'turn pro' see our guidance 'How It Works' when you scroll down this page here.
(A pro tip - fast track your writing with a working 'apprenticeship' style with a published author whose work you respect.)