Wednesday 5 March 2014

Can Creative Writing be Taught?

Hanif Kureishi has apparently said that creative writing courses are a "waste of time". You can read an account of his statements in The Guardian online and other papers. The subject is something of an old chestnut. It gets kicked around periodically when someone of note pronounces on the subject.

Hanif Kureshi
Hanif Kureshi - photo from the Telegraph

Here below is an article I wrote on one such occasion back in May 2009:


There has been a fair bit of discussion recently on various blogs that I follow and on Facebook about the question “Can creative writing be taught?”

Some people subscribe to the ‘pure genius’ theory of great writing. To characterise it (possibly unfairly) this is the idea that great writers emerge spontaneously. They are born. It is in their genetic code. Thus, creative writing cannot be taught. You’ve either got it or you haven’t.

Set up in contrast to this is the ‘sweat and suffering’ theory. This states that anyone can become a great writer, given enough effort on their own part and given enough teaching. Great writing is achieved. Thus, the teaching of creative writing is highly desirable.

If this dichotomy sounds familiar it's because it is a re-statement of the age-old nature verses nurture debate.

My views begin from an observation: creative writing classes definitely helped me. I’ve been fortunate to attend classes given by Graham Joyce, Simon Brett, Sarah Maitland, John Gallas and others. I have also been privileged to see some of my own students progress very rapidly – particularly when they were prepared to listen to criticism and willing to work.

There is also evidence to support the other side of the argument. Some students never seem to progress, however many classes they take, whilst others jump forward at an astounding rate. Difference in capacity seems to be in-built.

Instead of the ‘pure genius’ and ‘sweat and suffering’ models, I subscribe to a third theory. The ‘buried treasure’ theory (put forward in the 19th Century in the writings of Baha'u'llah) states that every individual is like a mine rich in gems. The nature of those gems will be different from person to person. Some people may have the capacity to become great novelists. Others great poets. Others still will never achieve anything as writers and will have strengths in different areas. But whatever the potential, it will remain unexpressed without a process of education.

As teachers of creative writing it is not our task to put writing ability into our students. That ability is already there in potential form. Thus I partly agree that creative writing cannot be taught. However, I do think it is our role as teachers to create the environment where the students’ innate abilities can develop. In this I agree with the ‘sweat and suffering’ theory - creative writing can be taught.

It all depends what we mean when we say ‘teach’.


  1. So true Rod.
    I feel I have progressed more quickly through listening, and learning from, many writers with huge talent, a wealth of experience, and the generosity of spirit to share their knowledge and ideas. I have also been hugely inspired by both excerises I have been given to work from, and suggested reading matter. Classes and courses have educated me, and I use the word in its latin sense –
    educere (transitive)
    to lead, draw or take out, forth or away.
    The 'drawing out' is what is key for me...
    Thanks for your response.

  2. When I look back at how bad I was when I started and when I think about all the wonderful writers who have helped me to learn - and continue to help me... Well, it seems abundantly clear.