Saturday, February 17, 2007

Creative Accounting

I have my own questions about the boom in Creative Writing courses, which I've aired here and here, but today in the Guardian Claire Armitstead considers the most fundamental one, Can Creative Writing Be Taught?

Whenever I'm asked that question I think of the fourteen-year-old girl I taught in a Glasgow school, whose weekly stories were as good as many a first novel, and more mature than some. I could teach her nothing. I was her copyeditor merely, pointing out the odd spelling mistake. It goes against my educationist grain to say this, but faced with that you just know that great writers are born.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Carver said the same, and the fact that American universities have produced so many of his clones proves the point: what you can't teach or impart, as Armitstead's article indicates, are genius or flair or originality. Technique, I agree, can be taught to some extent, and the ability to be critically self-aware. But after that, as Armitstead says, what Creative Writing courses offer are time and space and permission, and that most precious commodity of all - whatever anyone else says - contacts. And you do need all of those last, as well as sheer bloody-minded determination, because I tell you this: I was certain, absolutely certain, that that pupil of mine would be a great writer one day and I have watched out down the years for her work to appear in print, but (unless she has a pseudonym) it hasn't. (And I can't tell you how sad that makes me, even if the truth is that she simply lost interest in writing, because I'm sure we've lost out.)

Armitstead's article ends on a sour note, though, and suggests a dispiriting cynicism behind Martin Amis's recent appointment at Manchester:
The boom is not so much about making great writers as about universities trying to attract students and making more money by appealing to young people with impossible dreams.
In my experience, they're often not so young, actually, and when publishers are on the lookout for babes in arms... Well, do the maths.


Ron said...
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nmj said...

I agree with you, Elizabeth.

BuffySquirrel said...

I always expect stories like that to end with, 'And she'd never read a book in her life!'

While it's impressive that this woman was able to write so well so young, it's not conclusive evidence of this nebulous attribute we call 'talent'.

Her proficiency may have been the result of her background and education. Maybe she had read and written so voraciously during her childhood that she had simply taught herself how to write.

Many writers have done so, albeit at a slightly more advanced age--we constantly hear about the million words you have to write before you can produce anything publishable.

Personally, I think most if not all of what we call 'talent' would be better described as dedication and hard work. Something anyone is capable of.

Whether or not Martin Amis can teach anyone creative writing is another question. Maybe nobody can do more than indicate the direction in which to go. Maybe the writer has to teach themselves.

Elizabeth Baines said...

I do agree that people use the word 'talent' in dangerous ways - using it, as I indicate in my post on Nicola Morgan's blog, to ignore matters of circumstance and nurture.

The issue of nature-nurture is such a thorny one, and one I'm always struggling with. I do agree that my pupil's success isn't proof of pure talent: I'm sure she must have had the kind of background encouragement you describe.

What about the children who've had that kind of background but don't write as she did?
If education and nurturing is the only thing required to make us geniuses then we have to believe that every single one of us has the potential to be a great writer,a great artist, a great musician, a great mathematician, a great dancer, a great athlete etc... It's a nice thought, and one that an educationist has to entertain to some extent. Before I had children of my own and as a schoolteacher I would get angry with anyone who suggested that children's aptitudes and abilities were genetically determined, rather than the result of nurture. But then how do you interpret the fact that one of my children, when actively encouraged to paint, was interested mostly in mixing the colours rather than making shapes on paper (and never afterwards showed any interest in art) whereas my other child didn't even need encouraging: I simply found him one day at the age of 6 months making shapes in his porridge and he has since become an artist.

It seems to me that we all have certain very individual characterstics - physical, emotional and intellectual - that give us or deny us certain abilities - even those who are musical, for instance, can be physically better suited to one instrument than another. But then you also need to have the inclination - I have known many people with abilities they don't bother to put into practice. So my definition of talent tends to be 'aptitude plus inclination'. But neither of these are any use without the right circumstances in which to nurture them, and that's why education is so very important.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Woops - 'education and nurturing ARE the only thingS'!