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.
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