Catching up on some reading yesterday, I came across an interesting item published in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago about whether you can teach creative writing. Unsurprisingly, it prompted mixed views. But I found it of interest because over the last few years I have found myself wondering about precisely that question in relation to art.
Of course, if you think of creative writing or art as simply the outcome of a process of applying a specific skill set, then there is a strong argument for saying yes, it can be taught. Skills can be taught to anyone who wants to learn. Everybody can learn to draw; books like Betty Edwards‘ Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain provide inspiring real life examples of what is achievable in the space of just a few short weeks, and I’ve no doubt that creative writing courses can achieve equally impressive results.
But then as any artist/writer/musician will recognise there’s rules and then there’s the rest of it. The unquantifiable, the ineffable, the x factor. The work product which rises out of and in spite of and above the rule-guided product. The spark, the life, the essence. Can this be taught?
In the field of art education, I read an absorbing book a couple of years ago by James Elkins, an art professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, which argued compellingly that art could not be taught. I was halfway through my own degree course at the time and after I’d recovered from the shock of discovering I was possibly paying to be taught the unteachable, it did shed some helpful light on the art educative process and what could be learned from it all. It helped me to understand the limitations and so get some value from group crits which up till then had been a source of frustrating double-speak and ambiguous euphemisms. For an ex-lawyer, it was a painful and challenging learning experience.
But once I realised what couldn’t be taught and why, I felt much better. I allowed myself to start thinking differently, to begin liking the uncertainty, the not-knowing; to recognise that the best learning came from the experience (for good or for bad) of making and doing.
The thing about ‘rules’ – whether for creative writing or art – is that they weren’t handed down to humanity on tablets of stone from Mount Sinai. They were elicited and ‘revealed’ through the study of works which, if you go back far enough, were inspired by a deeply intuitive creative instinct. I mentioned the other day how depressed I felt recently on hearing a student ask for classes on how to be an entrepreneur. It’s all part of the same problem and reflects the fashionable delusion these days that everything can and needs to be taught. Yet whilst this clearly applies to skills of all sorts, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you can teach the mindsets which lead to great novels, wonderful art and memorable music.
What you can do is provide an environment in which it can be facilitated and encouraged and nurtured. That’s what the best art courses do, and I’d be happy to bet that’s what the best creative writing courses do.
Maybe I’m not the person to pontificate on all of this! According to WordPress, my posts every day are spattered with the passive voice, redundant expressions and cliché. I usually choose to ignore these helpful suggestions because, unsurprisingly, I hate rulebooks…