Can Creative Writing Be Taught?

Learning why Art cannot be Taught

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 EdwardsDrawing 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…


229 responses to Can Creative Writing Be Taught?

  1. The answer to your question rests on how you define teaching. ‘Providing an environment’ is teaching to me. Running a workshop, giving a powerpoint presentation , or writing an instructional manual is not. Literature and workshops provide useful kickstarts or additional resources, but one could never hope to foster and support the creative practice of any discipline through rules-based input alone. Wouldn’t this be true of law, as much as of art or creative writing?

    • gillianholding – Author

      Hi June, I think what you say is interesting and yes, how you define teaching is very important, and I agree with your examples in that sense.

      Law actually really is all about rules, and the teaching of law is so different from the teaching of art that it virtually impossible to draw parallels of any sort. It is an entirely different mindset. When lawyers describe themselves as ‘creative’ practitioners, it does not mean they come up with innovative new laws; the most they can do is ingeniously try and stretch and distinguish the existing language of rules and precedents.

      But returning to the question of what can be taught, even taking a very broad definition of teaching, i think what i was trying to say is that there is a point where the learning experience, albeit facilitated by a teacher, becomes an internally driven experience rather than externally driven. Learning from one’s own experience in other words. And I can see a circular argument developing that the best teachers are able to convey the experiences they have had and thus ‘teach’ it, but still…

      • Really creative moments are all around us, but we are too busy to notice. Good teaching begins after the rules are understood, and sometimes before, with a push, a prod, inspiration by example, but not necessarily the retelling of the teacher’s own process.

        I believe all creativity comes from the same source, a nagging intuition of what’s true and the desire to pursue its lead; but, creative writing demands specific skills to coax and mold that intuition into shape.

        What exactly are those skills? It’s not grammar, punctuation, etc., although these are necessary basic skills. A higher level skill is the dogged pursuit of exact words, where and how the mind works in the process of reading, the power of a single sentence, the delight of turns and twists in a story, the ability to apply (self-) critical thunking not a moment sooner than necessary.

        A great deal can be taught, but a teacher rarely will sit with you long after you leave the classroom. All you need remember is the discipline. The heart of the matter is what’s inside you—the still, small voice.

  2. I love this!

    As a writer by profession and passion, and as someone who has taught writing courses, I can relate to all of this. And I can also relate to hating rulebooks … like the rule that you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction (which I just did).

    Art is about perspective, however, and I think that we all have different interpretations that we express differently. Your art may not be mine. But I think a creative expression inherently is art. It just may not be universally accepted as such.

    Anyhow, thanks for the deep thought this morning — inspiration for further reflection. Which may inspire a blog post. Which is art…to me, after all. You may hate it or not relate, but it’s my highly personal artistic expression!

    • gillianholding – Author

      I take no persuading that blog posts can be art! I certainly see some of mine as art, but then I see a lot of my life as art:)

      • Hmmm… I have a slightly different take on this – not sure ‘Can creative writing be taught?’ is necessarily the best way to frame the question. I wrote a nice long pontification on it here if you’re interested.

  3. I enjoyed your deliberative and thoughtful post. I agree with your over-all point that learning is an internal experience driven by a nurturing environment. The teacher plays a role – but I think the bigger benefit of a class-room setting in the arts is the peer group. There is much to be gained from people looking to travel a similar path both in terms of point of agreement and disagreement.

    • gillianholding – Author

      So right about the peer group. It took me a while as a mature student to truly appreciate the value of my (generally much younger) peer group at uni, but the learning experience which came out of it was wonderful.

    • gillianholding – Author

      Seriously, take a look at the Betty Edwards book in that case! You will be amazed. Not sure that singing is as easily mastered though?

  4. Maggie

    I think everyone can learn to write creatively, but it’s the seed of talent (that not everyone has) that separates the great writers from the mediocre. Practice may make perfect, but that initial talent still has to be there.

    • gillianholding – Author

      yes, the talent needs to be there, but then what is talent? Don’t they say that genius is 99% hard work and 1% talent? 🙂 With a drive to succeeed, insatiable curiosity, a willingness to take risks and accept failure as part of the learning process and hours and hours of work, who knows what’s possible…

      • I agree about the hard work. I wrote very badly, every day, for a decade or two. Now I write at least somewhat better. 🙂

        The interesting thing is that Maggie’s point is true of a lot of things besides creating art. Writing code, for example.

  5. “To recognise that the best learning came from the experience (for good or for bad) of making and doing.” <—I fully agree! Some things just can't be taught…it's something that certain people just seem to possess – the X factor comes naturally to them.! This is often why I am skeptical about people or places that claim to teach the seemingly unteachable… Very reflective post! 🙂

  6. I completed my first and only college art course last year. Before I could barely draw stick figures, after the class I was able to use the techniques my instructor taught me to produce a good (well, so-so) painting. Will I ever produce a masterpiece? I don’t think that’s my goal. In my experience it’s the creative process of trying something new, out of the box and original that produces true art. Expressing your true self and essence through the art form is the key. Classes just give us the knowledge and foundation to possibly give us that courage to take that leap.

  7. Fantastic article! I have always enjoyed when visual art and written art come together like this, and I’ve had some very fruitful conversations about this very subject with both writers and artists. I’ve also written about it from time to time, and so you don’t have to slog through my blog to find out: I absolutely agree that creative writing can be taught, but mostly in the fostering, “providing a space” sense that you describe here.

    But the thing I love most about your post is the honesty and fluidity of your self-expression. Really beautiful comments here.

    If you want to have some fun (i.e. banging your head against a desk), you might like the New Yorker article on this subject from a few years back. It deals more explicitly with the (uniquely American) industry of academic creative writing programs, particularly MFAs, and for most of the article you get the sense that the author hates the notion that anything creative can ever be taught. But by the end of it he reveals the value of writing courses and programs and does a beautiful job of selling it. Plus, the article offers a deep and fascinating historical overview of how academia and creativity met in the US. If you want to look for the article, it’s titled “Show or Tell,” by Louis Menand, and it’s on page 106 of the June 8 & 15 2009 issue.

    • gillianholding – Author

      Thanks for that link; I will definitely go and have a look. Like yopu, I love the interface moments of the arts in general, and it is always exciting to discover new parallels and common points of reference.

      Thank you too for your kind comments on my writing! I have always adored the experience of writing and love the fact that blogging (although initially scary stuff) has given me an opportunity to indulge in this to a wider audience alongside my visual art!

  8. Interestingly I have to agree with you – I’m 1/2 way through a creative writing program at the University of Oxford -it’s a great opportunity to get tips and ideas and to share frustrations with other ‘writers’ – also to try my hand at different genres I’d never have tried on my own. But can they teach me that X-Factor ‘something’ that will ensure my novel is published or my play produced? I don’t think so – in fact I’m pretty certain that I never thought they could.

    • gillianholding – Author

      As I said somewhere above, I think you are certainly right to focus on the benefits of the peer group, and to appreciate the specific skills etc. you can acquire. Is it a long-term programme?

  9. Bleau

    Great stuff, Gillian. Just what I needed to be reminded of this morning! Echoes what one of my greatest Creative Writing Instructor’s said,”These are the rules. Forget the rules. Find YOUR voice.” Thank you for sharing, much happy writing to you.

  10. Yes today we need facilitators .. it is more important to provide a nurturing and friendly environment wherein creativity can flourish:)

  11. I have just read a very thought-provoking post.

    This is an idea I entertained from an early age- it seems natural to me that some things just cannot be taught- I believe they are acquired and picked up involuntarily by an individual due to several factors- their breeding, what they’ve been exposed to, their intrinsic capabilities, etc.

    This is why I, a person who wanted to be a freelance writer, chose NOT to be taught how to write in proper institutions that offer such occasion. I believe that creativity and rules that established institutions enforce on you are oxymorons to each other. LET alone nurturing your creativity, I am of the opinion that such rules destroy it!

    I think Sciences and technical stuff should be taught- not creative arts. The latter should be *induced*.

    • gillianholding – Author

      Interesting that you consciously chose to avoid the traditional teaching sources; I can understandthat, and I do know I have had phases of not wanting to experience the art of others when I am going through a particularly creative spell because I don’t want to have other influences more immediately in play…

      • Sandrabelle

        Interesting indeed! This in many ways, has blocked my expression of thoughts and ideas…simply because I thought I lacked the education. Being from a poor background, unable to obtain a formal education, sentence structure, wording, grammar and punctuation unecessarily held me back but not my ideas. Once I learned the finer points of writing, ideas flowed forth like a gushing stream.

        To sum up, transferring thoughts to paper can be taught, but the ideas belong to you!

    • Sandrabelle

      Just as I was arranging a comment to gillianholding, I read yours. It more articulately conveyed my same message. After all, isn’t art all about inspiration? Everyone has ideas, not everyone wants to communicate their “art” in the form of words. Some music, some paint and some laughter. So…I guess I’m saying for those that want to learn to transfer their ideas to paper…this, my friend, can be taught! The ideas-well-that belongs only to you.

  12. As a musician, I see this all the time. You can teach the skills: how to hold the instrument, how to get noise out of it, how to make that noise pleasant, how to stay in time with a beat. That’s the easy part. But how to be “musical”? And how to create something new and wonderful? I would argue it can be taught, but that is much, much harder than the basic skills. It’s not unteachable, just harder to reach.

    Of course, I probably believe this because otherwise, I am just wasting my time trying to learn! I am not willing to accept that as an answer.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed, and for a thought-provoking post. Keep creating!

    • gillianholding – Author

      Thank you!
      I know what you mean about not wanting to give up on the learning, and i think that’s absolutely as it should be. Learning is for life.

  13. I have a friend who is an artist. He sees things in his mind, then he puts them on paper. I’ve looked in my mind. There are no pictures there. But I’m a craftsman. Show me the picture of what needs to be made, and I will do it very well.

    I have lots of words in my mind. I have no problem putting the words on paper to create a story. But it has to be a story that I am familiar with – a factual story. I am not able to invent fictional stories. I don’t have those words or pictures in my mind.

    Could I be taught to draw or write fiction? I’m thinking not, but I’ve never had any formal training, so I don’t know for sure.

  14. Very thought-provoking post! I, for one, am a firm believer that artists, (whether musical, visual, or otherwise) and creative writers, are born and not made. I think that you can teach the theory behind any of the disciplines, but you cannot offer up a rulebook for the x factor.

    Great post and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! 🙂

  15. Talent cannot be taught, skills can. Even the most talented can benefit from drills and lessons. Although I will never sing like Jewel, I am confident that she has a voice coach and has honed her skills through lots and lots of practice.

  16. A very interesting post. Teaching creativity in any field has limitations. Well, you surely can lead a horse to water, but whether/how/how much it should drink, is up to the horse to decide. Great masters were never ‘taught’ by anyone but guided by their own instincts and intuition. That’s why they are original and unique. But the thing called inspiration can work wonders and can help bring out inherent talents IF they are there.

  17. Enjoyed the read. I agree that you really can’t teach unless the subject wants to learn. I find it funny to read “rules of writing” type books. It smacks of being a guidance counselor rather than a teacher. If you know the rules so well, why not apply them and write a best seller? Thanks for the insight.

  18. Well … this is a bit of a tough one.
    There is a difference methinks between creative writing and writing creatively.
    Trying to teach the former may well inhibit true progress in the latter.
    All the best.

  19. Colin L Beadon

    Perhaps creative writing could be taught . I use this choice of words because one should never say never.
    To be creative about anything, depends on how much time you are willing to spend on it, and how much energy, tears, fretting, driving yourself, crossing out and restarting. The problem today, is that people don’t have the time like they used to have, to ponder and ponder, and push and ponder. They can no longer write the music or lyrics written twenty years ago and in the past, which we still cherish and hum. Most modern art of every kind, is just designed to sell as quickly as possible, now, now, now. Last week’s tune, you probably wont ever hear again, and you’ll probably hope you never have to listen to it again anyhow.
    We don’t allow ourselves time, now, to become geniuses at anything, except blunderingly hoping for one great hit, in art, or painting, or music, or something written of true value. We don’t have slaves any more, either , to give us this time.

  20. Okay, I’ve been following the comments, and I have to post again. There seems to be a bit of a misunderstanding about what creative writing curriculum actually is. I’ll grant you, a lot of the for-profit workshops and classes you find — and a lot of those slapdash writing books you read — are indeed selling a bill of goods. But genuine creative writing pedagogy isn’t about teaching creativity (though it can be about teaching creative thinking, which, like critical thinking, is a skill); it’s more about collecting creative minds in a space and showing them what to do with that creativity. Those who say talent can’t be taught: I think you’re right. What creative writing courses seek to do is show the talented how to use what they have.

    One excellent example of this process, in print, is Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, which, though a bit old-fashioned (read: dead white Russian men), is essentially a creative writing course in book form.

    Creative writing courses aren’t aiming to find or even foster the next great masterpiece. Or, they shouldn’t be, anyway. They’re supposed to be about finding and fostering the greater writing community, in much the way an art studio might. William Shakespeare didn’t learn to write in a void. He lived and worked in a community of players and playwrights, and they honed their craft together. Jane Austen learned from — to the point of imitation, in her early works — the great histories and cheap novels of her day. Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Stein didn’t learn to write in a void; they learned to write in a community of writers, sharing and critiquing each others works between rounds at the bar. The creative writing program seeks to be that same kind of environment, but with (slightly) less alcohol.


  21. Great article. Thanks for writing this!

    I had 3 writing teachers in college. Mr. Midcalf taught me to use my own voice and my own ideas while cutting the crap out. Mr. Kolinska required that we read 4 books and follow the rules for creative writing. And Mr. Huffstutler always carried a style sheet with him and marked off papers of all kinds when a “rule” was broken, grammatically correct or not.

    I excelled in Mr. Midcalf classes, struggled in Mr. Kolinska’s, and was just down right frustrated in Mr. Huffstutler’s. The reason? Because of what you said – the best thing a writing teacher (or a certain type of art teacher) can do for you is to create an environment for you in which you can best utilize your creative mindset. I’m not talking about in terms of a research paper, but more in creative writing. Thanks so much for hitting this point! Because creativity doesn’t come from a set of rules set down to be followed. It comes from a person’s heart and open mind, and teachers often forget that opening your mind best allows a student to express themselves.

  22. I think you’re just the right person to be asking. If you ask a professional artist, I think they’ll see the answer in black and white. Come to think of it, I know one, so maybe I’ll ask him. But the point is that, while you can’t teach someone to be a creative genius (like a Shakespeare or a Monet), you can give someone the tools and knowledge to unlock their own creativity. It may be that their particular wellspring of creativity in that field is shallow. I love painting and drawing, but I’m mediocre at best. I know I improved after two years of A Level art, not because of the main part of the course (which was RUBBISH!) but the excellent side-lesson of “Art History” which not only introduced me to Art throughout the ages (courtesy of EH Gombrich’s “The Story of Art”) but showed me WHY so many famous paintings worked, the way they draw the eye, the secrets of their composition.
    At that point we come back to the old argument. Does the brilliant artist intentionally use the Golden Section when he is composing his picture? Probably not. He just ‘knows’ that it looks best like this, with this bit over here, and this tree smaller, and so on. It’s instinctive. Us poor mortals can’t acquire that instinct, but we can learn why the great pictures are great and apply that to our own work. We won’t be genius-level artists, but we will be better than we were. And in that improvement, we may discover a love of the medium that raises us beyond what we thought were our limits.

    • 4pam

      Damian, this is beautiful. I agree wholeheartedly. And those brilliant artworks light our internal fires and inspire us to those higher levels. I see it even in the very young students I work with: teach them the skills and let the Masters light their fires! We are created to be creative; we all have it in us. I loved your analogy of some areas just drawing from more shallow wells than others. Thank you! and thank you Gillian for this discussion.

  23. I just read Bite-Size Twain today and thought this quote of the author on the basics of writing is apt:

    Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with a college education.

  24. Alan W.

    I totally agree with you. Why can’t creative writing be considered academic writing? It not only gives a piece more depth, but it also generates a stronger, more personalized argument.

  25. “According to WordPress, my posts every day are spattered with the passive voice, redundant expressions and cliché.” Perhaps. Yet, you manage to capture that “x factor,” as you called it. There is a place for rules and there is a place for utter, yet controlled, abandon. The essense of art, in my opinion, is having a feel for a playful balance of both. 🙂

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed, by the way.

  26. Blue

    “[…] while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lot’s of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.” From Stephen King’s On Writing, A Memoir Of The Craft.

  27. Woman Wielding Words

    Well said. I think the basics can be taught, but the real purpose of classes in creative writing or arts or even theater is the creation of a safe environment where a student can explore, risk, or at the very least become inspired. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  28. yeshuabendavid

    I occasionally try my hand at songwriting, but I can easily approach it as more of a scientist than an artist. I constantly analyze the songs I like to pick apart the ingredients. The best results I’ve had come when I abandon all those concerns–I know how music works, but I shouldn’t be following rules gleaned from others’ successes.

    • I have also always had an aversion to “the rules” of songwriting. The form or structure that emerges is usually based around either a finger-picking pattern I’m trying to perfect, or a short lyrical phrase which suggests the rhythm. Igor Stravinsky referred to very short musical phrases he called ‘melodicals’, perhaps only 5 or 6 notes long, which became the seed out of which the entire composition would grow. I wonder what kind of fertilizer he used? 🙂 I suspect that songwriters who are intent on writing commercially successful songs for a specific market could gain something from a class. But so much of the music that touches me the most has very little if any commercial appeal. One major exception however would be Paul Simon. I recently came across this master’s thesis by a student at Eastman School of Music on “Form in Paul Simon’s Music”. A very academic and formal analysis, I still found it very interesting being a long-time fan of his writing. Many of the footnotes were even more fascinating than the analysis: Often, with music anyway, don’t know if it applies to creative writing, the analysis and theory is imposed after-the-fact, kind of like reverse engineering. The artist may not have consciously intended things to the extent the theorists ‘discover’. In Paul Simon’s case however it was personal experience working in the heart of Tin Pan Alley from High School until around the age of 20 or 21, trying desperately to turn out hit records after the brief success of “Hey Little Schoolgirl” he Art Garfunkel had released as Tom and Jerry. For whatever reason he never could replicate that record’s success. But in the process he apprenticed in New York’s music recording and publishing industry working with people like Carole King and Gerry Goffin (who were successful at getting their songs recorded by commercial groups) picking up alot of useful information and making contacts. So by the time the social-political changes of the 60’s came along, and he had gotten away for a while and spent time hanging out in Europe and in the U.K. with guitarists like Davey Graham and Burt Jansch. When he and Garfunkel ran into each other again back in the Village after not seeing each other for a while, people like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary were starting to catch on and Simon was now in the perfect position to embark on an entirely new musical path from what he been doing previously. The combination of the ‘schooling’ received working in the music biz married to a new kind of lyric relevant to the changing times put him in the right place at the right time.

  29. I took a summer writer’s workshop at the University of Rochester by the late novelist and author of “On Fiction,” John Gardner.

    We had to submit a manuscript and I did not. To those who had he said this:

    I sent a young man to a publisher immediately who was to have been in this class. The art of writing cannot be taught. The value of a session like a writer’s workshop is to benefit from the trials and tribulations of your fellow classmates and to work at the craft and hope for improvement within your range.

    However, while I believe in his theory, he is only one critic. Others in the class may have had their manuscripts favorably “reviewed” and sent to a publisher.

    A true writer is a driven animal like any true artist. You just can’t get away from the computer as surely as a painter can’t easily put down the brush. That is the first sign that you have within you at least a modicum of what you love to be. And the love of it is the art of it. The art is in the loving and the executing. The residue is important and rewarding to look back upon but for you, the doing is it. That is just the way it is.

    Being “discovered” is as much luck as strategy but with some book stores having machines for instant publishing or with Amazon allowing uploads of the works of writers, there is more luck on your side.

    I am off topic sort of – if you are a writer, you will do it and follow your dream no matter what you have been “taught” or the incubator you have been fortunate to have languished in for a time. It all comes down to you and as a famous novelist friend of mine once said: “keeping the seat of your pants firmly planted in the chair until the work is done.” Yes, there is some work and discipline involved but just enough to push the love of doing ahead and on schedule. AND you can come to this at any age.

    SamHenry – On My Watch, the Writings of SamHenry

  30. RFW

    I usually avoid posts about “how to write” – seems that teaching the technical skill of writing may help those who do need to communicate better, but for inspiration and a good book? Not many great writers took a creative writing class…

  31. Touche.

    We are all human. We all have the ability to seek and learn. We also have the ability to make mistakes and learn. Gain experience, and derive a method of solving.

    Being n ex-lawyer, ever been in a situation where a younger student asks you, ‘How do you go about analyzing case law so quickly?’

    And the only way you reply is, ‘you’ll get the hang of it. keep trying’.

  32. I have a degree in CW and I can definitely relate to your post. Whatever magic that was inside of me that had led me into those workshops was completely gone after getting the degree. The whole time, I really wanted to learn how to send out a manuscript and how to be an “intellectual property” entrepreneur. The Muse had abandoned me and I had to “refind” that magic minus the rules. I am not against the craft nor do I find techniques useless. I just feel as though my time and money was spent critiquing what everyone else created and I left with no true sense, “I want to be a writer.” I made my own rules. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Great comment, Mimi! And yours is a common experience. A good friend of mine came through the same creative writing PhD program I did and had exactly your experience (and chose to abandon the program to protect the personal integrity of the writing!). I had a much better experience and highly value my degree and what it offered me, but I still confronted many of the same problems you describe, and in fact I did spend some time after my degree “unlearning” the process; or rather, I spent time recontextualizing the process, because I think what happens is that people get trapped in the habits and routines of the workshop and forget how to work alone, according to one’s own aesthetic. But I also know I would never have been able to do that — to have brought my writing where it is now — without the long, arduous academic experience. It’s not the same for everyone, but there is truth in the adage that you have to learn the rules before you can know how best to break them.

      • I like this comment too. Balance is hard, one may have to just let the seed settle, and they may grow, and nurturing them here and there. Yes it depends on the pupil-writer. I love the post, and comments, 🙂 WS

  33. The Dream Chaser

    Yes I think creativity can be taught. But it has to be cultivated and practiced. Creativity can not thrive though in an evironment of external “distractions”. A distracted mind is also a problem. And that can happen to even the most creative individuals.

  34. What means to be expressed as one, “writing”, does not have to be intrinsically one. What we look at are ways of expression, and the source of that which wants to be expressed. Great writers combined both, technique and fantasy or concept in the most striking manner. Several persons before me made reference to each area of concern, and we can say: yes, we can learn how to serve a good ball in tennis, but to do it in real life and in harmony with the traits of the game we have to find ourselves into it.
    Same with writing, painting, or any other craft. Stradivari was not just someone who assembled string instruments. He was a master.
    To raise anything to mastership we need to be, to be ourselves… someone identifiable. That is not such easy thing, because most who try to become artists plagiate instead of finding the courage to be someone by themselves.
    Being ourselves means to be able to understand and stand who we are, and then not be repulsive about the truth but to love the challenge. We are all faulty, and the greatest masters worked in knowing of that.
    Writing or painting, they are not defined through pedantic crafted phrases or strokes, the courage to imperfection it is which invites the beholder to indulge. Rembrandt made NOT ONE exact stroke on canvas, but he “assembled” his pictures from small strokes that we fill out with our minds to the perfect masterpieces we see in them. Stepping closer to works of Rembrandt will make that obvious, because we cannot detect that from a standpoint beyond 1 1/2 meter anymore.
    And, they are undeniably masterpieces, but they are speaking for one artist.
    Be yourself, then comes the source. The technique needs comparative study, peers, reading, and persons whose ability to understand you grows into fruitful hints. School, college or university can only provide the arsenal of mechanic tools, even a whole variety of them, but as long as no soul is there they will only be mechanic tools.

  35. I don’t think creativity can really be taught, you have to present it and let them form their own opinions, but that still doesn’t mean they’ll be artistic, they have to want to do something like that for themselves.

  36. I totally agree with providing an environment as opposed to laying down the laws of creativity. Art is about exploration, expression, and originality. If you try to put rules on something so subjective, the spirit of creativity is broken. My favorite writers are those who thumb their noses at the rules and do so boldly. There is always an audience for what we create. Maybe its not as big as we’d like, but art without rules means there’s something for everybody. For me the question isn’t whether art can be taught, but instead why do we try to teach it and pigeonhole potential?

  37. Enjoyed your post and the interesting discussion of comments that it generated. Something I recall *not an exact quote) from Betty Smith’s novel , The Joy of the Morning was ….writing is easy…it’s the thinking that’s difficult….

  38. I hate rule books as well. Reason why I just write the way I write and everyone else in the “meanstream” publishing industry can go and kiss my big, fat, white butt. ^_^

  39. You can’t write if you don’t have the right environment. And that means, leaving the teachers, mentors, and best-selling authors OUT OF IT.

  40. wristwatch

    Very nice post.

    Isn’t writing all about hacking and editing at this point? Call me jaded but it seems that we’re in a boring historical cycle right now.

  41. mmorreale

    i am a college student who just went through a lot of creative writing classes. It is one of my passions and I don’t think I could agree with you more. I feel as though in writing classes the only constructive criticism that were said came from holes in a story or misunderstandings, but the art of writing itself was never really taught. The only piece of advice I think I will truly use was that to be a great writer you have to be a great reader. It’s the most useful piece of advice I have ever heard so maybe it follows that to be a great artist you have to view great art?

    • Yes, comparative studies are essential in any of the creative arts. It is a challenge for our times to preserve (and teach) the great work of the past and also foster innovation at the same time. And about reading helping writing… Paul Simon says he adopts characters and the way they think and speak for his songs by reading novels by a variety of authors. I never thought of that.

  42. You present an interesting premise. I took drawing course a few years ago thinking that I would become an artist. My interest does not match my skills. A year ago, I took a correspondence course in writing for children. Yes, I learned a lot of rules, but the stories did not come any easier. It is hard work for some. In my drawing class, I struggled with the mechanics of shaping the human form. A fellow student was able to draw the same human form with amazing detail, and expression. Her skill in the basics enabled her to bring out the essence of the form.
    In my writing class, I learned that to get published one must write for a market. My stories came from the heart and never fit into any established market demand.
    So I say, art is something that is not learned, the skills required to articulate to to express must be established, but the true art comes from the interior of one’s self. Skill sets can and should be learned to master the art form, and these can be taught. Concepts and visions come from within the artist’s soul and is a compilation of his life experiences combined with a dash of right brain ether.

    • An enjoyable discussion! But the perception of what ‘art’ and ‘creativity’ are, changes over time. Many artists that we revere today only gained fame and recognition after their death. Their works were not valued in their life time. What shifted was the popular perception of art rather than the talent or skill of the artist. Have we really arrived at a conclusive definition of good or bad art? And what of the writers whose works were only discovered and published posthumously as masterpieces? Were these artists unknown because they were also doubtful of their talent-skill ratio? I think that all the specialised knowledge offered in courses today often serve to make people ever more insecure about their expression. It is all too often simply STIFLING.

  43. As an inner city high school teacher, I learned a lot about teaching writing when computer labs arrived in most schools. I set up internet exchanges between my students and students in various parts of the world. Finally, instead of writing for the teacher, they were writing for an audience that was not going to evaluate their work, but simply read it and respond. All of a sudden, they began to care that what they were writing was “getting across.” Isn’t this the beginning of creativity? Having something to say that comes from the heart?

    • wayra

      thank you for this! when we talk about creativity and writing these days, we tend to get too caught up in the notion of expressing oneself — which is only one side of the process — forgetting that the ultimate purpose of writing is to communicate. it’s understandable, given that most of us don’t live in community, in the true sense of the word, and are out there on our own. ideally, as many have noted, writing programs are meant to foster that sense of community and reciprocity.

      when one is truly trying to communicate with another, as you note with your students, ideas in the form of words begin to flow from the heart.

    • Yes! And it’s no longer about being corrected and scored but about the self expression and connecting. That’s what I love to see in my students too. And it’s beautiful!

  44. Taylor

    The basic concept should be- teach a person to think – they will figure out a way to express it be it writing or drawing or inventing the internet or flying to the moon. Critical thinking is the beginning which is why literature has always been so important. Why schools are getting away from this is beyond me. I guess the feeling is that everyone needs to be trained to get a job. If a person can think critically, they are unlimited in what they can learn and accomplish, plus they will hopefully have more soul which is sorely missing in corporate America today.

    • wayra

      yes, the creative, critical thinking skills that are acquired from reading great literature have not been valued, because corporate machine culture does not want people with “souls,” as you say; it wants people with skills.

      however, as another poster noted, to meet standards for innovation in the 21st century, corporations are realizing that people must possess the ability to think critically and creatively, not just process and act according to rules, like programmed machines.

      i work in an organization that educates people about architecture and design. it is interesting to see how the design process is being recognized and used as a means to teach critical, creative thinking to students. while i think there is great value in this approach, the process is still an external, rather mechanical one — rather than the more reflective process one pursues when studying literature, or, from a larger perspective, the humanities. yes, it is great to address, creatively and collaboratively, practical issues, such as how to design a workable public transit system, but it is also important to engage young people in thinking about and discussing how we understand and participate in this amazing experience of life, so we can become better human beings and make the world a better place to live — or even, at this point, livable.

  45. Creative writing classes are really frustrating if you have a teacher that wants to give rules rather than encourage you to find your own way. I took two classes, and that was enough. One had a teacher who was awesome, always challenging us and trying to get us to broaden our horizons but in our own perspectives. Another had a teacher who wanted structure and rules and basically tried to corrupt everything I knew about writing. I may not be a very good creative writer, but I know that what parts I do succeed at are not because I follow any rules for format or plot or development. I write, and sometimes it comes out well.

  46. As a writer myself I could not pass on the opportunity to chime in on this. I believe writing as a skill can be taught, but a writer without passion for the art will never reach true success. You can teach writing but I do not believe that creativity can be taught. I have seen many times authors who write fifty or more stories with the same characters and the same story lines regurgitated. Creative is not a learned behaviour or mindset, writing is a teachable skill. The two together is what makes an art.

    This is merely the opinion of a lowly Copywriter/Technicalwriter. English is my passion, I hope to complete my first novel before years end.

  47. In my opinion, creative writing can’t really be taught. It’s like a talent, an urge almost, that some people have. Some people just need to write. That’s how we express emotion. You can’t teach this mindset, not really.
    The most successful creative writing classes I’ve taken don’t teach how to write – they just encourage writing. In my favorite, the teacher just had us write, then gave us feedback and encouragement. That helped me a lot, but it wasn’t ‘teaching’ the skill as you’d imagine it.

  48. Very well-written post. It makes me think. I would love to pursue CW, as I’ve been working on it for years in high-school. In my opinion, creativity can be taught in certain areas. Some people are simply more creative in one way then others.

  49. This is of special interest to me, because I graduated from college with a degree in English-creative writing. I was taught creative writing, and excelled in it. I took twelve fiction-writing courses, including Advanced Fiction Writing, and three poetry-writing courses, including Advanced Poetry Writing, and made an “A” in every one of them. I was also taught voice in college, and made an “A” in it–in fact I found I had a double-octave range. And before college I was taught public speaking in high school, and ended up not only getting an “A”, but being selected as an Outstanding Senior in Speech, entering and winning numerous oratorical contests, and speaking at my graduation ceremony, to an audience of over 1,000 people.

    However, though I could be taught math in school, I had to attend summer school once, and the most advanced mathematics class I’ve ever taken was basic high-school algebra, in which I made a “D”. And as for science, probably the most advanced of these was biology, in which I never made an “A”. I even took an astronomy course, and though I learned more in that class than many in which I’d made “A”s, I made a “D”. Though I did reasonably well in Spanish, I failed French. And as for computers, I dropped out of a computer programming class, on the advice of the instructor–and I made a “D” in an Introduction to Computers course.

    My point here is that I, like everyone else, could be taught almost anything–yet many things (particularly math and science subjects) I cannot learn as quickly or as well, because I don’t have a particular aptitude for them. Many other things (particularly among the literary, oratorical, and musical arts) I can learn very quickly and well, because I have the aptitude for them.

    So can creative writing be taught? Yes, but some learn it more easily and quickly than others. Everyone has natural talent in at least one area. I didn’t know I would do so well in public speaking, creative writing, or voice–I just took these courses, and found I had natural talent for them.

    My suggestion to anyone of any age is this: Take the courses in which you’re most interested, as well as those which are mandatory–then stick with those in which you excel. The more subjects to which you expose yourself, in and out of academia, the more quickly and surely you will find your niche–that thing (or those things) you were born to do.

  50. Thanks so much for this post, Gillian! I am taking a creative writing course right now, and although it is helping me with the nuts and bolts of building a story, I’m doing my best writing when I put my textbook aside (rule-haters unite! ;).

    I posted about creative writing classes a few weeks ago, wondering whether the pros of taking a course outweigh the cons. Your post has made me think out creativity and formal instruction all over again. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  51. Creative writing needs practice and a guide. Currently I’m learning this by reading magazines and surfing through websites like yours!

  52. rahconteur

    Nice piece, and as a writer can relate to it. Writing in English doesn’t come naturally in India, where I have to speak one language (mother tongue) at home, another outside (of the state I live in) and then Hindi (national language) and/or English to the world beyond. The thought process goes through at least four languages.

    I try to improve all the time. And I agree that the honing is “internally driven” rather than being facilitated by teachers. But we have uncountable tutorials offering Creative English lessons among others.

    I had posted a bit — ‘Tsunami in my Tsupermoon’ and ‘Learning from illiterates’ — about language on my blog… Not great stuff, but I know no one taught me directly (can’t deny that the great writers past and present had an influence).


  53. Well, it would seem to me that creativity can’t be “taught,” but it could be nourished and made (helped) to grow in level of talent and productivity through practice and studying and thinking. Writing can be taught.

    Combining the two is only possible if there is the desire and the willingness to reach deep inside for the small inkling of talent that surely must be there in all of us (Though it may have never been allowed to be expressed when young or shown how to interpret it through various mediums, regardless of what that medium might have been.). What level or degree of creativeness would be the question. And that would even depend on the amount of time given to foster the talent. Is there a time frame that the creativity would have to be produced to a certain level?

    I would like to think I’m special and have a kind of creativity that most don’t have. (And, clearly, there are others who have way more talent than I might ever have in my life.) But that doesn’t mean that everyone else doesn’t have the potential to reach the same creative level I feel I am at. That’s like telling a small child in his very first art class at school that he stinks and has no talent. Was he given an adequate chance to learn how to express him/herself? I think it’s there in all of us. Some just never learn how to use it.

  54. gardenqueen

    While I don’t think creativity can be taught, I do think it can be learned. Kind of a subtle difference, but I’ve experienced it in action.

  55. Ivan Reyes

    Hell Yeah Art and/or Creative Writing Can Be Thought =) think about it, how can you create ideas or even express if you don’t know how to write or draw? It is passed down, shared and evolved. “Can’t” is such a conclusive remark, of course it could be right in some ways; people still need to find their own style and ideas by themselves but even at least a bit of it is shared. Some of the greatest Song Artists out there have been deeply influenced by the styles of others, Da Vinci was a prodigy of course and had the potential to excel by himself but he too benefited from apprenticeships, school and shared ideas from the his culture (Renaissance Era).

  56. I studied art off and on for several years and found that perhaps it cannot be taught but that it can be learned. The best teachers all let me learn to develop my own skills and tried to build strengths from weaknesses in my techniques but tried to actually teach me as little as possible. Later I became a chef and it became part of my job to train apprentice chefs. Some I couldn’t teach to cook toast and others learned faster than I could teach them. In the end I found that I could only provide guidance, instruct newbees in some basic skills and let their own abilities develop. I think that all creative processes are kind of alike in this respect.

  57. raj rishi

    yes i also don’t have god gifted skill of writing and also my tongue is not english but love towards writing some intutive thought of my child brain gives me strength day by day to learn the english language and i think one day i am able to write my thought philosophy.

    i am looking for some valuable suggestion from you……………………….

    • Colin L Beadon

      Raj Rishi,
      You will get there, because you want to get there so much.
      Just keep reading and speaking to people who speak English as much as you can.
      Never let ‘give up’ enter your mind. The Rishi’s were wonderful people. Are there really any Rishi still around, living in high Himalayan caves ? What purity of mind vision they much have, away from constant electronic buss.
      You will write your thought philosophy. You will have to chase it, as it changes so much as you grow.

  58. Rob

    I studied Professional and Creative Writing & Media Arts at university. Although I learnt skills and techniques from the media modules, looking back, I think with regards to my creative writing education I basically paid to have a peer group for three years to read ideas to (this might have helped more if I actually listened to their feedback but, hey ho, I did meet my wife there do I guess it’s money well spent).

  59. Gillian,
    I love your post and the conversation that followed. In fact I’m so happy to have found your blog, I appreciate your sense of immediacy in both your writing and your art. I am a WordPress newbie (we use the same Theme), so I like how you have set things up.
    I have an interesting twist on the teaching of creative writing (or creativity in general). Key concept here is the “environment” that fosters creativity. Here in the U.S., art and music continue to be eliminated year after year from K-12 public schools. If they are going to exist at all in the future, we are being challenged to track their effectiveness better.
    I’m a songwriter, my wife is a high school art teacher who for the third year in a row has had her classes cut from the budget, not for lack of performance, but because of dire budget concerns at the state and federal level . So I could not help but wonder at the recently released findings from the President’s Committee on Art and the Humanities recommendations published this month from an 18 month study on Art in the schools. Not only do they overwhelmingly support all kinds of art education, the subtitle is “Winning America’s Future Through Education”. It is common knowledge that our public schools are failing miserably. The recommendations in this report actually see Art Education offering potential remedies for improving the overall health of our education system. And since today’s students are the country’s future, it is a problem that really needs to be addressed.
    I’m working on a summary right now of the findings from both that report and another one published in February by National Endowment for the Arts revisiting their ongoing study on participation in the arts from 1982-2008, which has some interesting things to say about the transition of art creation, support and participation from the public space to cyberspace. While working on that I was looking at a couple of recommendations concerning “more in-school training for teachers”, “developing practical tools to measure progress of students learning in the arts” and “more authentic methods for assessing complex learning”. Hmmm, I thought that’s a sticky wicket, standardized testing is bad enough for academic subjects, how will that work for art education? The google muse led me to this paper by Harvard Graduate School of Education student James Croft, about creating an environment in the classroom where “inspiration” occurs on a regular basis. He cites an example when this occured for him as a young student and we all can no doubt recall at least one or two such ‘aha’ moments when we suddenly understood something on a much deeper level than normal everyday book-learning tends to foster. Croft believes that teachers and school administrators can in fact be taught the skills necessary. He referred to the work of one of the major founders of the humanistic psychology movement, A.H. Maslow who shifted psychology’s attention from studying the pathological to understanding the healthy mind. ‘Peak Experience’ was the buzzword and this was particularly picked up on by sports trainers who teach athletes how to make those happen more regularly. But peak experiences, illuminating as they are, are very brief. Later in the ’90s psychologist Csikszentmihalyi described the concept of ‘Flow’ – a different type of optimal experience sharing many similar qualities of the peak experience, but it lasts over a more extended period of time. One of his seven requirements for achieving this ‘Flow’ is “the activity has clear goals and swift feedback telling us whether we are achieving those goals.” Here, I believe is a clue to how we can create more successful environments where inspiration can be invoked on a more regular basis and an answer as well to tracking progress and assessing complex learning. When we are ‘engaged’ as a writer or painter and in the ‘flow’, we not only produce more, we also tend to get caught up in some kind of serendipity where insights and realizations and fresh ideas are coming at us so fast we can barely keep up. How do we get into that state? (legally) I don’t know the nuts and bolts yet, when I do, I’ll let you know. But I agree that it is within the realm of the possible. Croft is currently working on his dissertation about why people make art, what can we learn from art, how can we use the arts to better understand ourselves and the world and build true Humanist communities that foster ethical values. Hope springs eternal! (apologies for rambling on so, I do get carried away.) Check out Croft’s paper on Inspiration here:
    and while you’re there you might be interested in his

    • Ooops, typo – the president’s study subtitle is “Winning America’s Future Through Creative Education.” Creative being key here. also noticed I left a dangler there at the end, I didn’t see it down below the bottom of the screen.

    • gillianholding – Author

      Completely fascinating stuff, Tim, and thanks for drawing it to everyone’s attention. I did post months back on inspiration “aha” moment triggers, and I firmly believe that with practice we can all enhance our receptivity to take advantage of the triggers. The creative zone is a wonderful place to be when you are in it, and what facilitates this mental state is the holy grail of all creatives I think. I did find Jula Cameron’s book inspirational in this regard.

      On education, it is as bad here as over there. Quite depressing. The TED Ken Robinson youTube link I think I mentioned in the post is a compelling argument in support of the arts curriculum…

  60. Kelly Robinson

    So my thoughts on this:

    Check out Shelley Carson’s book: The Creative Brain . Seriously good stuff. It basically has to do with what you’re talking about. It isn’t about teaching someone how to be creative, it’s about creating an environment so there is a lack of inhibition/censoring in the brain and allowing the creative process to flow. Of course, creativity isn’t limited to just what we normally think of coming up with artistic creations. It is important to absorb, envinsion, etc. etc. as well, which involve other neural pathways.

    Sorry for the neurological ramble! I’m doing research hopefully on yoga/meditation and creativity in the future so I’m studying up on that kind of stuff 🙂 Great post! Always let your creative side flow.

    • gillianholding – Author

      Your research sounds really interesting; do you touch on it in your blog? Thanks too for the link to the Carson book!

  61. element119

    I think that you do make a good point in saying that the best Art/Creative writing courses provide the resources and an encouraging environment. As a (hip-hop) lyricist, self-experience is the thing that I find that teaches me most. At first it was hard to flow my words over the beat in a good way, but with practice I usually make less and less flowing mistakes.
    I really enjoyed reading this 🙂 hope to hear more from you.

  62. ALIVE aLwaYs

    I believe creative thinking can be taught, sometimes you have ideas but you don’t know words, so there’s an anomaly in your final product. Many have words but they don’t really think enough to generate ideas, they live by certain rules which are fundamental to them, diversion from these rules is quite arduous for them.
    There are writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Japanese-English novelist who has been known to learn the art, and came up with exceptional novels such as the “The remains of the day” and “Never let me go”. So, its up to you, to some it comes naturally, and some need to think hard, they are bound to cultivate it sooner or later, till it becomes part of the system.

  63. Wonderful thoughts! As a freelance writer, every time I have to learn a new set of ‘rules’ for whatever type of article I’m writing at the time it makes me cringe, because I can’t just write.

    I’d like to think I’m an example of how writing can’t be taught, it can be something inherent to the individual. I was home schooled K-12, and to be honest I never actually completed an English/Grammar course. What I did do was read – a lot. My sister and I also had very active imaginations and told each other stories all the time.

    When I graduated high school and moved into college, I still haven’t taken a grammar course, but I have passed Composition 1 and 2, and a short story course all with an A. Ask me the technical rules about sentence structure, and I will draw a complete blank, but I do now the techniques of creative writing.

    Storytelling is not about following rules, it’s about bringing characters to life, and that is why it cannot be taught.

  64. I don’t think you can teach the “creative” part, that would obviously be your “x factor.” The “writing” half, on the other hand, certainly can. Of course, “teaching” here is more “exposure” and less “sitting in a room and talking.”

    When you think about it, by the time most people have made it to University they have already internalized writing’s rules. It thus becoming beneficial to see examples of how these rules can be played with, and what effect such playing will cause. Picasso’s whole, “Bad artists copy, good artists steal” idea.

    Not to mention how important having a broad range of what you’ve been taught. All the time I’ve spent reading works in the two disparate worlds of literature and ‘zines has helped my journalistic endeavors, just because those influences poke through in it. (Much to my editors’ chagrin.)

  65. KathleenDonohoe

    I saw your post when I came on to wordpress to put up a posting about the day I realized I was a writer–I was eight years old. I knew it suddenly and completely and now, 30 years later, nothing’s changed. As it still puzzles me, this question has always intrigued me. I highly recommend Francine Prose’s book “Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and Those Who Want to Write Them.” As a teacher of creative writing, her conclusion is that craft can certainly be taught. You can learn how to learn from the masters. Talent, and perhaps even more importantly, tenacity, that drive to keep writing, keep writing, keep writing, in the face of rejection, no. This book may be worth more than any MFA.

  66. I was a half-writing major in my undergrad. So I wasn’t bombarded with writing courses but I did take a number of them. I remember a number of teachers saying (especially with poetry) that you had to learn the rules so that you could break them more effectively, and I tend to agree with this although I do feel that there has to be some innate ability as well to be truly great.
    I did appreciate the courses though, probably most for the creative environment, as you say. I learned how to look at my work more objectively and how to REVISE. I hated doing revisions at the time, but now it just comes naturally!
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  67. Great post!
    What I think too is that creative writing/art cannot be taught..and it just comes in..As you said:”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.”

  68. Interesting perspective! I definitely agree that we can at least provide an environment conducive to creativity, beyond that who knows…

  69. […] 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 relat … Read More […]

  70. Creativity is a funny thing, elusive yet sometimes effusive, cannot be coerced or manipulated to come forth. I have no idea whether it can be taught but I definitely know the environment can be everything. Sort of in the same category as great sex… it either is or it isn’t (who can predict??). The best we can do is provide the best setup.
    Great, provocative post!

  71. Bassem

    Thanks for the post. An interesting question. I think having the desire and inspiration to write is key, and then teaching can help refine things. I have taken a peer review course, and been in an online writer’s workshop which were valuable in growing as a writer. That is definately my take away from the post – the ‘right environment’ is what counts the most.

  72. There are different types of writing : technical writing, business writing, instructional writing and creative writing.

    I think most people can be taught how to write with a complete subject or argument in mind. However to writing with verve, inspiration and charisma that keeps the reader’s attention, does come more naturally to some folks compared to other people.

    Since I also have had a lifelong interest in fine art and dabbled in it outside of my full-time career which is totally different, I do feel that visual arts is actually a tougher skill to teach. Visual arts seems to require a several different skills combined together –visualization (imagination to create, forecast), deftness in hand skills, eye-hand coordination, etc. At the very least, is to heighten someone’s awareness of shape, colour, line and composition in ways that they took for granted.

    Whereas people naturally inclined artistically, know instinctively how to take advantage of those skills or turn on their “sensory” capacities so that they at least produce art work that makes visual sense.

  73. It irritates me to no end when people are simply too lazy to want to apply themselves to one particular niche or another- and, in not wanting to put in the hard time & work of actually studying and learning their art or craft (whatever that may be), they instead make the argument that what they possess cannot possibly be “taught”, for it is something divine, something within, and therefore the “rules” could not possibly apply to them, in their unique circumstance. Let it be known that this lazy attitude is the source of all the bad writing, art, music, and every other everyday kind of work or art in this world. If you don’t believe you have to learn your craft; tune and hone your skills; know to familiarity the particular nooks and creeks and crevices of what it is that you DO; then put down your pen immediately, sell your camera, and stop making frequent trips to Michael’s for more pointless canvasses. Whatever ineffable spark lies within one particular talent or another, work and study are its most necessary companions. You must first know the rules to ever be able to sing the rules..


  74. Passion, Gumption, Nurturing, and Discipline, furthermore taking a true critique, with a note of appreciation. Thanks for posting, much appreciated. WS

  75. Absolutely, passion sparks creativity. When you teach the creatively challenged to observe and pull from the energy of people, places & things around them; it will be a piece of cake!

  76. Colin L Beadon

    Get several books by the authors your really admire. Read them over and over, and over, especially while you are in bed before you fall asleep, and pick out what moves you in their works, and why.
    This will give you a really good idea of how you want to write, and what you want to write about. There is a certain attracting rhythm in the writers you admire, as though they are in tune with you. I decided to start writing when I was thirty two, and evolved this method on my own. For 30 years I wrote short stories that sold, while I worked long oilfield hours on shore, and on offshore drilling rigs.
    Maybe this method may help you write too, if writing is that is what you want to do.

    • wayra

      thank you, colin!
      i seem to have always known this intuitively, but your comment, and your experience, clarify the wisdom of this process in a way that i needed to hear at this time.

  77. […] Interesting Thoughts about Education vs. Intuition (via Life and Art) Posted on May 28, 2011 by Heather 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 relat … Read More […]

  78. I think everyone can write creatively and I think it is an extremely healing and therapeutic process. And actually, I do believe that creative writing can be taught, as is evidenced by friend, Dallas Woodburn, who teaches creative writing as a summer camp to children each year. I did an interview with Dallas asking her about it: Hope you enjoy!

    Keep shining,
    The Sunny Girl, Lauren Cook

  79. These days, a lot of articles are trying ot promote creativity in schools, with an emphasis on liberal arts (especially music, art, etc). But I wonder if they are not getting confused about how to get creativity?

    I hope I am not repeating someone else, but I just have to wonder what it even means to be creative? I think that its not something we learn – I think its something that we’re born with as a part of our individual character. I wonder if the type of environment we are exposed to brings out different sides of our ‘individual’ that is so unique, others think it is clever, inspirational, fairly independent of the environment = creative?

    Therefore, I think you’re right on about a nuturing environment. Of course it seems intuitive, but then again a nuturing environment might not be the same for everyone. In any case, thanks for sharing!

    • Colin L Beadon

      Great Points Jesse.
      You can’t pin down how to become creative. It seems a product of so many aspects. Yet I feel it is so much to do with how much you strive. It is so much like muscle building. First there has to be the driving instinct to accomplish something worthwhile. The stronger is that instinct, the more likely sometimes quickly, but often for most of us, slowly, come the results.
      It took me seven years to sell my first short story, for instance; but I just knew, from the start, I could do it.

      • gillianholding – Author

        I have no doubt that sheer persistence, self-belief and patience are critical to most creative success!

  80. mk

    I can appreciate your sentiments in this post. I am a life-long writer. Always struggling, never really sure whether what I’m writing is total crap or if it harbors some brilliance. I have met so many writers and all of them categorize themselves differently. Each “writer” is on the verge of something, even if that something is a change in career or the next great American novel. I think there are so many benefits to writing and art. Both are therapeutic and either can take a person to a new understanding of themselves. But as far as can one teach creativity, can one teach the important message the inner self is trying to portray by writing or creating art? As a teacher, I say YES, of course you can. It’s like being a specific type of communicator. As an introvert I am already drawn to writing things down and not verbalizing them. Whereas an extrovert might find writing monotonous. A teacher’s job is to make a subject approachable for all students. But at the same time, I think that only applies to children (because that’s where cultivation and talent first emerges). As for adults, I don’t think you can teach them what it means to evolve a craft or create an experience with words. I think adults who don’t already have perceptible talent, lose a certain innocence that prevents them from seeing the world in an awe-inspiring way, which prevents learning something as abstract as creativity. And college students I feel are included in this. Students learn about the rules in college and what you can achieve through reading literature and looking at different aspects of writing, but it really only leaves room for those who want to sharpen their talent. School provides the foundation, but it’s the driven within the writer/artists to take what was presented and make it one’s own. The best thing I learned was: You have to know the rules in order to break them.

    • Colin L Beadon

      mk. Great points. Great Points !
      Did you ever read ‘Monologue to the Maestro’ : A high Seas Letter to Esquire: by Earnest Hemingway page 206 in his book ‘By-Line. ‘
      That, even today, is well worth reading for any would be writer. Hemingway gives absolutely important tips on how to get yourself going, and keeping yourself there on track. ‘Don’t talk about what you are writing, don’t think about it too much. Write it, and re write it a hundred times, if you have to, …’ and then ‘Leave it alone a couple weeks, then read it again, aloud and you’ll feel where it is weak. ‘ ‘Don’t let anybody read your work except a true editor’ . ‘Only let others read you work when it is published,’ etc, etc, etc.
      Sometimes I wonder if the computer has made any of us better writers. Every sentence to Heminway was highly important, like it was to H.E.Bates and D.H.L. and John Steinbeck. Their worlds flow, like poetry, they are beautiful to read.
      I do believe that poetry, for a young writer, is highly important too. It stirs the imagination, ‘In Xanadu did Khubla Khan a stately pleasure dome degree, where Alp the Sacred liver ran through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea. ‘ Take that, for instance. What pictures it evokes !
      Young people deprived of being read, listening to, or learning poerty, are really poor badly deprived souls. How can their words or their minds, picture the world around them without poetry ?
      But then I’ve just an old timer, so forgive me. Colin

      • wayra

        thank you so much! i have learned new things — just read the hemingway article — and been inspired, too, reading your comments.

        yes, between the vast chasms of watching too much television as a child, growing up in the 50s and 60s, i have memories of verse, which gave my mind the gift of understanding that words had rhythms that created vivid images and visceral responses, like delight at the loveliness of life in all its manifestations.

  81. Good stuff, I enjoyed this post (because art related =) and of course, anything can be taught to someone. . . But I feel that ‘true’ art in whatever form it is, is something that has to come across you’re path (and you have to embrace it). If you ever take a class though, that should be something to just ‘brush you’re knowledge up on’. Because I know first-hand (speaking for me), if I want to learn something different with art, I look at other pictures (a lot of pictures) and study them the best I can, then try to incorporate somewhat, what they have & mix my own style with it. It’s pretty difficult but I feel it pays off, if you get a chance to, you can see what I mean at my site:

  82. This post certainly raises a question for the ages. I remember reading that Stephen King took a creative writing class in college and found it a waste of time since it did not offer him enough direction. My own experience was much different. I was part of a small class where we all read each other’s stories and commented on them. The teacher even had us read some of his to see what we thought. We didn’t have to follow all the suggestions (that would be impossible), but it gave us an idea of whether or not the story “worked”. Thus, my conclusion is that even if creative writing can’t be taught, it can be formed and shaped by others’ opinions, and yes, by reading good literature.

    Incidentially, I’m still no expert. My only ongoing creative writing effort is a blog comic strip called “Digs Burton”. You can read it at

  83. Of course it can be taught. But it can’t be taught the same way grammar is being taught. There are effective ways for teaching creative writing, and there are ineffective ways for teaching creative writing. I think one of the reasons why so many people think creative writing (or creativity in general) can’t be taught is because it requires a different way of teaching than what most teachers are comfortable with.

    • Spot on, Ramin! The sad flipside of your final comment, too, is that it requires a different way of learning than most students are familiar with. I sometimes spend half a semester trying to get college freshmen to understand that there is not some answer sheet hidden under my desk with all the “correct” responses on them — that what I’m looking for in writing is individual growth, not rote responses and rule-based regurgitation. I don’t know if it’s the same in Gillian’s UK schools, but here in the States, standardized testing has produced a generation of students who believe that learning — and therefore teaching — boils down to filling in the right bubble on an answer sheet. True learning is in fact a much more complex — and much more creative! — process.

      Great comment, Ramin. Thanks for bringing this up. 🙂

      • Samuel, I wish there’d be more teachers like you. You’re aiming high, and I wish you all the best for that. I’ve been to German and Thai schools, and your description of US schools sounds just like it. And I guess “filling in the right bubble” is in fact a lot easier for both students and teachers. Also a lot less satisfying, meaningful and engaging – but I guess the path of least resistance often wins out.

        Wishing you lots of inspired students, and lots of uninspired ones that light up in your course 🙂

      • gillianholding – Author

        I feel very pessimistic sometimes about the box-ticking which goes on in the English education system. It is getting worse and worse, I fear, even though there is paradoxically a growing awareness of the need for creative and adaptive skillsets for the future.

        Gillian Holding

        Follow me on Twitter @gillianholding

  84. I do not think so. like poets are born not made just the same way creative writing cannot be taught. usually we write when a feeling stirs in our heart which we want to pen down. one cannot be made to write by coercion . what hampers me from writing is my mood. i only write when i am in sad or singing weather. 🙂

  85. Yes, it can be taught. But the student must first be interested in writing. Otherwise, it can really be never taught.

    I remember a part in Roald Dahl’s book My Uncle Oswald. He cited there that unlike musicians and painters, oddly, writers rarely produce a writer offspring. I agree. Talent in creative writing cannot be inherited. And if it could, how I wish I was a daughter of Roald Dahl!

  86. […] 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 relat … Read More […]

  87. jharader

    Thanks for this reflection–got me thinking about my own issues. I quoted and linked to you on my blog.

  88. Jean

    In education systems creative thinking can and should be taught, which will develop each student’s unique passion and talent.

    Left brainers & right brainers unite!

  89. This was a great read and a subject I have thought about. I think it falls into various camps. I always saw it as two types of artist/writers/creative people, those with natural talent and those without. The natural talent people ussually start early on in their lives and the people without ussually get into what ever creative field due to passion or something else. I love to write and have always had an imagination but writing did not come natural to me I learned from reading, wacthing and studying. So I feel that you can teach creative writing because you for the most part are not teaching creativity but rather teaching tools how to create story or develope stories.

    Shaun R Daniels

  90. I have this book and the viewpoints were interesting but it really does depend on the individual and, as you mentioned, the environment. I’m not a huge fan of rules myself (neither was Jean-Michel Basquiat). Bottom line: Many people learn what they want to learn and throw out the rest. They become successful if that’s what they truly want and no one can teach you how to get what you want…

  91. Probably it can be taught but I believe this is a natural thing. Some people have it and they don’t need any skills, any rule set or restrictions. still they write creative. However if someone is writing good, he can improve it by reading more and more related stuff.

  92. barbaralongley

    Writing is my “art.” I just completed the editing process for my debut novel being released in Sept. 2011. I learned a lot, and I have no doubt my writing will be greatly improved with subsequent novels.

    The key is “learning,” not teaching. Intrinsic vs. extrinsic, one is receptive, the other, not so much. Can someone learn creative writing? Yes. If their will and motivation is strong enough to seek out the kind of opportunities and experiences to guide them. Can I teach a brick wall to write? Neh. Why try?

  93. Selena Beany

    As a Creative Writing grad, I think there are important foundations which a course can establish. Writing is as much about sheer discipline and painstaking editing as it is about the initial creative concept.

  94. Interesting… all of the writing classes I had in college were comprised of folks who were already writers – no one was ever there that didn’t have any idea how to write.

  95. Your article was very informative and very well written !! I will continue to come back to your blog to see what articles you have in the future !!Great graphics that kept my attention. Well done! Thanks for sharing!

  96. Super article. I’m tempted to say ‘no, it can’t’, but this bold claim is only a personal opinion. None of us are born with the innate ability to read and write: so in effect, we are all taught to write.

    But creative writing? Well, maybe one can be taught the technical skills of writing. But the underlying, unique ideas that drive the words, the underlying architecture? No, because I believe that comes from deeper places than either language centres or intellect, and from the very core of our minds. True creative writing is born of that deep impulse, and as such, we all have to metaphorically stumble towards the light for ourselves.

  97. Great post. Thank you for the book recommendations and links. I think creative writing can be taught up to a certain point: you can teach technique, you can spark the imagination, you can learn the grammar….but passion has to come from within.

  98. Yeah, I taught myself art and the guitar at a young age. It was something that would be hard to teach another. Creative writing comes from inside a person and their experiences. I enjoyed reading your blog! Keep up the nice writing!

  99. Hi! Congrats on getting “Freshly Pressed!” I believe people are more creative than they let themselves think. I believe that people can be taught to be open to more sparks of inspiration. I believe artistic technique (in any medium,) can be taught. I also believe that what a lot of creative people need to be taught is time management and goal setting, so that they will learn how to carve out the time to do their art.

  100. Great insights! I teach digital photography. I explain to my students that I will teach them the “rules”, then expect they will go out and break them. For some, it is easy. Others seem to wonder why I would say something like that. They are paying me to teach them photography. I think that art education is really basic composition, introduction to materials/techniques, a lot of hands-on learning, and a lot of encouragement. True art comes from the soul, not from rules. . .

  101. Gary

    Cave art from 40000 years ago, why did it appear? what were the circumstances, what was the need?. Today things are much the same, one may be taught devices with which to express, but the inner need to manifest abstract concepts into one’s reality is possibly a means by which we connect with ourselves, others and the universe in general…

  102. I hear you asking two things.
    1) “Can creative writing be taught?”
    This question is asked, over and over, year after year, amongst writers and wannabe writers. This question is bound to keep getting answers that land in every direction.

    2) “… there is a point where the learning experience, albeit facilitated by a teacher, becomes an internally driven experience rather than externally driven… the best teachers are able to convey the experiences they have had and thus ‘teach’ it, but still…”

    In this statement, it sounds like you are trying to word out the actual force of creation and find out where it comes from…?

    Are you looking for “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”? (Dylan Thomas’s poem).

    The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
    Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
    Is my destroyer.
    And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
    My youth is bent by the same wintry fever…

    For copyright issues, I won’t write out the whole poem. Try Julia Cameron’s books, “The Artist’s Way” and “The Vein of Gold.” Those are “teaching” books but what you learn is already inside you. And no, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower is the force that created all creations. That cannot be taught but if it feels like it is lost and you cannot connect with it, you can be taught how to reconnect. Does that make sense?

    All the best 😉

  103. […] 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 relat … Read More […]

  104. I would have to say I enjoy how you contemplated that question, and would even agree with most of what you said. I believe that providing the nurturing environment is key, but truly all of our brains are wired differently. We have our basic reptilian minds that keep us doing the basics, but outside of that it is mostly chaos. I must say that something I think that truly shows that there is in fact a difference is the simple question that anybody who makes art or any kind is asked; be it writing, making a song, or painting a beautiful canvas. That question is thus “Where do you get your ideas from?” That horrible beast that has plagued the creative ones since they first came into existence. The only possible answer is of course, my head, which is obviously different from yours. Scary!
    Great post though.

  105. Good advice. Besides language skills, looking around and observing things and noting them and writing about them do not require any teacher. It is one own intuition and observing skills. Thanks for your article, it is enlightening.

  106. Yes, creative writing can be taught. I recall taking one years ago. The question becomes, however, can it be learned? Jim Cotton, author, Summers Run: An American Boyhood.

  107. Great post! and great question!

    I’m not sure if art can be taught, but like you, I believe that it can be fostered, nurtured.

    I believe artists are good at what they do because they dedicate a tremendous amount of time and effort into their work – many of them also happen to be self-taught. They surround themselves books, music, paintings, and with other artists, and people who are also interested in, and passionate about art. Most people possess creativity, but what separates the artist from the non-artist is perhaps just effort + time.

    Creativity not magic; it just depends on how flexible your mind is – and flexibility can be worked on. I think when you mentioned letting go of learning, your mind relaxed and became open to new ideas. Perhaps, creativity cannot be taught because it is something that can only be acquired through personal reflection.

    I started a blog on WordPress just last week, “Artist Index” ( where I post images of works that I come across online in a sort of catalogue – a visual art reference.

    Each post includes a short excerpt from the artist’s statement (or sometimes an interview) that attempts to reveal in very plain terms (or as plain as I can find) the artist’s intent, and his/her process. The aim of the blog/catalogue is to demystify the creative process, revealing it to be something that anyone could see themselves as doing.

    The point is not make gallery or museum pieces, but rather to see the opportunity for, and the fun in new ways of thinking, seeing, experiencing the world and communicating these discoveries.

    I’m not sure if this will work but I think that it’s worth putting out there.

  108. Ian Bood

    thanks for this post,
    in my country, creative business still grow, slow but sure…
    and i say yes for your post, we can learn how to do creative works, but we can’t learn how to make creative works from other people, is all about ourselves… (i’m sorry if my english still messed up, hehe) salam dari Indonesia…..

  109. Joe Labriola

    Like many matters in life the answer’s not a definite. Of course you can be taught certain skills, but you’re life experiences teach you as well. Someone teaching creative writing is another one of those life experiences.

  110. […] Can Creative Writing Be Taught? (via Life and Art) Leave a Comment Posted by Samuel Snoek-Brown on May 29, 2011 I tend to avoid re-posting articles like this one because this topic has sort of been done to death. Or so I thought. But actually, there’s a really interesting conversation developing on this post, and I recommend you check it out. 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 relat … Read More […]

  111. I very much liked your article. As I am a writer myself and have only just re-visited my love of the “art”by starting my own blog here on I do agree almost anything can be taught. Even drawing. I won an award for Creative Writing in elementary school.. I didn’t even know what Creative Writing was. But as the love of reading books and writing on my own grew I began to understand it! But I think I came about it naturally. Like my son came about art naturally. He is an amazing artist. He can draw from memory. Neither his father nor I can do that. It wasn’t taught nor learned it was natural to him. Just as this art form is to me. But I do know if in the right settings and given the right teacher, one can learn anything! I loved your article as I already Said and I gave it 5 stars!

  112. hi gillian,

    i started to write little lines that became verses prompted by a beautiful picture on a newspaper. at first, i rephrase the caption and then notch up creating similar words and then in one summer, i was able to write 100 short poems. i decided to send it for high school publication, but it was all rejected by the editorial board. did i stop? the answer is no.

    the rejection made me to continue learning the ropes in poetry writing. that was so many years ago. i read poet’s works, i read classics, i read the works of great writers and up to this time, i am still reading. for me, writing is an oxygen that makes you sane against the vanities of this world.

    so the question whether creative writing can be taught can be answered like this: yes, but a level of dedication and commitment you put on it will determine the quality of the final result. that is when you connect with your reader and they say something about themselves in return. that is the true success and a yardstick that will tell you that yes, your piece of writing reaches out.

    and when it reaches out that often, that is the time you can call it an art. creative writing is also an art.

    thanks for this exciting blogpost.

  113. […] I came across this today, and I thought ti was something worth looking at. The blogger is a kindred spirit, I think!! 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 relat … Read More […]

  114. myblogject

    I like your post topic. I recently went to a library lecture on just this. The teacher and student both discussed each side. Makes for a very interesting topic.

  115. Roda

    Writing or creative writing is but an expression of your thoughts. It obviously is not all that difficult considering the millions of books in print. I am a writer too by the way.

  116. Your post made me think about Jean DuBuffet and the Outsider artist. Also children’s art. Creativity lies beyond teachings.

  117. I came across your post, and at the right time. I’m a sophomore considering majoring in Journalism – but that’s not the case. I’m thinking of whether to change into Creative Writing. I like how you pointed out that “What you can do is provide an environment in which it can be facilitated and encouraged and nurtured.”
    I might be lacking in knowledge or authority to be able to say this, but I do agree. I believe that creativity always roots from the person, and from there, his/her own definitive style develops.

    This has given me a heads up, since I’ve been quite worried about how my writing could be on the sloppy side – but not inferior.

    Although would you say that the technicality and refinement of writing can be effectively taught? If not the style, the delivery and impact – these would come from the writer’s own talent, correct?

    • gillianholding – Author

      Hi Niki. There are certain techinical skills about writing that can be both formally taught and informally acquired through wide reading and dedicated looking and thinking. The ‘rules’ of grammar, punctuation and structure in both the language of art and writing (even though a cultural construct) exist but I see them as the foundation or starting point for expression; as a set of tools to be used in whatever way works best. I am certainly happy to know about rules as long as I don’t have to be bound by them. And I tend to agree with those who say it is important to know the rules to be able to effectively break them. So the technical side (and, to a certain extent, refinement) can be taught, but then it’s up to the individual. Fundamentally, all writing is about expression and communication, and so trying stuff out, taking risks, being rigorously self-critical and getting feedback is all going to make a difference to any individual’s learning process… And all the talent in the world is worth nothing without hard work and dedication…

  118. Hi If creativity is inspired in a student,even if it is not original or particularly competent, then in theory you have taught them something. So many people take up painting as a hobby and derive pleasure from following a set of instructions to produce a mundane watercolour, not far removed from painting by numbers,but that is no reason to sneer,they are still being creative on their level. Any form of self expression needs to convey something and I have been to many contemporary exhibitions that conveyed little or nothing and needed a book load of nonsense to try and explain their own specific theory. I am for anyone who feels the need to express themselves if others can help by giving guidance,all the better.

  119. Your post was one featured on the homepage of WordPress and I was instantly compelled to read, as I am about to find out not only if creative writing can be taught, but if it can be self-taught.

    I think you’ve pretty much described what I think (and hope) to be the case – by learning and practicing “the rules,” I’ll be unfettered by them and free to let the “creative juices” take over.

  120. In my opinion, creative writing can/cannot be taught.

    It can be taught because teachers can give different topics to students, then students can create their pieces from different perspectives in the topics.

    On the other hand, creative writing can’t be taught. Because when it comes to creation, it involves personal emotions, they are something can’t be taught or given by others.

  121. Thanks for the post, it is a thought-provoking piece. I have to admit, while it may come off as elitist, some folks just can’t do some things. Creativity is one of those truly undefinable things in the make-up of the human spirit. Some folks can find it inside themselves and put it to extraordinary use, while others can struggle their whole lives, always reaching for, but never grasping, it. Anyone can be taught the basics of a particular task, like proper sentence structure and punctuation, but the ability to take those basics and soar like a Shakespeare, or even a Roth, that is something that only comes from inside. Me, I found my love for words late, and while I can write without thought once a subject takes me, the results show much of my lack of training. People should be taught at least the idea of creative writing, or creativity in general, and given the tools to express any inner abilities they might have. Finding those talents, or if they even exist, is something only the individual can accomplish.

  122. […] In Writing on Monday, May 30, 2011 by pobrian Tagged: art, creative-writing, creativity, drawing-on-the-right-side-of-the-brain, education, life-encounters-with-the-artist, photography, postaday2011, Writing This post is thoughtful and well reasoned. I have wondered about this myself, having taken a creative writing course recently. I enjoyed the experience, but I don’t know if I really became a better writer as a result. My writing has improved over the years. It seems to me that by writing often I’ve improved. Perhaps a structured course is a part of that continuum of improvement. 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 relat … Read More […]

  123. I have always thought that creative writing or any great writing is a gift. I ran newspapers for years and while you can teach someone to be a “reporter” in the sense of taking notes, gathering information and the mechanics of the 5 W’s, what they do with that information can be a dry yet accurate account of what happened or a shining example of a dry subject that a creative writer can make anyone want to read. It’s cliche but some people do have a way with words and it makes all the difference in the world to readers.

  124. sydoniamuncy

    I believe that you can be taught to produce a ‘good’ peice of art work by applying all the rules. But to produce an outstanding peice of work some people just do have that extra natural skill that makes their work stand out in the crowd and that is something that cannot be taught.

  125. I am a writer who think creative writing can be taught. Not the imagination part, as that is unique to every person, but the ways to think out side the box and put it to paper can be taught. Art is objective, but without rules and guides a creative writer may not expand their way of thinking. It is why some writing never break out of a mold they find themselves in or pass along bad habit to other writers who might not be as successful with it. I personally am developing for a textbook on teaching the creative process I hope to use one day. It doesn’t worry about things like grammar and outline as much as develop things like pacing, character and scene development and expanding your writing style.

  126. Colin L Beadon

    There are three great books called ‘ Writers and their work’ put out by Puffin Books.
    Part One to Part three.
    Good reading to learn how and what great writers went through; and why, once you have decided to write, you should never stop.
    Strange childhoods have a lot to do with why we write. By ‘strange’ I don’t mean necessarily bad or dreadful childhoods either.

  127. Loyal to the Magisterium

    People can learn the skill of any art. But some who learn it just dont have that ”gift” if you know what I mean?

  128. I love how your thought process flowed here, Gillian. Thank you for your insights!

    I believe that to grow in any art form, one has to start with desire, discipline and determination.

    Providing an environment to hone the skills really helps. It’s good to know the rules but if you just stick with them, there won’t be any creativity. I guess it’s safe to say, first know the rules so you’ll know how to break them in your own artistic way.

  129. […] Can Creative Writing Be Taught? (via Life and Art) Posted on May 30, 2011 by atw71| Leave a comment 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 relat … Read More […]

  130. ataquietplace

    Very thoughtful. Teaching any subject depends on the rules, but after that it is what you do with those rules that reveals a creative artist in all things. Even a scientist can think outside of the box of rules sometimes. I suppose we all dream of something more and this then leads us to creativity. Also, what is creative for one may not be anything but ordinary for another.

  131. Wonderful. Thought provoking. Discussion generating. Congrats on being FP’d! Well deserved.

  132. shadasious

    Great blog, I think taught is the wrong word, but skills can be enhanced, thoughts can be extended, art (or writing), can be shown and then the seeds of creativity planted and then cultivate the mind to embrace the possibilities of an art form or genre.

    I think back to my first creative writing class by my beloved mentor and he didn’t teach me to write, he made me a better writer, taught me how to critique my own work, to accept the criticism from others and most of all, let me know how important it is to read and take in more than we give out.

    • Nicely put! Of course, I wish more people — including more teachers — realized that what you’re describing IS teaching. This is what the best of us strive for, anyway.

  133. realanonymousgirl2011

    I think that’s definitely a topic to give great thought to, because in the end what everyone believes to be art or creative is based purely on opinion. Who really has the end all say in what is good or bad. I think that the closest you can come to answering that question is exactly what you found, that you have to nurture it and the ability to write creatively is something that is revealed.

  134. 4pam

    I have loved strolling through this discussion. It has really helped me refine in my own mind what I believe can enable one person to teach another any of the creative arts: not just the skills, but the tapping into that wellspring of creativity in all of us (to differing degrees, admittedly). The key is opening another’s eyes (or in the case of music, ears) to seeing their world differently. This can even be done well before the person has the skills to effectively show others what he now sees. In the visual arts, a mentor guides the student through seeing master artworks and observing what is TRULY in front of them rather than what they think they see. And then processing ways that what is there can be expressed. In creative writing, also often with Masters, it is walking the student through the process of creating word pictures: “you’ve told me about this dog but I still can’t see it; how can you use your words to help me see?” or empathize. or hear. Writing is still often the visual arts, but the medium is language. Music goes through that same process, auditorially AND visually. So I believe the creative arts CAN be taught, with both skills and processes.

    Admittedly, though, the unique vision of each person is his or her own, and some are more unique, more captivating, than others. These are the creators among us CALLED to art.
    Thanks for such an engaging discussion, Gillian!

  135. I’ve never really written much before this blog endeavor. Never even had a desire to do so. Since I started this however, my creative juices have begun to flow here and there. I’m enjoying reading others thoughts more and more each day and documenting mine as well.
    I love this blog. It gives me hope. Very eloquently done. Thank you for your thoughts.

  136. Charlie Boots

    I have had allot of experience devolving creative ideas with friends and I realize the best way to stimulate ideas is to ask questions. I had a friend who was experiencing difficulty writing a short story that was due the next day. She had some characters and an idea of what she wanted the story to be about, but that was it. I asked her questions about the characters and from my questions we ended up with a brilliant plot in a couple hours.

    Of course, as an art student, I have often have teachers who asked me veiled “questions” (statements of what they would do only phrased as questions). For example: “What if you introduced a 3D element?” These are never helpful. The question can never presuppose a proper answer. They must always truly engage the person being asked. I would ask, instead of the above question, “What is the relevance of keeping this piece strictly 2-dimensional?” This will stimulate the student’s mind. They might realize that introducing a 3-dimensional element is desirable or they might understand the conceptual relevance of maintaining only two dimensions. It’s about the student finding out what’s right for him/herself.

    Also, I found that most people phrase their best ideas as jokes when first asked about them. People tend to think abnormal ideas are extreme and awkward, so they talk about them as if they are humorous. The humor defeats the discomfort of presenting an idea that varies from the norm. As a professor, which I would someday like to be, this is how I intend to teach art. Discuss ideas with students on an individual basis, presenting questions that do not presuppose a proper answer but rather lead the student to develop his/her ideas further, and encourage students to pursue the ideas they presented to me as jokes.

      • Charlie Boots

        Thanks cap’n. I appriciate the good will. And judging by your blog, I believe you will know what I mean when I say it is also nessesary to help the student find the spaces between the joints.

  137. In the realm of art- it seems to me that many a time, success comes from the talent. Yet I believe that a talent cannot be so without the determiation of the individual to discover for himself and be exposed to the gurus. Come to think of it, this does not onlyh apply to art but any calling for that matter. So I guess choosing the vocation where you are inclined at will give you better advantage in developing further your capabilities.

  138. Writing , Acting and other Fine arts can never be taught.
    It is inborn,instinctive.
    You write because you feel like writing and one does not expect any other joy than writing itself.
    I am yet to find an actor ,say,like Marlon Brando,Sir Lawrence Olivier, a poet like Wordsworth,Dramatist like Shakespeare, who have been trained.
    Training stilts creativity.
    Spontaneity can never be structures.

  139. What an interesting post! Hmm… that got me thinking… I have come to a conclusion that in my view… you can teach the technique and the structure etc etc. But you cannot teach the creativity and the x-factor. Practice makes perfect, its true… but you have to have the foundation to build on to begin with… love your blog by the way!

  140. Hello, I really enjoyed this post…

    I studied at the Univesity of Dundee and taking modules in creative writing (with the author Kirsty Gunn and the poet Jim Stewart – both wonderful people and writers) seem to me to signal a turning point in my writing. Rather than aimlessly scribbling bits here and there and not being sure what to do with them, creative writing classes (workshops, book launches, writing buddies, coffee, wine, readings) opened my eyes to actively writing and producing work.
    I still aimlessly scribble, but hope to think that there may be more of a purpose, a motivation, a discipline that being in creative writing classes has instilled.

    Of course we can’t be taught to write (in the way we are taught to drive a car – in that there are definite rights and wrongs!) but we can be inspired. As EllyJo said on here (and I love her words) it is about keeping that still, small voice individually and uniquely your own, whilst responding to lessons in and out of the classroom.

    Congratulations on being made Freshly Pressed!

  141. Heather Holbrook

    I was just thinking the same thing the other day – that art cannot be taught. I have always been a good writier, since childhood. The teaching I have received has helped me some, but really, what is in me is what makes me a good writer. I have a son with perfect pitch – that is something he was born with. My daughter has been a beautiful dancer and both children have been singing their own musical creations since toddler-hood. None of those things were taught. Even now, my son’s piano teacher is excited about teaching him how to harmonize. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that he has been doing that himself for the last four years. Let her have the joy of thinking she has taught him something 🙂 If you have a gift, teachers can help you bring it forth. But if you don’t have a gift, you can be educated in how those who have a gift operate, but you won’t be able to achieve what those with the gift do.

  142. As someone who has “taught” creative writing, I like your pithy statement about creating an environment in which people can write. I always felt that’s what I was doing in my classes. And when I was a student, classes always inspired me to write more. I think that’s the best thing a writing class gives students: inspiration.

  143. creativity can only occur when one realizes there is such a thing as creativity there to use. most people just brand themselves as ‘uncreative’ and never fully tap into their ideas and concepts—-leaving them to just live off of the creativity of others. people who realise they are creative, start a self-propelling process which leads them to uncover more about their abilities and limitations.

    yes, creativity can be grown, often merely by telling someone that the have creativity which is unused. the educational system is often boring, uninspiring, and mundane with all of the rules and regulations—-however if done correctly, just providing stimulation to that part of the brain is enough to trigger a response.

    i don’t think creativity can be taught, BUT i think the idea that we are able to use creativity CAN be taught.

  144. itsmeandthemoon

    Great post. You’ve described the creative teaching dilemma quite well. While I do believe that in-born talent is extremely helpful in creating valuable art, I also know that I personally benefitted from the techniques I learned in my formal education as a Creative Writing major. Talent is important, but technique can definitely be taught. Bottom line: Do what you love and love what you do! 🙂

  145. I like that so many people are involved in this conversation. I’m getting some very useful tools to expand my creativity. I was not really exposed to that side of creativity as a child and this is helping me to understand how important that is. Maybe I can change that for my grand babies. So thanks for the ideas everyone!

  146. Zenobia Southcombe

    What a wonderful post. I have linked to it from my blog as it really speaks to me.

    “What you can do is provide an environment in which it can be facilitated and encouraged and nurtured” ~ I’m a teacher in New Zealand, and this sentence pretty much sums up my view of teaching & learning!

  147. www.VirtualAssistant.Org

    What comes into my mind is the innate capacity of one to be nurtured by the teacher and develop him/herself in creative writing.

  148. I loved your post. I have been writing for as long as I can remember and I have done theatre work. I do think it’s correct in saying that skill sets can be taught. I can teach anyone how to deliver lines how I need them said, but without passion it falls short. The artist that moves is the artist that was first moved him or herself.

    • gillianholding – Author

      I think you are so right about the passion Ziva. Passion is sPmething which comes from the heart, and it’s the heart at the essence of anything which moves and connects.

  149. malichou

    People are born with some specific abilities.Some have physical abilities,while others mentals.Some people just have the ability to write,to write in a really beautiful and impressive way.That’s a talent and a gift,that not everybody is born with it.
    Creative writing can be taught,but only until one very specific level.Somebody taught creative writing who has not that talent,that gift,can however develop his writing,improve it and become much better.Through much effort and patience he can make himself really good,and creat something really exciting.
    But in the other hand,people born already with this ability,through creative writing attach to the maximum level,make it perfect.Talent,at all aspects of life,is never enough.

  150. Belatedly discovering this entry through Freshly Pressed. Undoubtedly an interesting issue.
    I personally happen to think that, yes, art can be taught. Teaching itself is a process of utmost mystery and magic to me; all throughout my time in school, I was always fascinated by the fact that I could sometimes understand and apply what the teacher said, and sometimes not, that some people got it, and others didn’t. If teaching was a mechanical, transparent process, education wouldn’t be the complicated, seemingly insoluble mass of problems it is. Just because you CAN teach something doesn’t mean that you WILL teach it.
    I agree that the soul, spark and utter originality of an authentic work of art is perhaps impossible to teach. But although art requires that little undefinable something, is it what art is? I like to think that we all have a special kind of something within ourselves; art is not about having it, it’s about making something of it. We cannot be taught to be ourselves, but we can be taught how to create art from it. And that’s the hardest part; not the passion, not the inspiration, but the turning-it-into-art part. That, I believe, can be taught. If only, maybe, through discipline. I often feel like that most important part of any teaching is not its content (whether it be painting, physics, or philosophy), but the discipline and perseverance it demands.
    I am a fiction writer who’s never been taught creative writing. But I have been taught to work hard.

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