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Can Creative Writing Really Be Taught?

One of the biggest debates about creative writing courses these days is: can a person really be taught how to write creatively? Is it an inherent talent? Or, as Malcolm Gladwell suggests in The 10,000 Hour Rule if you practise, practise, practise, can everyone become a good, even great, writer?

I have been teaching creative writing for over a decade so I guess my views on the subject go without saying. But I couldn’t have a job teaching if people weren’t seeking out this type of class and they are in ever increasing numbers. Creative writing degrees are becoming more popular in Ireland. The University of Limerick’s MA in Creative Writing is in its fourth year with the numbers of attendees doubling since year one. If being a writer can’t be taught what are people doing in these classes?

There is a lot involved in telling a good story well. Do you need to understand the theory of fiction writing (narratology) in order to write one? Not necessarily but like any discipline the more you learn and understand about the science behind it the more sense it all makes to you. Each genre has different requirements and you should know the rules of the genre you choose to write in. For example, a piece of fiction requires CONFLICT. If it doesn't have conflict then it doesn’t meet the requirements of fiction and the story fails. Often new writers present anecdotal stories in workshops and while they may be well written pieces, they are not short stories. Classes in theory help to clear up these issues and in so doing guides the writer towards success. The old adage, “you have to know the rules to break the rules”, is nearly always true.

Many well-known and successful writers have never spent a moment in a classroom or workshop studying their craft. Joseph O’Connor, award winning author and Frank McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick says about creative writing courses, “It isn’t for every writer. I didn’t do an MA in creative writing myself. But nobody would say to a talented young violinist, painter or dancer ‘Do you know what you should do? Take no lessons.’”

The creative writing class has many benefits depending on what you are looking for. First timers often come to my classes because they have an idea for a story and can get started but don’t know how to proceed or come to a satisfactory ending. Others need the constructive feedback that is found in a workshop setting. More like to be taught the theory of fiction writing to better understand what the expectations of a story are for them as writers. And of course there is the joy of being with like-minded people!

The initial questions I ask new members are:

  • Why are you writing? What are you writing?

  • Do you want to push towards competitions? Publishing deals?

  • Are you happy to write as a form of self-expression?

  • What genre are you writing in? Fiction? Memoir? Poetry?

  • What do you want to take away from these classes?

  • Are you happy to get constructive feedback?

  • Do you read? What do you read?

How would you answer these questions?

See you later,


Book Recommendations:

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft Stephen King

The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell

The Creative Writing Coursebook Edited by Julia Bells & Pauls Magrs

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