An online discussion group raised an interesting issue for me. Is it possible to teach creative writing? There are certainly techniques all writers need to learn. But are creative writers born or made? What matters more, skill or talent?
Here in Canada, there are a number of universities with highly regarded creative writing degree programs. They produce technically competent writers who churn out novels full of the stream-of-consciousness, politically correct, psychobabble group think that universities specialize in these days instead of knowledge. These graduates produce novels which look alike and which win prestigious awards (voted on by the same university professors who trained them) and which nobody outside academia reads. These books are long on technique and short on substance, produced by 25-year-olds who have spent their entire lives in school and have very little life experience beyond what they have been given second-hand.
I am not denigrating education, both formal and informal. I am grateful for the many skilled editors who have taught me far more than I can ever calculate. I have attended writing conferences and have taught at them. I have four university degrees, including a bachelor’s degree in English and history and a PhD in history. I was a writer before I went to university, but there I became a much better writer. I learned a great deal, gaining a broad knowledge of the world, honing my skills, and endlessly practising my writing.
But the point is that it is called creative writing for a reason. The essence of creative writing is to be creative, not to follow a formula devised and taught by someone else.
In one of my university English classes, I came across a commentary that asked how the barely literate John Bunyan could produce a literary classic such as Pilgrim’s Progress. The commentator reached a surprising conclusion: Bunyan demonstrated that the most crucial prerequisite for a great writer is to have something important to say.