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‘But can you really teach people how to write?’

It’s a line I’ve heard so many times, yet it’s still surprising. When someone wants to become a painter or a sculptor, they go to Art School. No-one says: ‘But can you really teach people how to paint?’ It’s just universally accepted that if you are artistically gifted you will benefit by studying technique, observing how other artists have achieved their effects, and experimenting, under the guidance of tutors (who are also artists) in order to develop your own unique style. But teaching (or learning) Creative Writing is regarded as a much more spurious affair. Writers are born, not schooled, according to some.

One of the writers I read in my early teens who made me sit up and realise there were vital voices which had not formed part of my Eng. Lit. education at school was Kurt Vonnegut. This was a writer who changed everything I had previously thought about what writing was, or could be. I didn’t know then that he had begun teaching Creative Writing at the University of Iowa at the same time he began writing the novel which brought him to the public’s attention, Slaughterhouse-Five (1965).

Past students on that course included Tennessee Williams and Flannery O'Connor. (‘One wonders what ever became of them,’ Vonnegut reflected, when he, too, was faced with the same question: ‘But can you really teach people how to write?’)

In defence of teaching creative writing, Vonnegut repeated a legend that he felt made a key point.

‘A tough guy, I forget which one, is asked to speak to a creative writing class. He says: "What in hell are you doing here? Go home and glue your butts to a chair, and write and write until your heads fall off!" Or words to that effect.

‘My reply: "Listen, there were creative writing teachers long before there were creative writing courses, and they were called, and continue to be called, editors."’

Vonnegut said that the most recent person to ask him the question about whether writing could be taught was a journalist, and that, in all probability, the asker of the question was taught by an editor. Many novelists were previously journalists, and the on-the-job training, because informal, remains largely unrecognised. Returning to the comparison with artists, Leonardo da Vinci was educated in the studio of Verrochio; Michelangelo was apprenticed to a painter and subsequently studied under a sculptor. They may well have been born artists, but they grew and learnt and refined under the critical eye and nurturing hand of other artists.

Vonnegut went on: ‘If the tough guy was Thomas Wolfe or Ernest Hemingway, he had the same creative writing teacher, who suggested, on the basis of his long experience, how the writer might clean up the messes on paper that he had made. He was Maxwell Perkins, reputedly one of the greatest editors of fiction who ever lived.’

Discovering this article fairly recently whetted my appetite for finding out more about the literary editor, Maxwell Perkins. I learned that he had indeed made Tom Wolfe publishable by encouraging him to cut 90,000 words from his first novel (that, in itself, is the length of a full-blown novel); he brought Hemingway’s first book to the press, fighting in-house resistance to Hemingway’s ‘bad language’ by securing the author’s co-operation in deleting some of it and defending the rest of it. Vonnegut was so sure of Perkins’ contribution to literature that he did not even add that Perkins had also mentored F Scott Fitzgerald and published his first novel, not to mention bringing Erskine Caldwell and Alan Paton (Cry, the Beloved Country) to the world’s attention, supplying the plot for The Yearling (Marjorie Kinnon Rawlings), and publishing the first efforts of a number of Pulitzer prize-winning authors.

Perkins never rewrote his authors’ works. He suggested titles and plots. He gave advice about structure and selection. He advised them on what to read. And he defended them. His letters to writers are full of thoughtful, sound and sensitive advice, tailored to the needs of that particular writer, and yet of universal value. He, like Vonnegut, speaks to me about what writing can be.

And there’s another, purely economic aspect, to Creative Writing as a subject. Quite simply, it saves time. As Vonnegut himself observed, he wished he had attended a good creative writing course at the beginning of his writing career. ‘To have done so would have been good for me.’ He quotes another author who regretted not having taken a course at Iowa or Stanford when he was starting out as a novelist. ‘That would have saved him, he said, the several years he wasted trying to find out, all by himself, the best way to tell a story.’

Creative Writing is now offered as an A-level, but there appears to be an expectation that English teachers will just be able to teach it. Some will do it, easily and well. Others will struggle, and so will their students. Somehow it’s sneaked onto the syllabus without any training being offered, as if there is an assumption that English teachers can teach this, because ‘it’s all writing’. If this experiment fails, it won’t be the teachers’ fault. It will be down to a fatal misunderstanding of the difference between criticism and practice.

So, let’s return to the initial question. Can you teach people how to write? Yes, if the student has a burgeoning talent and the tutor understands how to nurture it. You also have to resist the temptation make everyone write like you do. You need to help them write like themselves. That’s what Maxwell Perkins did. The writer, in his words, had to ‘own the book’.

Dr Sarah Burton, Sarah is Course Director and Tutor on many of ICE's Creative Writing courses, including the MSt in Creative Writing

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