Can writing be taught? Of course it can! Several times a year, someone starts a debate about whether Creative Writing can be taught. It’s not clear why – after all, those who oppose the teaching of writing are ankle-deep in the ocean, yelling at the tide to retreat – but the recurring debate has been on my mind for some weeks, ever since the Guardian featured me as an example of an author who has benefitted from – and who now delivers – formal education in the craft of writing.
Nobody doubts that music can be taught – we don’t read column after column questioning the existence of conservatoires. Nobody doubts that art can be taught – we don’t need a tri-annual debate on the value of the Royal College of Art. But writing, apparently, is a skill that defies instruction. This curious distinction may owe its roots to the ancients – to the distinction Plato made between poets (who brought new worlds into being) and painters (who merely imitated) – and certainly it’s inspired by the romantic myth of the creative genius, but, I suspect, it’s sustained by the self-images of certain writers who would like to see themselves as something more special than products of a good education (whether that education be formal or autodidactic). Why else do teachers such as Will Self and Hanif Kureishi draw salaries teaching writing while simultaneously condemning the teaching of writing as a waste of time?
Hanif Kureishi said that 99% of his students have no talent and are wasting their time; my thinking is closer to that of Gordon Lish, who must know a thing or two about developing writing. Lish said, “I see the notion of talent as quite irrelevant. I see instead perseverance, application, industry, assiduity, will, will, will, desire, desire, desire.”