Any mixed-ability class of creative writing students can be split into four groups. Group one are those who have writing talent and have confidence in their talent. Group two have talent but lack confidence. Group three have no talent and feel insecure. Group four believe with the right tuition their talent will be uncovered even though they have no aptitude for writing.
Each student in a class will have different aspirations. Regardless of talent, some will just want to write better, some will want to be stretched to reach brilliance and some are attending for social reasons. In a non elective class, some will be there because they don’t have a choice.
Mixed ability, non elective classes are the hardest to teach: there will always be a group of students who don’t want to be there who can disrupt the class for students who do want to be there. At least in mixed ability, elective classes, all the students want to be there, but not all of them will want to learn. As well as those who want to study will be some there because they wanted to do something (it just happened to be creative writing because the art classes were fully subscribed) or wanted to meet people interested in writing; learning anything is a bonus rather than a primary aim.
Measuring achievement isn’t straightforward. Writing and publishing are different disciplines and students who learn to write to a publishable standard, won’t necessarily get published. It’s unhelpful for a creative writing tutor to use publication as a yardstick: they have no control over whether a piece of writing gets published or not, that’s in the hands of publishers.
One student may be happy to write better without getting published. Another might assume that lack of publication means they’ve failed. Both students will have new skills in being able to express ideas, better communication and the ability to understand the technical side of writing even if those skills are only used to write business reports or giving after dinner speeches rather than creating brilliant literary novels or writing award-winning poems.
There is a school of thought that if you tell students they will fail or they can’t write, the stronger students will redouble their efforts and the weaker ones will drop out. It does not work and is the sign of a bad teacher. The aim should be to keep students in groups one and two on the course and let students from groups three and four drop out.
However, telling students they can’t write will see group one, those confident in their ability, redouble their efforts and stick with it. Those in group two who have talent but lack confident will drop out, which is not the intention. Losing students in group three will free up teaching time to stretch those in group one. Students in group four who are delusional about their writing ability and see it as the teacher’s responsibility to nurture and develop the talent they don’t have, will continue anyway.
The teacher will be left with a class of very confident students with some or no talent and will have lost some talented students. A real teacher will work out which students belong to which group and focus their efforts on groups one and two.
There is, and always will be, a debate about whether creative writing can be taught. A student who has writing talent will develop their craft through courses (or reading avidly). A student with no writing talent will learn to construct a story or poem but their writing, whilst technically correct, will lack flair and creativity. A student who has the ability to write, but no desire to understand or learn the craft, will see their writing stagnate and never develop.
Taking a course won’t suit those who don’t respond well in an academic environment. But they are worthwhile if you do respond to learning in an academic environment and are seeking to learn more about the craft of writing. Creative writing courses are not a shortcut to publication. Instead they are the ability to learn more and develop your writing. They are also a starting point. If you do your creative writing degree and then stop learning, your writing will stagnate.
If you don’t think academia is for you, keep reading. There are plenty of ‘how to write’ books out there, but also read work by writers you like and work out how it works. If you come across something you don’t think works, take the time to figure out why it doesn’t work. Use what you learn to inform your own writing and editing. Consider joining a writers’ group too. Whether you turn up in person or post pieces online, getting your work peer-reviewed and receiving and giving constructive feedback will develop your writing skills. It’s not the case that someone who has done a course is a better writing that one who has not done a course. It’s about how you learn best.
By Emma Lee