We Don’t Need No Writing Classes

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The playwright Dennis Kelly has credits that include ‘Matilda’ (co-credit) and ‘Taking Care Of Baby’, and his first play ‘Debris is being revived at Southwark Playhouse. He recently had this to say in an interview given to the excellent website What’s On Stage. He’s talking about plays and television, but I think it applies to all forms of writing, and crystallises my attitude to teaching ‘creative writing’. I’ve always felt that British writers tend to write as if their mothers were looking over their shoulders, and American writers write as if their professors were looking over theirs.

Here’s Dennis:

So would you advise aspiring playwrights against writing courses?

‘I would, absolutely. I used to be very circumspect about this but as I’ve got older I’ve become more militant. If I had my way there’d be no writing courses at all. It’s not about education – I think education is incredible and very valuable – but there’s been this weird explosion of creative writing courses. I think they can help individuals but they tend to teach stuff you’d find out yourself anyway. It’s not really that hard, it’s about practising and trying to be aware of where you’re getting it wrong.

We’ve got brilliant writers emerging who have been on courses but we’ve always had great writers. Pinter didn’t go on a course, he was an actor. Beckett and Shakespeare didn’t do writing courses. I’m not sure why a 22 year-old writer now needs to do one. I don’t think we should teach 22 year-olds how to write, they should be teaching us what we’re doing wrong. That said, education – and I speak as someone who didn’t really have an education who then did as a mature student – changes the way you think. Education is incredible, it’s amazing. I think there are loads of interesting courses you can do, but I just think courses that teach you how to write aren’t that valuable.’

The last decade has seen a huge expansion in creative writing courses. More than 90 British universities now offer a range of postgraduate degrees, and around 10,000 short creative writing courses or classes are on offer in the UK each year.

While I agree wholeheartedly with Dennis, I should add that teaching those with proven talent is a different matter; I gave a one-day teaching class at Southend’s Metal artists in residence and met a group of talented young men and women who wanted help with shaping their ideas, and we all learned from one another. A student with aptitude and interest can benefit a lot from mentoring and sharing their work with other students. But random ‘creative writing’ courses, which usually get dominated by the those with the least ability, are in my opinion a waste of time.

Having said all this, I’ve just read a book about professional writing which has genuinely helped me. It’s for those who are serious about avoiding bad ‘How To’ books and want to raise their game, and it’s more intelligent than most of the others. John Yorke’s ‘Into The Woods: How Stories Work And Why We Tell Them’ is a genuine game-changer and has helped me put past bad habits to rest – it’s not out in paperback from Penguin.

9 comments on “We Don’t Need No Writing Classes”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    A very good article.
    There are more people telling other people how to write than there are people trying to write. All of this “direction and oversight” can only bring on a case of “the frozen in the spotlight” writing. So much of writing isn’t that way: overly examined. It’s more a flurry of concentrated get-it-down-on-paper, or the screen, which seems to follow an often only slightly-conscious period of accretion and rumination, sometimes after a period of doing something else entirely that’s seemingly unrelated..
    I think a writer should eventually possess a sense disciple, of form(s), specific story pacing, angle of attack (especially needed in short stories), and should have developed his/her sense of successful tale telling. And hopefully have a rather good “in-house” editor – or first reader – who will when asked keep a writer on track when he/she drifts off topic for some particularly fine, but digressive off-topic prose (often a “thanks to my wife or partner or good buddy” arrangement.).
    Except for a sudden right angle in my young career path, I would have been an English professor, but I think I somehow knew back then that that way would have led to a juiceless career of grading papers and second-hand experiences and strings precious prose. Whatever skills I have learned came from observation and tap-tap-tapping.
    Oh, and I agree American writers have their professors looking over their shoulders – not a good thing: this tightens up the whole process, which should really be “get on with it” and then rewrite, cool down, and revise.
    And I really dislike Writers’ Workshops, much of their product is too identifiable as WW productions, and woodsy literary retreats, and potted reviews structured like high school book reports.
    Okay, I’ve dropped my guard and foolishly leaped in.
    You’ll find a basket of eggs and some moldy veggies next to the door on your way out – have at it.
    (I can’t speak to the British Moms.}

  2. Mike Cane says:

    >>>it’s not out

    Did you mean “now”?

  3. Helen Martin says:

    “High school book reports” It’s hard to get away from that form, but we try. Start by assuming the read has read the book? No, because they wouldn’t be reading the review if they had.

  4. pheeny says:

    I don’t think you can truly teach people how to write any more than you can teach people how to paint – however that doesn’t mean that you can’t teach them how to learn.

  5. FabienneT says:

    Hi, I was one of the “students” at Metal. I had applied for the week-long course because it wasn’t a creative writing class. It was, as you say, all about sharing ideas and talking about writing, but at no point were there any exercises and no one actually told us how to write. The guest speakers – you were one of them – were there to tell us about their work and writing processes, but at no point did any of you arrogantly told us what to do. It was great. I personally will never go to a creative writing class, I hate being told how to do things. I have a stupid romantic idea about what a writer is (all craft, hard work, instinct, imagination etc.), and I don’t think you can teach someone to write – we should all have our own style. You need to read a lot, have a passion for books and have creativity and imagination and above all passion for your work. I really hate the way writing has become a monetised product, people PAY to attend classes and be supposedly “taught” how to write (as well as “how to grab an agent’s attention”, “how to get published”, etc.). There’s this illusion that “everyone has a book in them” which is not true. But that’s just me!

  6. Helen Martin says:

    A friend has asked me why all of the modern writers seem to have editors (whom they thank in the intros) when not one of the Bloomsbury Group seemed to need one. They read each other’s stuff and just didn’t note it. I’ll bet their lives were one long writers’ workshop. I read a book about a girl’s experiences during and after the Holocaust. It could have been an important book for teens but it was a novelized version of her life and she was determined to have all sorts of things in there. The writing was terrible, you could see the parts she had told a dozen times and tell which parts really were fiction. It was a terrible mishmash and I recommended it to no one. The author taught creative writing at the local university.

  7. Dan Terrell says:

    Helen – You appear to have become a whiz-bang on that new iPad or whatever you have.
    I’m still mastering my newish iPhone4 and sometimes send texts to the wrong addressee in the family. It is far better than the battered old Samsung flip top that I used for a decade – I believe I originally found it down between the sofa cushions after Arthur wandered off. It’s the model that had the little wooden-handle crank on the right side to power up.
    I’ve recently bought a number of used Fowler short story collections and “The Devil in Me” has a nice story of an elderly man who buys himself a PC for Christmas and then has a young installer from the electronics shop set it up and explain it to him, of course, with the usual youthful speed. Called “The Beacon” and quite effecting among many. good stories.
    Vacation well and hand on to that new equipment.

  8. Great writers are of course born, but the writing courses can improve the writing style of other immortals, I believe.

  9. Fiona says:

    I go on writing courses sometimes because I enjoy the interaction with others and it’s good for me to see how other people think or approach things. The worst one I attended was run by someone who teaches writing in his day job. All I got from it was complete contempt for a very arrogant man who didn’t want to listen to anyone in the class of adults he was teaching. He was clearly used to being idolised by the young students he normally taught. Every time someone tried to say something or put forward a different point of view he was very aggressive and condescending towards them. He didn’t impress me and I felt sorry for his students. One of the best ones I went on was run by Goldsboro Books off Charing Cross Road. It was run by two crime fiction writers and it was about structuring a crime novel. Both had very different writing styles and it was a useful exercise in seeing how each of them worked. I felt I gained a lot from their insights, plus it was held in a very nice bookshop!

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