‘Can you teach Creative Writing?’
There have been and will continue to be well-publicised arguments about whether something so individual can or should be taught. The answer, though, should depend on what we mean by “taught”. Creative ability can’t be learned by rote, or recited like a times table. However, good habits and stimulus from a good teacher will provide an introduction to key techniques that encourage the student to move forward towards their own discoveries.
‘Can you learn Creative Writing?’
You can always become more fluent in your own voice. If you are a writer, at any stage in your career, you should never stop learning. The longer and more successful the career the more true that is, so if you’re a relative beginner you have no excuse not to be learning creative writing.
Perception drives reality. So pay attention.
You can also teach yourself to think and live like a writer. The rest is passion and hard work and don’t kid yourself it’s always going to be in that order. If you’re looking at the world, if it is inciting your curiosity and humour, you are thinking like a writer: you’re observing. Your job as a creative writer is to create the sense of reality. You are baring witness to your own world vision through your own voice. It’s not objective reality; all you can do is aspire to be truthfully subjective. It’s all about your observation: of the world and your personal, individual response to it. Observe and report: through dialogue, through description, through ideas, through questions. That is your writing voice.
1) MAKE your “commonplace book” commonplace.
Use your notebook every day, not only for quotes but to record images you've seen; sights, smells and sounds. Above all, anything where you think ‘Oh that’s funny/interesting/important I’ll remember that’, because you won’t unless you write it down.
2) DO your warm-up.
Write for five minutes (it’ll be ten) or fifteen minutes (it’ll be twenty) without deciding which part of your book it’s going to be from. It might be the chapter you expected to work on, or something else entirely. But it will be uncensored. Observe what was most important to your uncensored mind. What do you really want to write about?
3) TRUST that writing is meant to feel like hard work.
Genius being one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration raises a lot of smiles but fewer nods. It’s hard to shake the idea that real art comes fully formed, a gift from God beautifully wrapped. If you don’t shake that idea, you’re more likely to drive yourself crazy than finish the book. Print your drafts; try to read them as if you've never seen them before. What is clear? What needs more work? What still needs unwrapping?
4) HAVE something to say.
If you want to be a writer it is, God willing, because you want to communicate. Look at your work honestly. What are you trying to say to the world? Better still, what are you trying to ask it? What separates ‘Look how great I am’ or ‘Look how much I’ve had to deal with’ from literature is turning your experience outward, stepping away from the real details enough to find what is deeper, the bigger truth.
5) RISK your characters’ happiness.
Like proverbial women and literal teabags, you don’t know how strong your characters are until they’re in hot water. Give them harder situations to face. Test them. You’ll bond with them more that way too.
6) WRITE before you edit.
It’s amazing how long intelligent people waste trying to edit things they haven’t really written yet. It’s a bit like following a conversation or relationship you’re thinking about having in your head: you’ll think you've found the definitive version, but you haven’t even found a version. Just you in your head. Get your world onto the page, however badly. The better you know your world, the more apt your edits will be.
7) MAKE time.
I know, I know. I know you don’t have any time. I know there are work expectations and personal expectations and children and parents and bills. I would take it all away if I could, from all of us. I can’t, and you will never have enough time. Time is not to be had, it’s to be made the most of. If you think writing is important to you, you have to make space for it. Don’t expect the right time to come along. Make writing time instead.
8) LEARN all you can about writing.
Read a book you normally wouldn't; re-read one you love; try a new writing magazine; try a new magazine about an interest outside writing. Know what you hate, what you think doesn't work, and be specific about why. Respect what you don’t like. Some literary fiction fans haven’t learned to read past the clunkier style of Ubik or The Restaurant at the End of the Universe so miss the philosophy and ideas that would blow them away in another voice. It’s fine – you don’t have to like everything. But if you confuse personal taste with worthiness, you won’t learn anything about your own writing.
9) BE curious.
There are versions of yourself, background ideas. Living as authentically as you can allows you to explore your own motivation and puts you in touch with new characters. Fall in love with the hobby you didn't dare pick up. Dress the way you would if you only had yourself to please. Or just the way you never would of your own accord. Then write the person who does it all the time.
10) OBSERVE the world around you.
Like Sherlock Holmes in his deductions, you get more out of making no assumptions than trying to blend the world to fit your expectations or hopes. Everything is observation, from self-knowledge and emotional intelligence to describing a physical horizon or emotional landscape. Your notebook will keep what your brain cannot. The only kind of immortality in our grasp is ideas.
Rachel Knightley is a freelance writer, director and teacher. She runs Green Ink Writers’ Gym, resident at Waterstones Piccadilly, for writers of all genres and levels of experience. As Green Ink Theatre, she produces an annual Sponsored Write and new writing showcase, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support. She teaches Creative Writing, Speech and Drama from home and in theatres, schools and universities. Visit her website here.