Soon, I’ll be teaching a six-week course on creative writing. I’ve been told that creative writing cannot be taught, but it can be learned. Sounds very Zen, doesn’t it? Despite this apparent wisdom, writers have been trying for years to teach the art of writing to students. Raymond Carver did it. So did Frank O’Connor. And me.
No, I don’t claim to belong on their level. I just want to point out that I’m not the only one deluded into believing that writing can, to some degree, be taught. Or at least learned.
About thirty years ago, I used to watch a TV series called The Paper Chase. It was about a group of law students and their irascible tutor, Professor Kingsfield, played by the late John Houseman. The voice over at the beginning featured Kingsfield addressing his students: “You teach yourselves the law and I train your mind.” This, in a nutshell, is my approach for teaching fiction writing. Yes, you can teach the mechanics, but a good teacher knows that if you can help someone to think like a writer, everything else will follow.
How do we teach people to think like writers? If it comes to it, how do we, as writers, train our own minds? We use three tools: Reading, observation skills, and practice.
If you’ve learned to drive, you’ll remember how at first you fussed over where your hands should be on the wheel, how to switch gears, how to watch everything. After you’ve been driving for a few months, all these things have become second nature. So it is with looking for stories. Your clever brain will do all the looking, even when you’re not consciously doing so. Of course, you didn’t learn to drive in just one lesson. You spent hours being guided by an experienced driver, and you practiced as often as your dad would let you borrow the car.
When you first started to drive, you first had to master the rules of the road. So with writing, you need to master the fundamentals: grammar, spelling, and the various elements of fiction, such as creating dynamic characters and delivering a sound plot. As a would-be writer, you must know how the masters handled all those technical elements. Read and pay attention. How did the action build? Why are you so sympathetic to the villain? How did the author surprise you at the end and yet make it feel so satisfying?
Very few blind people are painters. Very few deaf people compose music. Yet if you try to write without ever reading you are just as just as blind and deaf. Read widely, read outside your favourite genres, read for fun and also for the things it can teach you.
The world is all around us and yet so many people fail to pay attention. We ignore conversations and stuff earphones in so we won’t be bothered. We trudge through the streets with our eyes on the ground and fail to notice the sky or the architecture around us. We hurry away from homeless people or anyone who might disturb us. Yet we somehow expect to come home and write a story about the world we have shut out.
You have to pay attention. Listen to how people talk. Listen for the differences in how people from this town use words as opposed to people from that town. Does a teenager sound like a retiree? I promise you they don’t. What’s the difference? LISTEN!
Get used to looking, really looking, at everything around you. Translate everything you see, hear, taste into language. This isn’t difficult, it just takes, you’ve guessed it….
As with driving, you can become competent to excellent with practice. Practice your observation skills. Ask yourself how Dickens would have described that fog (read the opening chapter of Bleak House if you need a clue.) Ponder how Emily Bronte would have described the countryside around you. Or how Fitzgerald would have brought your city to life.
Yes, it will take time, but not nearly as long as you think. Once you start, you’ll discover how much fun it is to think like a writer. You’ll soon realise that there are stories all around you.
As with any other art or indeed anything worth learning, your success depends on your self-discipline. I know you don’t want to hear that, but in your heart you know it’s true. You’ll never become a safe driver if you don’t pay attention during your classes or fail to practice. You’ll never learn to play the piano if you don’t take the time to work on your scales.
It takes discipline to train your mind, and it takes discipline to write. If your talent lies in storytelling and if your passion lies in writing, then none of this will seem a chore. Generally, you don’t have to persuade a teenager to practice driving. They’re hungry to get behind the wheel. By the same token, if you’re meant to be a writer, then you’ll be very happy to do the work necessary to make you the best storyteller you can be.
Mind control. Turns out it’s not just for KGB agents and Big Brother.