At a workshop last week I asked some of my creative writing students what they hoped to gain from their studies. You might think the answer would be obvious: I’d like to be a professional, published author. But interestingly, only one of a dozen students told me this was her goal, and the range of other reasons was much more wider than you might expect. They were learning variously for pleasure; to be able to use the skills of creative writing to enliven their academic or educational writing; to write a family history; to record their own lives for future generations; to try something new.
This diversity of ambition tends not to be considered in the conversation about whether or not creative writing can be taught. (As an ex-art student, I find it genuinely baffling that this is even a question when no-one seriously suggests that drawing, painting etc. might be unteachable; my favourite contribution to the debate comes from author Tim Clare: Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Not If Your Teacher’s A Prick.)
Anyway, this made me consider the question from my own perspective: what do I hope to gain from teaching creative writing? The obvious answer is an income, and that’s certainly a factor. But in five years of teaching all different kinds of learners, at all levels, I’ve found there are other benefits, too.
1) It makes you a more thoughtful writer. When I began teaching creative writing, I had to become much more consciously aware of the techniques and strategies I was using in my own work so I could explain and illustrate them to others. This increased self-awareness is like switching on the light so you can see what’s in your tool-kit. There are still times when I find myself fumbling around in the dark – and a bit of fumbling has its place – but once you’ve got electricity, it’s hard to imagine how you ever built a whole house by candlelight.
2) It unsticks you. Just occasionally during a conversation with a student, a lightbulb appears above my head as I realise the solution I’m suggesting to them is the very thing I need to apply to my own work-in-progress. One story had been perplexing me for years; then I had the lightbulb moment – to do with organising time – and it was finished that afternoon. And that solution worked for the student, too.
3) It makes you raise your game. When you realise how very many people there are out there who are talented writers bursting with inventive ideas, that’s a great incentive to work harder at developing your own skills – as well as a reminder that talent and inventiveness often need a third, less glamorous friend: persistence.
4) It gets you out of the house. Most of my days are spent reading, writing, thinking, procrastinating, going for walks and making tea – alone. I like alone, but I also like to be reminded from time to time that other people exist; that I exist. Teaching, especially with really varied groups, allows me to meet new people – to connect with the world outside my head.
5) It pays. Because unless you’re happy living in that garret, you’re going to need a day-job.