Friday, June 05, 2009

Nature Or Nurture?

from Jacqueline

There’s an article in this week’s New Yorker addressing that age-old question: Can creative writing be taught? It focuses on those MFA and other university/college-based programs that concentrate on providing a core curriculum for the writer. Apparently, the number of creative writing programs has increased from 15 in 1975, to one hundred and fifty-three today. And that’s without all the workshops, short-courses, conferences and so on that are presented each year for writers of every stripe. But does that make us all better writers? This is such a vexing question that someone has written a book about it: The Program Era ($35 or $25.20 on Amazon).

Now this all interests me, to some point, because I have always loved school, loved being in a “learning” environment where ideas are thrown around like so much wheat and chaff in the grist mill. And right now I am in the midst of helping bring together the next Book Passage Mystery Writers’ Conference (one of the best out there) of which I am co-chair. We always like to say that it has a “collegiate” environment, and I would like to think that we have a significant impact on the writers who plunk down good money to attend. Mind you, there is a sterling alumni from which to draw faculty – the likes of Cara Black, Cornelia Read, Tony Broadbent, Tim Maleeney – and that’s without the many authors who clamor to be part of lineup. Oh, and I began taking my writing seriously by attending a memoir class at BPU – Book Passage University.

That's me (with clipboard, trying to look co-Chair-ish) with Tony Broadbent and David Hewson, and - eek - I can't remember the name of the man on the right.

We may not be Iowa – although I am sure we’ll push out a writer who wins a Pulitzer one of these years – but each year we look at our delivery systems (should this be a lecture or a workshop? Is this topic best taught in small groups or with panel input? How do we cater to everyone’s unique needs as a writer, and also bring them together in a synergistic group?) and we match the skills of our author faculty with the program. It’s no small task, and I know we take it all very seriously.

So, can writing be taught? Here’s what I think. That urge to write, that rush of creative energy that spawns the idea for a story – cannot be taught. But it can be nurtured, it can be burnished by practice, by example, by in-depth reading. It can be nourished by practice in other aspects of writing – learn rhythm by writing poetry, learn how to describe a scene from studying memoir, and learn endurance – oh, we need that endurance – from the practice of sharing work with a group. That’s when you really learn that much of writing is in the rewriting (When I wrote my first novel, I thought the rewrite was accomplished by hitting the spell-check). I guarantee that if you do those things, you’ll have more of those singular moments of inspiration. And I have just noticed that I've used the word "practice" several times in one paragraph - the sort of repetition that's usually a big no-no, but in this context, maybe it was meant to be.

Apparently the majority of students in creative writing programs never publish a poem, essay, novel or short-story. The experience is never wasted though, because creativity is never wasted – I read somewhere else that in Silicon Valley and other such areas of innovation, they look for arts graduates on the basis that you can teach the nuts and bolts of computers (or whatever) but ... you can’t teach creativity. On the other hand, I happen to think that among the broad range of people attending ad-hoc writing workshops around the country there will be a significant number of published authors – and if Book Passage is anything to go by, a steady stream.

But here’s another story for you. Since I published my first novel in 2003, I have, on and off, attended the memoir/creative non-fiction courses offered by the wonderful Barbara Abercrombie at UCLA Extension. I’ve written about her before. I call it my writing gym, my chance to flex the muscles in other ways. In her classes, Barbara will often give a five-minute writing exercise – could be poetry, a scene, a short-short story – and you just sit there and write until she says “Time!” Now, I can write pretty quickly, so I always managed to get a lot down in my five minutes, but I do what I guess we all do – stash the writing away or lose it somewhere in the catacombs of my computer. A few weeks ago, my UK publisher asked if I had any short stories to submit to a magazine – if I did and they were accepted, the magazine would do a spread on my work. But I’m not a short story writer, and I thought, “Rats! Another opportunity lost.” Then a light bulb went off and I remembered Barbara’s’ five minute exercises. To cut a long story short (forgive the pun), I had written two short stories in those five minute assignments – one was based on the task to “write a piece using the senses” – and I wrote a Christmas story from the point of view of an assistance dog accompanying his owner to a family dinner; and I can’t remember what the other task was, but I wrote about a women who runs away after being in a train crash because she knows her husband will think her dead anyway. I dragged them out, dusted them off – and because I am on an eye-watering deadline to deliver a manuscript, I didn’t spend more than another five or ten minutes – and sent them off. And they’re being published!!! I have never published a short story, and I am so excited.

And the moral of that story is – never underestimate the power of going back to school, whatever your subject of choice is.

I’m going to see one of my favorite vocalists this weekend – Julia Fordham at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood – and I am SO excited!!

What are you up to?


  1. James O. Born6/05/2009 12:47 PM

    Excellent post. I think natural storytellers are born but good writers can be taught.
    I'd much rather read a book by a good storyteller but I like good writing too.

    How is that for vague?

  2. I agree you can't teach the art of writing but you can teach the craft of writing.

    I just finished a 40-hour homicide investigation course. More of that on Monday...

  3. from Jacqueline

    Jim, you're not really being THAT vague, I know exactly what you mean. The good writing we know and love is more often the result of hours of blood, toil, sweat and tears - it is the rare writer who just sits down and the perfectly told perfect story just falls out on the page. Like the perfect souffle or the perfect haircut, it's not just the time the cook or the hairdresser took to finish their work of art, but the years they spent learning their craft. And on that note, thank you for bringing up the craft of writing, Patty - there's a distinction there between art and craft that is sometimes missed.

  4. jackie,
    please do let us know where and when those two shortstories will be published.
    enjoy the concert!

  5. I'll keep you posted, Sybille. I've been asked for another story, so will have to go back into my pile of scribblings to see what I have lurking there!