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Fay Weldon speaks up for creative writing

If creativity can’t be taught, the invaluable craft of writing can, says novelist and Bath Spa professor

Jane Austen spent her early years reading her work aloud to her family, who were both censorious and critical. ‘Only write about what you know,’ they told her, doubtless stifling her ‘creativity’ - only lately used as a kind of all-purpose, ill-defined compliment

Can creativity be taught? The answer is no. Creativity cannot be taught. Not if you define creativity as the urge to make something out of nothing, to put something where there was nothing before, whether it’s making a cake, carving a lamp stand or creating an alternative universe in the form of a novel, no. You either have the impulse to add to God’s creation, or in some way elaborate on it, or you don’t.

If you’re asking can “creative writing” - the rather odd misnomer for a discipline currently taught in universities and from now on at A level - be taught, the answer is “yes, of course”. (Misnomer, I say; inasmuch as a subject that once meant making up effective stories has stretched to mean anything a student strives to write elegantly and by implication, to sell.) You can teach the craft, if not the art. You can’t teach students what to think but you can help them to use words effectively and persuasively. You can teach would-be writers that individual words are serious things, how to use them to good purpose, how one adjective diminishes the power of the next, and explain why adverbs are throwaway words, wasted. You can teach writers that space on the page is a form of punctuation, that dialogue is more than simple mimicry of how real people speak, that readers don’t read as writers write, one word at a time linearly. They read in blocks. You can even teach writers how to write novels, so long as they have something to say. If they haven’t it’s an uphill and very lengthy struggle for them, their teachers and their readers.

Few novelists in the canon spring ready-formed and untutored from birth. Many start as journalists or essayists: Sterne, Thackeray, Swift, Dickens, Conrad. Balzac failed as a librettist, Tolstoy wrote autobiographical sketches, Goethe was a literary editor. All lived the literary life from a young age, and learned from their peers and their mentors. They learned from the criticism and comments of others. They got rejected. They learned, painfully, what works, what doesn’t work: they learned to handle words. Only then, confident, did they launch into fiction - pretty much what goes on in any creative writing class. Jane Austen spent her early years reading her work aloud to her family, who were both censorious and critical. “Only write about what you know, Jane,” they said, thus no doubt stifling her “creativity” - a word only lately in common usage as a kind of all-purpose if ill-defined compliment.

I never had a single rejection as a fiction writer, but that was because I spent an eight-year apprenticeship as an advertising copywriter, learning to use words to persuade and convince (I nearly wrote corrupt), everything I wrote subjected to reading and noting tests, every word graded according to efficacy. I learned to identify with readers, the uses and abuses of typography, how one enthusiastic adjective makes three times the impression of two, how to fill a brief, how to write for the press, for the screen, for audio. I had the vague impression when I began that publishers published my early novels un-interfered with because I was a “natural” and grew very conceited, but actually it was because I was properly trained.

Writing can be taught, needs to be taught. Every person who writes a manifesto, a benefits leaflet, a census form, a company report, a council handout, needs to be trained in how to write concisely and to the point, first things first, afterthoughts next, lots of headings, lots of short paragraphs, how to use simple words instead of portentous ones, how to translate business jargon into words that mean what they say and aren’t some kind of cover-up.

I would like to see a new discipline, called simply Literacy, taught in our universities and schools, so that the current outpouring of muddy texts can be replaced by a flow of elegant, informative and crystal-clear information - to the benefit of our national pride and dignity. In the meanwhile employers should note that an employee with a qualification in creative writing can be trusted not just to write simply and well, but to be empathic (the fiction writer spends a lot of time pretending to be other people) so is less likely to write tactless emails and cause a scandal unless intentionally. Creative writing is a degree in the effective management of words and emotion and an understanding of how they relate, and yes, it can be taught. And if I might add, should be.

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