Can you teach someone to be a writer?
Can you, indeed? Or to become a better writer? I guess that depends on how you define "teach."
You can ask this question about any of the arts. Can you teach someone how to paint? Paint beautifully? Sing? Sing with soul?
The weird synergy between "nature" and "nurture" continues to confuse. Can you nurture nature? And other such cute confusions.
I have half an answer to this question. The more technical an artistic field, the more obviously "teachable" it is. So film-making goes right to the top. Camera, lights, costume, make-up, science, arts, engineering... the technical details are overwhelming, and there's much, much to learn and master—and hence, to teach.
All you need... is a facility with language and an interesting relationship with life... a facility that is quirky, unpredictable, original. Something that creates the right tension between the familiar and the alien.
Literature, I think, is the least "technical" of the arts. There is no sensual element involved, and no physical paraphernalia. It uses language, an artificial medium that exists purely due to a social consensus but is utterly inseparable from everyday life. Everybody uses language. All you need to produce memorable writing is a facility with language and an interesting relationship with life. Not a "command" over language; not being "good" in a language according to established conventions. But a facility that is quirky, unpredictable, original. Something that creates the right tension between the familiar and the alien. For that is what literature is—a constant, unresolvable opposition between the claim of empathy and the force of alienation.
If you possess these two things, you can be a writer—indeed, a remarkable one. The rest is detail. Point of view, narrative distance, meter, rhyme, voice; none of them make the heart of the matter; they are simply called forth as the spirit of the work demands. To pervert Marx's formulation: all technique exists in the superstructure; the primary base that determines its nature is made up of the author's twinned relation with language, with life. Precious little that is "teachable" there.
So what good does a creative writing program do? Certainly it can do much bad. An obsession with technique, for one thing. The kind of thing that can create soulless crafts(wo)men. They can also drive hyper-professionalized ambassadors of literature—those that are more concerned with the professional trappings of literary life—publishing, reviews, awards, agents, lit fests—far more than they are enthused about the real and mundane sweat of writing. One look at the MFA (Master of Fine Arts) forest in the USA and you will stand convinced. None of the excellent writing coming out of the MFA landscape can null that allegation.
A communal space can be a life-saver for a writer. And no passive space either—a biting, bruising, loving space, if the space is done right.
Let's try again. What good can creative writing programs achieve?
To get the inessentials out. An MFA is essentially a worthless degree. Worthless, unless you back it up with solid publications, evidence of writing excellence certified by whoever holds worthwhile authority at that time and place: prestigious publishers, influential reviews, awards, sales figures—the yardsticks are many and yours to choose, though choose you must.
Likewise, a BA in creative writing is also a pretty reliable way for a shirker to get a fluff degree.
One last time: what good do creative writing programs do?
They create a space for writers to come together. They push writing to go from the therapeutic to the affective. Therapeutic: that journal entry where you vented your anger, romance, frustration, love, disgust. Affective: the piece of writing that successfully evokes all these emotions in the reader. Where writing goes from being about you to being directed to the reader. And how does it do that? By turning writers into readers and back to writers again. That's the workshop experience at the heart of writing programs. Exchange, critique, offer your writing soul up naked for all to see, caress, love, scratch and beat and berate. Rinse and repeat. Discuss, love, attack. Making literary friends and enemies for life, ideally both in the same person.
To bring together like-minded souls scratching away at an indeterminate piece of stone—there's something to be said for that. Writing is awfully isolating business—far more so than any of the performing arts, which tend to be communal in nature, often (though not always) building on collective bodies. A communal space can be a life-saver for a writer. And no passive space either—a biting, bruising, loving space, if the space is done right. But no personal love-bites either—the erasure of that personal self and the celebration of the artistic one. True poetry, Eliot said, is an escape from personality.
Creative writing is distinctive in that it requires the celebration of the subjective. Subject not self. The difference between the two is the essence of writing.
The tension between the personal and the artistic is not entirely unlike that between the alien and the familiar that drives literature. One does many kinds of writing at the university—scientific, academic, even newsy/journalistic. All of them, in various forms, require you to efface the subject and the subjective. Creative writing is distinctive in that it requires the celebration of the subjective. Subject not self. The difference between the two is the essence of writing. Such differences are not matters of technique. They cannot be taught, if teaching implies the direct dissemination of knowledge or expertise.
But that communal writerly space can help incubate such epiphanies. How they happen is an unpredictable, volatile chemical reaction whose composition none can formulate. They happen without such spaces all the time. But historically, writers have sought each other out. A program formalizes this space, with a more experienced writer moderating the interaction.
An ideal creative writing community talks technique without being enslaved to it. Chats about craft without letting craft dominate the soul. Brandishes writing without smothering its wildness. Hones the form of body that must hold the formless soul.
A creative writing class is less a class and more a studio. It is a course that must generate its own archive. In the end, it is a dangerously fluid archive, more the labour than the product. Just the way literature is as much form as it is content.
Come, let's write together. In the impossible paradox of this appeal lies the contradictory power of a good creative writing program.