The ability—the knack—for creative writing cannot be taught, or so say some practitioners, including some who teach it. You’re either born with it, like an extra toe, or you acquire it in some strange and unexplainable fashion, like leprosy. On the other hand most creative writing teachers and many editors believe that, although the process looks—and is—exceedingly difficult, like juggling raw eggs, the skill can be mastered with a good instructor and constant practice.
(Some have even less regard for the skill required. In his 1943 book, How to Write and Sell a Novel, Jack Woodford wrote, "Any man who can read without moving his lips can write saleable prose.") In a certain sense creative writing can’t be taught. Writing can be taught—spelling, grammar, sentence structure, even plotting and characterization. But the creative part—aye there’s the rub. Creativity is a solitary and mysterious process whereby the writer finds her own voice and tells her own story. But a writer can be nudged and prodded and encouraged to look within, and her work will certainly improve with practice and earnest rewriting. All writing, as Hemingway among others has said, is rewriting, and having an accomplished guide to point the way can save much thrashing about.
Unless you’re lucky enough to have a captive professional writer in your bedroom, the best way to acquire such a guide is to take a creative writing course from someone who knows whereof she speaks. And if you find it helpful, or I suppose just fun, go on to take a few more. At some point along the line you’ll start submitting stories to magazines, or books to publishers, or screenplays to Hollywood agents, and collecting rejection slips. And then you’ll get the first note from an editor saying she might be interest in buying your masterwork if you’ll only make the following small revisions. And, after gritting your teeth and ripping the heart and lungs out of your piece and sticking new ones in, you’ll have sold your first story.
How to begin? Easy: pick a writing course and prepare yourself to get the most from the teacher, the material, and the welcome but painful critiques of your own work.
I asked Alex Steele, the Dean of Faculty at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, a New York City-based writing school, what he thought a student should bring to one of their courses. He said: "Come with an open mind, a spirit of camaraderie, and enough time to do some real work outside of class."
Picking the Course
The things to consider here are the cost, the hours, the days, the school, the location, the course itself, the instructor and, of course, the subject.
As with any other purchase, you must balance the expected gain—what you realistically hope to get from the course—with the size of the hole it will leave in your budget. The price may well vary with the prestige and experience of the school and the instructor. Since finances are such an individual—and often painful—topic, I leave the decisions to you with no further advice.
Days, Hours, Location
They must be ones you can comfortably accommodate. If the class starts at six and you don’t get off work ‘till five, can you make it across town, grab a snack, and not be too out-of-breath as class begins?
If it’s a ten-week course, are you really free Tuesdays and Thursdays from eight to ten all ten weeks? Have you a reliable babysitter and/or a spouse who understands your passion and doesn’t mind being deserted for much of the only time you have together each day?
If it’s an online course, the hours are usually completely flexible—but you still need to be sure that the time needed is free and available. And remember that the hours of class work are only part of the total. You’ll have to do the actual writing on your own time. And creative writing—almost all writing for that matter—demands privacy to ponder, to scream at the unyielding page (or screen), and to create.
School and Course
Investigate the reputation of the school. Talk, if possible, to people who have taken courses there, preferably the very course you’re interested in. Avoid schools that promise to teach you "the secrets of writing like a pro," or something similar. I’ve been a professional writer for over three decades, and have had over 30 books published, and gosh how I wish there were secrets. Begin, I would think, with a basic writing course. Unless you truly are experienced, there’s little point in jumping in at the deep end. If there’s any doubt, don’t trust your own opinion. Find someone who can realistically judge the level of your writing. Many people who can’t write a cohesive paragraph believe they are masters of English prose (I was going to say "who have trouble writing..." but they don’t have trouble, they think they’re doing just fine). And others who write more than competently lack faith in their own ability and apologize for each page they show you.
To maximize your benefit and minimize the instructor’s hysteria, make it a course in a subject, or genre you’re truly interested in and want to work in. I teach a class in mystery writing, and have had students submit work that was variously science-fiction, fantasy, vampire fantasy, historical fiction, and—I kid you not—poetry. Now I personally have no objections to these and, as a matter of fact, have written all of the above myself, but the lessons I’ve written for this course are aimed at increasing proficiency in the specific craft of writing the mystery story. Of how much interest to someone who writes vampire fiction are my lectures on the proper use of the MacGuffin, or the planting of clues? And how useful is my critical commentary of a student’s poetry? Actually I thought it was pretty good, but then I think my own poetry is great.
I admit to a prejudice here. I believe creative writing courses should only be taught by those who have labored in the trenches of the publishing or screenwriting business and thus know whereof they speak. After all, most professors at law schools are themselves lawyers, most at medical schools, doctors, at dental school, dentists, and so on (I checked on this—it is so). Writing courses should be taught by writers who have sold their work commercially; ideally by ones who have spent a few years paying their rent through their writing, but I don’t insist on that.
Check your instructor’s track record—has he an online site to visit? Are his books available at the local library? Does he write stuff that you can stand to read? If you don’t like his writing how comfortable are you going to be taking advice from him?
Preparing for the Class
Okay, so you’ve decided what school, what subject, what class, and what instructor to spend your money—and time—on. Let’s not waste either. Taking a writing class is not like most other academic endeavors. Creative writing can’t be taught, as I said back in the third paragraph; it must be learned. And the learning is an active, not a passive enterprise. You should bring to the class enough desire to write to keep you at the keyboard at least two hours a day.
In his novel A Cold Heart, Jonathan Kellerman has a character say: "When someone says they want to be a writer, they'll never make it. When they say they want to write, there's a chance."
Spelling, Grammar, Punctuation
All should be checked and corrected before submitting papers to the instructor or the class. Why am I wasting space stating the obvious? Because students don’t seem to take it seriously. They’re not taking the course to learn spelling or grammar, but how to tell a story—how to communicate. But SG&P are a necessary part of communicating, if for no other reason than that your manuscript won’t get further than the first reader’s desk at the publishing house if these basic skills are inadequate. Therefore your instructor will take the time to point out, or at least consider, SG&P errors, assuming that if you didn’t correct them yourself, you must not know how. In a sense you’re wasting your instructor’s time—although she gets paid for vetting your paper whether she’s untangling a badly phrased, unintelligible sentence or showing you how to make one of your characters assume aspects of reality seldom achieved in fiction. And you’re certainly making poor use of your own time.
I once ran across a budding novelist who drew her material from what she believed was her own glamorous, adventurous life. She could neither spell nor write two grammatically correct sentences in a row. When asked about this lack, she said, "Don’t the publishers have little people to do that?"
An Open Mind
This is the most important thing to bring to the classroom. You will not agree with everything your instructor says, and indeed why should you? Any rules beyond those you learned in grammar school English classes are arbitrary and capricious. Some of them work 90% of the time, but there’s always that 10% where an author defies the rules and has a major best-seller.
But in order to defy the rules, you must know them. And if you find yourself disagreeing with a teacher, it’s best if you’ve listened to her with a mind opened to the possibility that she’s right. Then your disagreement will be based on previous experience and analysis, not unexamined prejudice.
An Open Book
This is your best tool. To develop as a writer you must read—and read. Ask your instructor to suggest authors whose work she admires, ask your classmates. Read.
Now, clad in the armor of your new knowledge, go forth and take that course. And good luck to you.
This article first appeared in The Writer magazine.