It’s 1956, you’re an exiled trilingual Russian writer who has fled Russia, Germany and France with your Jewish wife and after years of struggling to make a living you apply for a position at the department of Slavic Languages and Literature at Harvard University.
Your name is Vladimir Nabokov. At the meeting to decide whether to appoint you or not, Roman Jakobson says, ‘what next, we’re going to appoint elephants to teach Zoology?’
At the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry in Belfast, Dr Ian Sansom is hosting a debate on this very idea. Can ‘Creative Writing’ be taught, or is it a doomed enterprise? With prospective students queuing for courses all over the country, are universities bowing to the demands of cash and institutional pressure in an attempt to develop skills that are innate, wasting time and effort with wannabes who simply don’t got it?
Proposing the motion is Dr Philip McGowan, senior lecturer at Queen’s. Defending is writer and broadcaster Malachi O’Doherty. Seconding the motion on either side are Brian Canti and Emily Dudakis. The Centre’s well-lit, red-curtained front room looks through passing afternoon traffic onto Mary Denvir’s Bookfinder’s Cafe. In front of an enthused assembly, McGowan opens the proceedings.
McGowan has been set an odd and invidious task. He never thought that the person in the school of English responsible for postgraduate studies might have to propose the motion that teaching creative writing is pointless, never mind impossible.
Recognising his formidable opponent, a public man, supported by a creative writing student, he fears that the debate may be over bar the shouting. A foregone conclusion.
McGowan comes to bury the teaching of creative writing, or at least to bury any misconceptions the audience might have of it. With its sudden flowering, the dreams of literary fame that creative writing courses proffer have multiplied exponentially. But how few come true.
What words he has are only fact, not fiction. Today there are more than 200 creative writing postgraduate courses in the UK. In the USA, more than 3,000 exist. Is this the result of some benevolent shift in the university system, opening itself to the vagaries of private minds? An attempt by the academy to save writers from bedrooms and audiences of one? McGowan thinks not.
He presents exhibit A: a photograph of Queen’s University, Belfast - representing universities all around the country. Universities are businesses, he contends, and if there is a market for creative writing, there will be courses. At the day’s end the universities are not interested in the fine words of your novel or amazing poetry collection, but those of the balance sheet. Universities do not run courses due to a philanthropic desire for better literature.
Furthermore, hiring established creative writers to staff these courses is akin to hiring cattle to man and operate the abattoir, with big-name writers glossing a money-making enterprise with a veneer of respectability. Do not fool yourself, McGowan continues, by thinking that Martin Amis pops into the University of Manchester due to an interest in new writing. A salary of six figures explains the attraction, just as his name becomes 'applications gold' for the institution.
With an increase in courses, the pool of outstanding writers, poets and scripts remains puzzlingly small - not a great return for the universities. For every Ian McEwan who makes it through, finding a publisher willing to exploit his talent (for their own financial gain), how many thousands fall by the wayside, their degrees mouldering in drawers, their student debts compounding interest in the dark?
There are so many courses, but so few successes, with the teachers caught in an eternal double bind: doing the work to make money so that they can write, unable to write due to the university workload, thus working on creative writing courses to make money. It seems that teaching creative writing has already proved itself pointless, and in the all-singing, all-dancing world in cynical corporate academia, the teachers care but the institutions don’t.
Exhibit B: a photograph of Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. McGowan presents this as ‘the awful public face of poetry’.
He is thankful, he says, to live in a world where Philip Roth can raise the bar, where Jane-Anne Philips can make him think again about the Vietnam war or the terrifying beauty of motherhood. That the compassion of William Maxwell can take the suffering and darkness of this life and ease it into the finest of textured prose.
He expresses gratitude to those writers closer to home, begging them to be freed from the pointless and impossible task that keeps them iglooed in Heaney Centres across the western world. Save them and us, he says, from generations of Andrew Motions. McGowan closes with a fervent prayer: 'I implore this house, today and every day, only ever to support one motion!'
Malachi O'Doherty is thankful to Dr McGowan for having presented his case so clearly, ‘making it all the easier for me to demolish it.’ O’Doherty proceeds swiftly: the case appears to be that creative writing is driven by market forces, therefore a cynical exercise that keeps good writers away from their work.
True, he says, but it does not invalidate the exercise itself. This is a unicentric argument that sees creative writing as something only universities are doing, excluding the work of community groups, schools and night classes, measuring success only in the numbers that emerge from classes to publish books. This excludes those who attend classes for the experience, the friends and the expression that such fora enable.
O’Doherty is grateful, too, for the opportunity to speak and ‘nail the elitist lie’ that creative writing is an exclusive gift not to be shared with those of less well-formed powers of articulation, that the capacity is something one is either born with or isn’t. If this were true, would the creative writer not be better off keeping their gift a secret lest they offend their intellectual inferiors?
Writing can be taught and must be taught, says O'Doherty, although many a poor beginner has stalled on the fantasy that it is all inspiration to be waited for, or has defended bad writing on the grounds that it is straight from the heart and not to be tinkered with by those who apply unfeeling editorial techniques.
Everything can be taught. Mozart took music lessons. Mika Häkkinen took driving lessons. Perhaps they had something innate to start with, but perhaps it would have stayed innate had they never had lessons. The curse of Irish writing, O'Doherty argues, is people who trust their innate gifts to work for them, and spend decades waiting for that to happen, writing nothing. Many of the gifts we think are innate feel natural because we have been taught well, have practised long and have assimilated the rules.
Rules? But creative people don’t need rules for writing! An example: a twelve-year-old O’Doherty was leafing through Webster’s Dictionary, finding a chapter at the back entitled 'How To Write Well'. Here is found the example of the word ‘very’, a word which does the opposite of what it seeks, minimising impact where it would purport to increase it.
Which sounds more convincing, ‘I am very happy’, or ‘I am happy?’ Here a lesson was learned, O’Doherty to this day removing the glut of ‘verys’ which fall naturally in conversation but loosen the meaning of a piece in print.
If writing a poem is like pouring honey from a jar, there is an initial steady flow - even one too rapid. But you can never get all the honey out of a jar just by pouring. You can get almost all the honey out in one minute, but should you hold the jar upside down for a year, all of the honey will not fall from its container.
One poet in the audience claims to have a spoon to aid the flow - exactly the role of teaching, technique and work that O’Doherty proposes as the point of the creative writing enterprise. A tool, a device, education training allow the qualities of thinking, feeling and expression to develop. Scraping the last of the honey from the jar takes technique which is taught, and vocabulary, which is learned. A sense of rhythm and pace and tone, which come with practise.
Teaching creative writing does not simply provide people with a manual, but rather with an ambience, with feedback, a context in which to write and perhaps most importantly, provides a writer with somebody who is expecting them to deliver, on time. All good writers need feedback - otherwise there would not be so many acknowledgement pages in modern books.
All writing is creative, there is no demarcation line between ‘functional’ writing and creative writing. There is no fixed point in a child’s development when creativity takes precedence over writing learned in the classroom. It is there upon the child’s first exposure to the alphabet. To say that there is no point in teaching creative writing is no different to saying that there is no point in teaching the dull masses to read or write at all. It is a scandalous thing to say.
After two fiery and convivial cases, the question remains. Should the elephants be consulted about the state of the zoo? Absurdly, with a passionate proposal, McGowan almost argues himself out of a job. But the ‘nays’ win the day; teaching creative writing is valuable and most definitely possible, something everybody in the room is glad of.