Teaching Creative Writing: From Craft to Technique

As every teacher of English knows, one of the most enjoyable and also mindbogglingly difficult parts of the job is the business of teaching a type of writing that, when successful, sees children make an art of their imagination. For anyone middle aged or above, such a thing is simply learning how to write a story or poem, a memoire, a letter or a piece of literary journalism, but for our children, it is what we mean by creative writing, a teachable discipline, its genesis traceable to the University of Iowa, in as early as 1897.

I say difficult not because teaching children to write creatively is any harder when compared to that of its factually based cousin, say a balanced argument or a report. Or because, the rare late nineteenth century workshop aside, it was only properly understood as a discipline after the Second World War, and is therefore comparatively new, especially in Britain, and even more so in compulsory education. Rather, creative writing is uniquely difficult – to learn as well as to teach – because, to appropriate a Shamus Heaney distinction, there is a difference between the teachable (craft, ‘the skill of making’, the eminently learnable) and what he calls ‘technique’, which he defines as being craft and the poet’s ‘definition of his own stance towards life, a definition of his own reality.’

It’s a stretch, I know, using Heaney’s poetry-specific dictum for all creative writing, particularly for the kind made by children as young as nine, but author Mark MacGurl says something similar with regard to story in his book The Program Era, arguing that there are two ways of understanding the import of a piece of fictional writing, the first and obvious being the manner in which its constructed, the second in what it speaks – or tells us – about the hand that made it. Essentially, we’re talking here not only about the technology of writing or the understanding of language in its many written forms, but also of something unique to the writer: namely, his or her voice, the self expressed as art. No wonder, as Louise Menand notes, that the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the taught creative writer’s mecca, should advertise its program with the claim that writing ‘cannot be taught’, only writers ‘encouraged’. Teaching people to write creatively: it’s verging on the bloody impossible.

But only verging, because Iowa’s disclaimer isn’t nearly as black and white as it might seem; or Heaney’s movement – from craft to technique – nearly as tough as it first looks. Learning to write creatively begins not with a pen, a pencil, the keyboard, but with books, with learning to read creatively, which in turn originates in the joys of speech, of play, of touch, the body, of friendship, the ability to socialise creatively. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borge once said that there was nothing in language a writer could claim as his or hers, only that it was their combining of the unconsciously borrowed that was truly original. Roland Barthes said much the same in Death of the Author, claiming that the writer is actually the reader, the reader the writer. 52 Stories, a Reading Agency endorsed Cambridge based reading program initiative, perfect local example of the above, drives reading  comprehension through everyday public space activity, the extracurricular carnival of speaking, reading and understanding entwined. When Iowa speaks of encouragement in respect of its budding writers, it means encouraging them into language as well as craft, the garden of speech, a place of sound and image, of multiple meanings. It means to properly enable learning.

Which is not to ignore the directly teachable: If you take story as example, then certainly everything that constitutes the form can and will be taught, specifically through reading, through encouraging the copying of, the emulating, as Heaney might say, of writers loved and respected. Such a teaching includes, it hardly needs me saying: enjoying complex characterisation; plots that as well as employing different techniques adhere to various conflict-resolution structures; settings that play interestingly with time and space; styles covering everything from experimenting with imagery, figurative language, sound devices, allusion and symbolism; narrator perspective, that being first, second or third person; and tone, the hardest to teach craft-wise, the easiest to come by when speaking of technique. This is the story writer’s craft, the sum of which is the narrative tool-kit par excellence.

However, while being given the opportunity to know, investigate and practice one’s craft is essential, repetition the story-muscle ticket, it being a daily exercise and never for long enough for the practitioner to be driven nuts, creative writing is not, whatever the pressure of SATs, about high-stake tests. It is not about ticking boxes. It is not colouring by numbers. Teach the craft, but never forget the agent of the story, the person – not the author, but rather the extraordinary language machine that is the human. Writing is hard, sure, as is comprehension, but there’s nothing like the drama of being, of speaking – as a player, reader, writer or editor – to unblock, to free, to understand the nature of feedback, to know what to show, what not to tell. The voice is there. It just needs encouraging. Let the technique unfold.

Ex-teacher and writer Dave Waddell writes and is part of the ReadingWise team, which jump-starts reading for struggling readers in schools, empowering TAs to work with groups of 10 at a time. ReadingWise would like to hear from schools, parents and carers interested in discovering new ways of unlocking reading potential.