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Teaching creative writing: the elephant in the room


“The greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblance.”

Aristotle (330 BC)

Aristotle’s quote has challenged me, (a bit tongue in cheek) to use as many metaphors and similes as possible in this post.  It was like getting blood from a stone. The first person who tells me, correctly, how many there are, will receive a prize copy of The Psychology Book (published by DK and winner of the British Psychology Society book of the year in 2013. I am a contributing author).

The debate about teaching creative writing is like a pantomime, with opposing sides good-naturedly yelling: Oh yes you can! Oh no you can’t!  Or maybe it’s more like a game of tennis, as the arguments are batted back and forth with varying speed and power, until someone scores a point.

Hanif Kureishi thinks it’s all humbug: despite being, himself, a creative writing tutor. He recently put the cat among the pigeons by saying that creative writing courses are “a waste of time…. 99.9% {of students} are not talented and the little that is left is talent.”

Strangely, all other art and craft forms are taught without question: painting, drawing, music, dance, design, drama, sculpture, cookery.  Creative writing is seen  by some, as an innate and rare ability that requires no schooling.  If that’s true, what is the core talent of writing?

I must declare that I have skin in the game: I invested significant time and money in an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck seven years ago.  And I’m currently on an Edit Your Novel course at Faber Academy.  Clearly, I believe I have learned valuable lessons, and still have more to learn. One of my fellow students at the Faber Academy, Anna Katharina Schaffner, Head of the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Kent, introduced me to Aristotle’s quote, above from Poetics:  ‘[…] the most important thing is to be good at using metaphor. This is the one thing that cannot be learnt from someone else, and is a sign of natural talent; for the successful use of metaphor is a matter of perceiving similarities.’

This reminded me of “over inclusive thinking,” a concept developed by respected psychologist Hans Eysenck.  One of my chapters in The Psychology Book was headlined: “There is an association between insanity and genius.”  Eysenck copyThe association is a shared thinking style between the clinically insane and those with a genius level IQ, in which many similarities and connections are seen between disparate ideas and concepts: everything is like something else. This kind of thinking is the foundation of metaphor.

It was like looking for a needle in a haystack, but eventually I found two books in my library about metaphor: Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) who define metaphors as “…. understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”  Subsequently, their work was developed into a therapeutic method in Metaphors in Mind by James Lawley and Penny Tomkins (2000) who proposed that since metaphors speak to our emotional brain rather than our intellectual brain, they are like electrical conductors, sparking images, memories and emotional constellations. So understanding the metaphors that we live by points the way forward to new and more functional ways of thinking and living.

So have I got the gift, the talent? Am I one of Kureishi’s 0.01% of creative writing students?  The odds are stacked against me; and I did find it shockingly difficult to find an original metaphor to start this blog post – can anybody think of a good one? I’d love to know!

6 thoughts on “Teaching creative writing: the elephant in the room

  1. Many years ago, when I began participating in poetry workshops, I quickly learned that though writing talent is an innate gift which cannot be taught, the craft of writing can be taught. This craft, in whatever genre you write, can go a long way in providing an already talented writer with innumerable tools. These tools can used as vehicles by writers to express their talent and to make their writing more accessible to the reader. I love your article and Aristotle’s quote on metaphor.

    1. I agree with talent is God-given, the objective craft of writing can be nurtured and taught, but creativity and imagination comes from the heart, the craft from the head. It is like in my background, as a coach there are many young athletes who push themselves to be the best they can be and I have always enjoyed them on my team, but those who have the talent shine above those who try to be what they desire to be. I can practice until the cows come home, but I will never be able to dunk a basketball, but I can be a pretty good shooter, just don’t ask me to dribble in a crowd, Talent makes practice all the better.

  2. I count one metaphor in the title, five in the body, and another five similes in the latter. The question is: will your prize now fly to me like love from the bow of Eros, or will the wet blanket of your emendations be cast upon me with as much force? (Ok, ok, I’ll stop now…)

    Anyhow, here’s how I might have gotten the ball rolling on this one:

    “Upon reading it, the sword of Aristotle’s quote above was thrust into the stone of my ego, prompting me to prove my genius by using as many metaphors and similes as I could in this post.”

    The idea is to compare the way that a writer reads that quote as a challenge, to the way that the Arthurian legend of the sword in the stone challenged those who thought themselves worthy of ruling to attempt to remove the sword. Another layer of meaning is a bit more subtle–the allusion of the quote as a sword thrust into the ego serves (coming from a writer) as playful self-deprecating humor, as a writer’s fitful accordion of an ego–now a titan, now a mouse–tends to falter in the face of challenge.

    That’s my tuppence, anyhow.

    1. Thank you Kai! Your comment has made me laugh like a drain…
      I declare you the only entrant and triumphant winner of the guess the number of metaphors competition so please send me your address to voula@voulagrand.com and a copy of The Psychology Book will be winging its way to you at the speed of light (well, first class post anyway..). A good tuppence worth!

  3. Can creativity be taught. No. The things that support creativity can be taught. I am 50,000 words into my 9th novel. I did not want to write this book. I hate writing, but love having written.
    Are there prompts, things that can budge you off dead center and get you moving, of course, but where your muse lurks, God only knows, and Sister Mary Marjory would slash my paper with red for this god-awful run-on sentence.

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