Can creative writing be taught?
It's a reasonable question, but no matter how often I've been asked, I never know quite what to say. Because if what people mean is: Can the love of language be taught? Can a gift for storytelling be taught? then the answer is no. Which may be why the question is so often asked in a skeptical tone implying that, unlike the multiplication tables or the principles of auto mechanics, creativity can't be transmitted from teacher to student. Imagine Milton enrolling in a graduate program for help with Paradise Lost, or Kafka enduring the seminar in which his classmates inform him that, frankly, they just don't believe the part about the guy waking up one morning to find he's a giant bug.
Thus begins Francine Prose's new book, Reading like a Writer. So if Prose is cynical about the value of writing workshops, how are writers expected to learn their craft?
Prose believes that the best way to learn to write well is to read extensively, especially the good stuff.
Ah yes, that's what everyone tells you, isn't it? But how far is the advice heeded by most wannabe writers?
Not very far, declares novelist and creative writing teacher Emily Barton reviewing Prose's book in the New York Times. It's not just a lack of interest in reading that bothers her, but that:
those who do read often lack the training to observe subtle writerly clues ...She praises Prose's Reading Like a Writer, and recommends it both for aspiring writers and for readers who’d like to increase their sensitivity to the elements of the writer’s craft.
Prose points out that writers were learning from the best their predecessors long before writing courses were dreamt up. She also recommends savouring books rather than racing through them, which I think many of us tend to do. (I'm guilty of this. Ah, the pressure of all the books on my to-be-read shelf, all screaming at me in unison every time I pass by.) And she emphasises the delight that reading brings us. (Probably the very reason why we want to write.)
Prose's book sounds like a very useful guide and I Amazon "one-clicked" it as soon as I'd read the review. Read more on the Harper Collins website.