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Can Writing Be Taught?: The case for and against creative writing courses and workshops

Robin Hemley

Robin Hemley

Can Writing Be Taught? was a session by writers for writers at Byron Bay Writers’ Festival with a panel of writers who teach writing.

Robin Hemley is Writer-in-Residence and Director of the Writing Program at Yale-NUS.
His memoir, Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness, has recently been reissued.

Reading is one of the best teachers and for Hemley it started with the books he found at home when he was 19.

Writing can be taught, he said. He has seen many writers who seemed unable to craft things “then something clicked. I have seen too many examples of this happening to say otherwise.”

He teaches workshops but thinks one-on-one teaching is best. It allows him to enter much more deeply into creative relationship with the student. Hemley studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop: “That [workshop] method is only as good as facilitator and the group,” he said.

He taught there too, running the non-fiction workshop until recently. The students learned as much from each other as from him, he said. An internet chat room was particularly helpful, set up so that students could see the comments on their work only after everyone had posted.

“We wanted to avoid everyone piling on,” he said. It meant that the class discussions started at a higher level.

“There are a lot of people who want to be published. Many people will ask about something they have just written, ‘Do you think this publishable?’ The question annoys him. “Do you play one tune on the piano and ask if you are ready for Carnegie Hall?”

The persistence required is that of feeling the need to write.

Hemley has a set of six questions he asks students to help them work out what they are writing. They are: What is it about? What is it really about? What is it about? What is it really about? What is it about? What is it really about?

Each reply brings a different iteration.

Katheryn Heyman whose latest novel is Floodline , says talent cannot be taught. Over 25 years of teaching, she has seen many times immensely talented writers not become becoming brilliant writers because of a “lack of work and application”.

“Without wanting to be provoking, the question asked for this panel offends me,” said Heyman. “We do not ask this question about architecture, dancing or art. It seems an insult to the deep and profound work of literature.”

Heyman is not a big fan of workshops, although they have their role, but it is not the same as the teaching of writing, an ancient form of coaching.

“Craft can be taught but you need to choose your coaches and teachers carefully.”

Carrie Tiffany

Carrie Tiffany signs a copy of her book for a purchaser. Image : Greg Saunders

Carrie Tiffany, whose second novel Mateship With Birds  won the inaugural Stella Prize, is not sure writing can be taught but it can be supported. “Your craft is the sentence,” she said.

There is a lot of self-sabotage among writers so it helps to have a sense of someone being there with you, she said.

“It is quite an honour to sit beside someone and read their work.”

Tiffany likes workshops and how they enable people to carve out time for their writing, and how they seed long-term writing groups but recalls her response to a univerisity-based workshop process.

“I wrote my first novel as part of MA in creative writing. I would read it out and it was universally disliked and I would pretend I was listening, and meanwhile writing that what they said was ‘bullshit’.”

At this point, Heyman speaks: “You are a writer of exceptional talent and stubbornness but this an expensive way [to learn], two years to have people who don’t know saying it’s bad.”

Tiffany said she tells her students:. ‘It’s your book, and you are the only one writing it.”

“Writing should not be stopped,” said Tiffany. “There are so many things you can waste your time on, renovating your house or your arse. Sitting in a room quietly can only be good.”

As Sophie Hamley, the literary agent who chaired the session, put it: “Tell the damn story.”

Marian Edmunds is a writer, editor and mentor

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