At a time when subjects such as art, music and creative writing are under threat in secondary and tertiary education, there is much debate about their value in education and, in the case of creative writing, whether they can or should be taught. Currently young people are being encouraged to move into the sciences, perhaps because there is a perception that this will lead to more job prospects, and perhaps too because the sciences are seen as subjects with right or wrong answers – easier to cram for and less likely to suffer an arbitrary change in the marking criteria. Education is shifting from learning to cramming, from creative thinking to purely fact based thinking, and in the process breadth of study has given way to ever narrowing exam based curriculums that discourage curiousity. Society is not encouraging our children to become themselves but rather to become carbon copies of the models it holds up for them to emulate – carbon copies who it hopes will continue to reinforce the status quo. Ironically though, more and more employers are bemoaning the lack of curious minds and creative thinkers, attributes that are increasingly required for success in the modern world.
My son is currently in his final year of secondary education at a large state school. He was unable to take Drama because it is no longer available in A level at his school. He is the only boy in a small English Literature class which does not receive the full quota of lessons required for the curriculum because the school is underfunded and English is no longer a popular subject. He is now the only student studying Music and receives half the lessons required for the curriculum because of underfunding. The pressures on schools and teachers and students to perform well are immense, while the means in which to do well are rapidly decreasing. Needless to say, I am concerned about my son’s education, but even more importantly, I am concerned about my son, whose curious mind and naturally optimistic personality risks being crushed by a system which bullies and shapes children into programmed robots who (if they don’t break or rebel) will step out into adulthood and perpetuate the system as it is. And like many others, I am concerned about the general trend away from the humanities and creative subjects in our education system – a trend that justifies itself by discrediting the value of these subjects.
In Nature and the Human Soul, Bill Plotkin writes, ‘we live in a largely adolescent world and it is in great measure a pathological adolescence.’ It is interesting to note that Plotkin is not talking about teenagers but rather the abundance of adults who have failed to step beyond the adolescent phase of human development and have consequently developed the shadow side of adolescence. According to Plotkin, this patho-adolescence ‘creates a ‘way of life that emphasizes social acceptability, materialism, self-centred individualism, and superficial security rather than authenticity, intimate relationships, soul-infused individual service and creative risk and adventure.’ Indeed it certainly appears that we live in a society that promotes individualism while discouraging each person’s journey to discover their individuality. Removing access to creative subjects in schools and generally denigrating the value of these art forms is both a symptom and a consequence of a patho-adolescent society such as this.
Bill Waterson, the creator of the wonderful Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, once said, ‘a playful mind is inquisitive, and learning is fun. If you indulge your natural curiosity and retain a sense of fun in new experience, I think you’ll find it functions as a sort of shock absorber for the bumpy road ahead.’ One of the consequences of being caught within a patho-adolescent world, is that playfulness has become delegated to childhood and is considered inappropriate for the serious business of jobs and mortgages. It is vital that these creative subjects are not undervalued in schools for they help us to remember how to play, how to engage with ourselves, with others and with the world around us. They send us on journeys of discovery into our imaginations, help us to discover our hidden talents, and piece together the clues within us that point in the direction of our individual destinies. Creative subjects encourage us to listen to our inner voices and in so doing we learn to trust the process that takes an empty page and turns it into a story or a painting or a piece of music. We learn to move between head and heart, intellect and intuition, coming to an important understanding that knowledge is not just the facts that we cram in for our exams, but also something else, something that can only be discovered when we open our minds and listen.
In The Creative Writing Coursebook Juliet Bell writes, ‘There remains in circulation a myth that writing can’t be taught. That despite the proliferation of writing courses, creative writing is something esoteric, unpindownable, something inspired by the muses and shaped by genius. You’ve either got it or you haven’t, so there’s little point in trying to teach it.’ Indeed this is a story that is perpetuated by many but one with which I disagree for three reasons. The first is that I have taught creative writing to many people over a good many years and I have seen the results. My certainty that creative writing can and should be taught, comes from direct experience. The second reason is that creative writing requires us to access our creativity and many people need to become reacquainted with their imaginations before they can begin to write well. When people ask Julia Cameron, the author of ‘The Artist’s Way’, how she can teach creativity, she responds, ‘I can’t . . . I teach people to let themselves be creative.’ Creative writing is both an art and a craft. While the art of writing cannot be taught, a teacher’s role is to engage a student with their creativity in order to discover their ‘vein of gold’, as Cameron calls it. In order to make good use of this gold, we need to understand the craft of the medium in which we are working, and that means learning its techniques. This is the third reason why I believe it is possible to teach creative writing. Like all crafts it requires knowledge of a range of technical skills that can usefully be imparted to students by a teacher.
Creative writing is a skill that must be learned – often through a teacher, but always through reading, self-discipline and practice. As with its counterparts in music and art, for example, there is no end point to the learning process, only a gradual development of skills through hard work and constant polishing. Just as in art, where a student will learn how to mix colours, how to use oil or acrylic, which brushes achieve which results . . . in creative writing there are a number of techniques and devices that must be gradually mastered. Structure, characterization, point of view and plot development are just a few of these techniques and each of them also teaches us something even more valuable than how to write well. Through understanding the motivation behind a character’s actions we learn to see what motivates our own actions. Through shifting our point of view we learn to step into the shoes of others and in so doing we develop empathy. And through seeing outside the limitations of the experiences and influences that have formed us we begin to free ourselves from conditioned thinking.
There is no single recipe for teaching creative writing because each person approaches the writing process differently, bringing with them their own unique strengths and weaknesses. For this reason a teacher must adapt his/her approach according to individual requirements. The teacher provides information, guidance and feedback, as well as a safe environment for the student to experiment and play. In so doing the student learns important technical skills as well as other lessons that are more difficult to pin down: a trust in the creative process and therefore in the uncertainties of life; an ability to see in a different way, through utilising the senses; an ability to take a project through to completion by embracing an empty space and making something from it; and an ability to think with the heart as well as with the head, utilizing both intuition and intellect.
Writers read broadly, across time and space, just as artists study the work of their contemporaries and those who came before. Through the mastering of creative mediums we learn that while we stand on the shoulders of others, we also bring something new, something unique to the world through each of our creations. Creative writing cannot be taught from books alone but reading is a vital element. We steep ourselves in the works of others to understand how the techniques we are learning can be implemented, how the many threads a story contains can be woven into a tapestry. So in teaching our children creative writing we are also helping to imbue them with a love of reading.
Life is a series of stages, each of which requires its own set of tools in order for us to successfully negotiate its challenges but if a young person emerges from school without the required tools for the next stage they are not able to develop, to take the journey inside themselves that is required in order to step from adolescence into full adulthood. We have an immense responsibility to the well-being of our children, and part of that responsibility entails providing them with the opportunities to grow into fully fledged adults, drawing on all their resources in order to walk confidently through life. The creative arts play an important role, not just in our children’s intellectual development but also in our children’s personal development. If our governments cannot perceive the value of the arts then we have a serious crisis on our hands for our future generations. For as John F Kennedy once said, ‘The arts incarnate the creativity of a free people. When the creative impulse cannot flourish, when it cannot freely select its methods and objects, when it is deprived of spontaneity, then society severs the root of art.’
NB: I would love to give the creator of the cartoon I included, due credit but I have been unable to source him/her.
You are welcome to share articles as long as copyright and contact information are always included. Thank you for your courtesy. Rosie Dub