The epigram “Poeta nascitur, non fit” (“The poet is born, not made”) is customarily attributed to one of the several Roman writers known as Florus. In Sir Philip Sidney’s Apologie for Poetry, written around 1580—the first extended work of literary criticism in English—the Renaissance poet varied the saying, but not its teaching: “A poet no industry can make if his own genius be not carried into it, and, therefore, it is an old proverb, ‘Orator fit; poeta nascitur’.” More recently, Albert Camus noted that the best novelists worked from instinct; and the contemporary Australian novelist and literary scholar Michael Wilding has recently remarked, in an essay on the topic of creative writing, “I don’t believe you can actually teach creative writing”—a conclusion arising from his own extensive experience of trying to do so, here and in the United States.
These salutary observations, from across the centuries, should give significant pause to every classroom devoted to instruction in creative writing. And such classrooms are proliferating, in schools and universities. Unheard of, unimaginable, fifty years ago as a component of undergraduate English literature studies, creative writing, initially finding its way into postgraduate university courses, has now taken root and is expanding—apparently unstoppably—in undergraduate degrees and in the secondary school English curriculum. It is possible today, at some universities, to complete a degree in English entirely in creative writing and critical theory. The new New South Wales Higher School Certificate syllabus for English is full of it; and so, inevitably, earlier years of English studies in secondary school are now preparing students for this component too.
This essay appears in May’s Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
“Creative Writing”—if not creative writing worthy of the name—is everywhere. Indicative not only of its prevalence, but of its increasing influence and the seriousness with which it is taken in the academy, is the University of Melbourne’s current search for a Level E Professor “to enrich and advance our program in Creative Writing”, which includes a major in the undergraduate Bachelor of Arts degree, a coursework Master of Creative Writing degree and even a “large cohort” of PhD projects in the so-called subject.
Everything about this ramifying phenomenon is utterly wrongheaded, and there are disturbing influences, beyond mere nonsense, driving it, too. Let us start with the various dimensions of its delusional wrongheadedness.
Creative writing proceeds from the unscrutinised basic assumption that because you are reading and studying literary works—as all schoolchildren must, English being the only compulsory subject through to Year 12—you should be able to write them. This makes as much sense—none at all, in fact—as supposing that because you are engaged in in-depth study of art works or of music (let us say) you will have a talent worth pursuing for painting and composing. I studied the piano for ten years from the age of eight and never had the slightest interest in (and, no doubt, zero talent for) composing original keyboard music.
In the domain of school curricula for creative writing today, it is demanded that all must do it; it is not an optional extra for that tiny minority (always and everywhere) who think they may have (and just possibly do have) a genuine creative literary flair: who have Camus’s native instinct for such composition. Further, it is now mandatory that the study of literature in English must have, as an increasingly significant component of its assessment regime, the testing of pupils’ abilities as creative writers.
It is by no means sufficient, any more, that, as intelligent and perceptive readers, students should be able to give a lucid, distinguished and distinctive account of themselves as developing interpreters and assessors of works of imaginative genius by others—the essential justification for the academic study of literature in English. They must become such creators themselves. Everybody has this potential, it is gratuitously assumed, and what is more, they have it even from early teenage years, when they have read next to nothing, in depth, of any prose or poetry and have had a very limited experience of human life from which to draw subjects and scenarios for imaginative composition.
Michael Wilding has asserted that “the student who intends to write needs to encounter at least some of the major works of world literature”. That is to put it modestly and mildly. I would say “many” not “some”, and of the widest variety and in as many different forms as possible—a process that takes us, as the biographies of numerous great writers have demonstrated—well into our twenties and is, in fact, a lifetime’s labour of love. “You learn to write by reading other writers,” as Wilding says. He further reflects that “literary geniuses produce themselves. Those who want to write will write, and know what they want to write, and will go about it in their own way.” This wisdom, based on a lifetime’s experience of his own creative writing, is the antithesis of the “thinking” behind the creative writing component of today’s English courses.
There is no question that there are schoolchildren and undergraduates (and probably more of them, as they have had more experience of life and reading) who relish opportunities for creative writing, and they should be encouraged. But they are exceptional: they are born to write and if it so happens that there are meetings and groups they can attend in which their writing can be nurtured and given the opportunity to flourish, obviously they will benefit from some informed instruction and criticism, and the discipline of having regularly to produce some original work for others to read and critique. And some of them may come to realise, in time, that they did not possess the talent they thought they had. But even in consideration of this small cohort there is a formidable obstacle, particularly in the schools. What capacity and training do schoolteachers of English possess to teach and evaluate the creative writing that they now find is yet another imposition on them by the syllabus-designers? Unless you are a creative writer yourself, what business, not to mention aptitude will you have for teaching it (assuming, as Wilding doubts, that it can be taught)?
In universities, such teachers have always been creative writers themselves (novelists, poets and so on), but their reports, after some years in the trade, have been routinely discouraging. A well-known Australian poet told me of her increasing disenchantment with the entire enterprise of university creative writing courses. Every effort she had made to broaden students’ subject matter and develop their technique beyond formless ramblings had been thwarted by their relentless desire—hardly surprising, from late adolescents—to write only about themselves and the various highs and lows of their personal lives. And these, of course, were students who had elected to take creative writing (so, one assumes, they at least imagined that they possessed some talent for it), not the masses of schoolchildren who now must do it whether they like it or not, and whether or not they have the slightest gift for it. “Be creative, or else!”
It is assumed (in the new “Craft of Writing” module in the New South Wales HSC Advanced English course) that students will “strengthen and extend their knowledge, skills and confidence as accomplished writers”.
“Accomplished writers”! This is beyond delusional. They are scarcely apprentice writers. The syllabus statement concludes that students will produce “highly crafted imaginative, discursive, persuasive and informative texts”. Such a requirement would be challenging for even the genuinely gifted writer.
Most students are simply befuddled and bamboozled by such prescriptions, and (naturally) come to resent creative writing and its increasing dominance of their English courses. They remind me of youngsters in earlier generations who were forced to take piano lessons while not possessing a grain of musical interest or talent, and could grow up hating music as a result. So far from this process being encouraging for creative writers, enforced creativity is regularly having the opposite, counter-productive effect.
The practical application of the course details to assessment tasks has a rococo complexity that would baffle even the most committed creative writer. For a Year 11 class (for example), the “outcomes to be assessed” in such an exercise require the students to
compose texts in different modes, media and technologies; analyse and use language forms, features and structures of texts considering appropriateness for specific purposes, audiences and contexts; strategically use knowledge, skills and understanding of language concepts and literary devices in new and different contexts; think imaginatively, creatively, interpretatively and critically.
Not only would verbiage of this kind dry up anybody’s creative juices, such still-born prose—the writing of English as if it were a dead language—is calculated to quell the inspiration of any literary creator, let alone the unaccomplished novice.
Currently working with a large group of high-achieving HSC English students, of both sexes and from a variety of schools, I can report that not one of them enjoys the creative writing component of their study. As we turn, as we must regularly, to this requirement, their apprehension is very evident and vocal. Their usual complaint is that they have no idea what to write about, which is utterly unsurprising, as most of them have few if any ideas of a creative kind, or any native impulse to be a creative writer in the first place. And the requirements of the kinds of contexts and technical demands (see above) in which they must set their non-existent creativity pose a further affront to their intelligence and capacity. These attributes are amply affirmed in other aspects of their English studies, but can be significantly shaken by this new and ever-enlarging requirement. They come to doubt their ability as students of literature in English in general because they are not creative writers.
At one school this term, the Advanced Year 12 class in English is required to concoct a story about “the experiences of an individual in a significant social and political landscape, set in the Cold War era, 1945–89”. Having lived through most of that period, having read countless poems and novels deriving from it and having a fair grasp of the historical and cultural issues peculiar to it, I would find it challenging to come up with a short story that did justice to the demands of this task and resonated with a degree of authenticity with aspects of that complex (and often superficially misrepresented) period. For students with none of that personal background, little of that range of reading, virtually no cultural discernment to tread carefully in the representation of such complex epochs from (to them) the distant past, and, as often as not these days, zero acquaintance with the history of that or any period, this task is not only perplexingly daunting for them to embark upon, and intellectually suspect, but bound to repress, rather than stimulate, any creative flair they may indeed have. It engenders frustration, rather than the inspiration it is supposed to stir. Yet the syllabus polemic prattles on about how profoundly enriching the experience will be for students.
The most bizarre variety of the now regularly-encountered creative writing assignments for senior secondary school reveals aspects of the disturbing elements of this enterprise, beyond its merely delusional components, that need to be clearly called out, decisively challenged and, you can only hope, eradicated. It is the exercise that requires students to make up stories based on this or that plot-line or character, usually in a novel, less so from a play, but rarely, it seems, from poetry—which, mercifully, escapes this particular phenomenon, as it is all but unsusceptible to it. The student has to imagine, beyond what the author has imagined, a development or an intensification of what the original writer has provided.
So, for example, we have Pride and Prejudice—a sufficient and complete work of genius, you might have thought. But, no, there is more to be said, and our students are going to assist Jane Austen in that saying, even improve upon her. They are required to take a character or a scene from the novel and give us more information and nuanced detail—imagine Mrs Bennet, for example, worriedly writing to a relative about her matrimonial aspirations for her daughters.
Or they are to think of a different ending to James Joyce’s perfect story “Eveline”, in Dubliners, where the young woman, instead of renouncing her lover, the aptly-named Frank, at the conclusion, and returning to her miserable existence, takes off with him to Buenos Aires. What will their future life be like? How many children will they have? Or perhaps Eveline escapes alone to some other far-flung corner of the globe. What will become of her there? Finish the story that Joyce has left (apparently) incomplete. Or of which he has merely provided one version.
At first glance, these exercises may seem harmless enough; possibly even educative, in that they focus concentrated attention on aspects of narrative and plot, characterisation and tone, in the process of developing and varying them further. But, in fact, the tasks derive from the familiar and sinister postmodern theorising about the insufficiency even of the greatest works of literature; the presumed (and preposterous) ownership that a “responder” has of any text; and the relentless desire (especially in the face of canonical authors, such as Austen and Joyce) to bring the mighty down from their seats and demonstrate how they might have made a better fist of the job.
What is most disturbing about this aspect of the phenomenon of creative writing (and which is pervasive in literary study, more generally, today) is—for all the posturing to the contrary—that it derives from a denial of the value of literature, a lack of respect for the autonomy of literary works and for their creators. As Gerald Wilkes has argued, in Studying Literature, the appropriate response to bring to the reading and appreciation of any work of literary art is that of humility. The reader:
is not likely to extend his grasp of writers who lie beyond him by smothering their work with his own preoccupations, and overpowering their mind with his … The collective mind (so to speak) of Chaucer and Shakespeare, Donne and Milton, George Eliot and Patrick White reduces us into near insignificance by comparison.
“The only wisdom we can hope to acquire,” T.S. Eliot reflected in Four Quartets, “is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” But in our era of overweening narcissism and the “selfie”, it is the most disreputable of the traditional human virtues. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. No one is suggesting that a self-denying Uriah-Heep-like humbleness should be brought to the study of literature, but the nurturing of the love of it (and any study of it that does not proceed from that objective will be fruitless) includes a deepening recognition of how little we know, how much we have to learn and—with regard to creative writing—how wide and profound are the gifts and skills that any accomplished writer must possess and acquire to contribute anything of value in that domain.
What is to be done about all this? Reclaiming education, at large, from the damage that has been inflicted on it over the last fifty years is a formidable, well-nigh impossible project. The universities, in their Humanities faculties at least, are, of course, a lost cause; nothing short of a revolution will redeem their corruption. In the schools, there is the possibility that teachers, who have the unenviable task, day in, day out, of making this creative writing folly work as a compulsory component of English study, will come to realise its absurdity and futility.
Creative writing must leave the syllabus-bound classroom, and, on the questionable assumption that it should be pursued in schools at all, have a presence there akin to that of public speaking, debating, choir or orchestra. That is, it would be an optional extra-curricula activity available for students with a definite interest in and aptitude for imaginative writing and led by teachers who themselves have a particular flair for it and, one might hope, be creative writers themselves.
Barry Spurr was Australia’s first Professor of Poetry and is the Literary Editor of Quadrant.