Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Not If Your Teacher’s A Prick

Tuesday’s Guardian quotes Hanif Kureishi as saying that creative writing courses are ‘a waste of time’, that ‘99.9 per cent’ of his students are ‘not talented’ and ‘just can’t tell a story’, and that he doesn’t think the fundamentals of creative writing can be taught.

I try not to respond to manifestly stupid statements from authors, in the same way that I don’t respond to toothless medicine-swigging men’s bellowed warnings to pigeons that MI5 are poisoning our Irn Bru with flourine. There are just too many of them and engagement sometimes convinces these people that they are rational interlocutors in a debate, when really they are deserving of our pity and baffled compassion.

But I can’t let this one go.

A caveat: Mr Kureishi may well have been misquoted, or the Guardian may have selectively quoted from a much more nuanced provocation in which he cleverly undercut the feigned pompous belligerence of his opening lines and went on to say something deeply worthwhile. Perhaps he was just pretending to sound like a jaded bellend, blithely opining in an artful pastiche of the sort of lazy, cockish discourse that would shame the comments section of a Yahoo News article about a snorkeling goat.

If so – shame on the Guardian for co-opting his wry and challenging speech for clickbaity outrage filter! He was pillorying hidebound vainglorious knobheads who feel threatened by the next generation, who hear irrelevancy’s fingernails scratching at their windowpane at night and decide the surest talisman against further incursions is to launch a swingeing, barely articulate broadside at anyone within gobbing distance.

If, however, the substance of his position is captured within these quotes, then the following applies. In either case, it is clear from the rest of the article – and from various authors, agents, editors and critics I’ve read or heard – that he is far from alone in advancing this position, and it is this incipient strain of thinking, with all its smug, pseudo-countercultural swagger, which finally prompted me to down Pokémon Y and respond.

Here’s my experience.

I’m 9. Mr Millard has just read us two parts of a story from big cards. The cards are covered in plastic and rounded at the corners. The story is about a spacecraft which runs into trouble with its retro-rockets and crashlands on an unfamiliar planet. The planet is thick with giant green foliage and black-armoured monsters. I’m desperate to know the ending.

Then Mr Millard announces we are going to finish the story ourselves.

My tiny mind is blown. You mean… I get to choose what happens? I get to steer the monsters, and the struggling crew, and bring things to a heart-stopping, pant-wetting conclusion?

I open my navy blue jotter and start writing.

I’ve never really stopped.

I’m 11, and I’m lost.

It’s my first day at big school, and the negative aptitude for spatial awareness that will result in years of apologetic texts, wheezing sweaty jogs down sidestreets and missed appointments (including a funeral) is already working its magic. I am walking back and forth through an echoey concrete corridor called the Rat Run, hoping someone will see my look of adorable befuddlement and spirit me to my English lesson.

But nobody does.

I am now very late. In case anyone’s watching, I try to appear stoical – even annoyed – but my heart is walloping in my chest and I am a thin membrane away from crying.

I walk past a succession of identical doors, trying to peer through the black mesh of the safety glass without being spotted. Eventually, at the end of the corridor, I think I recognise one of my new classmates. I can’t be sure. I step forward, and place my shaking palm on the door handle, knowing I’m about to interrupt a lesson, knowing I might be about to step into the wrong classroom, and get laughed at by a gang of older kids…

As I enter the room, the teacher wheels round. He has wild hair and a glint in his eye.

‘Here he is!’ he exclaims in mild but rollicking Welsh accent. ‘He’s fought off lions and tigers! He’s fought through jungles!’ He begins to mime my hacking through tropical flora with a bowie knife. ‘He’s fought off marauding pirates! He’s braved the oceans and scaled the mountains and swum through lakes of fire! And here he is!’ He thrusts his hand towards me. ‘He’s made it.’

15 seconds into my first English lesson and I am the star of my own story. The teacher’s name is Mr Walton. He makes my first year of big school English everything I hoped it would be. He challenges and inspires. For the first time in my life, I have whole lessons devoted to reading and stories.

I’m 16. I’ve just finished my first novel.

It is called Psychic Rubber Nipples and it is a searing indictment of modern consumerist Britain. It is 95,000 words long, and printed out it fills two cardboard folders to bursting.

It is fucking dreadful.

I ask my English Literature teacher, Mr Budge, if he will read it. He takes the entire thing home, and returns it with marginal notes, typos marked out, and handwritten feedback at the end of each chapter.

Let me remind you: it is fucking dreadful.

His notes point out many of the novel’s abundant flaws, without being cruel. He tells me what’s wrong with the weary diligence of an undertaker making a threshing accident fatality look presentable – he must know what he does is futile, yet he also knows it may bring some measure of comfort.

He probably didn’t even read the whole thing (the fact he got through the term without hanging himself suggests as much) but the point is, he made me feel as if he had. I buy him a gallon of local cider which I leave on his desk to say thank you.

I decide writing is what I want to do with my life.

I’m 20. Or 21. Or 22.

I spend four years at the University of East Anglia, reading English Literature and learning Creative Writing, first as a Minor, then as my MA.

Andrew Cowan – who taught me on an Arvon retreat when I was 18 – diligently goes through both my prose and poetry. Instead of long tangential disquisitions on art and theme, he asks robust, practical questions: why have you started a new line here? What does this sentence actually mean? He points out places where I’ve tried to cram four thoughts into a single run-on sentence, which might be better expressed as four discrete lines.

In just a few one-to-one sessions, I learn a respect for the nuts and bolts of composition. I learn to return to my work with a skeptic’s eye, to interrogate woolly or needlessly baroque language, to have some basic respect for my readers’ intelligence.

My tutor Patricia Duncker asks why I want to write Fantasy. ‘I just… think it’s interesting,’ is not accepted as an answer. I spend weeks questioning my motivations, asking why SF stirs my heart and my imagination more than straight up social realism, wondering if – as she suggests – Fantasy might be a rather derivative, clapped-out genre mired in conservatism. In a rare moment of self-awareness, I realise that I don’t actually read that much SF – I like a lot of movies and video games, sure, but novels? Christ… maybe I don’t like Fantasy!

At our next session, I try to explain about the wonder, and the weird brightness of writing about the impossible. The stories that come to me are odd, I say, a little sheepishly. Strange is the only form my ideas come in.

‘Yes,’ she says, leaning forward with a sudden fire. ‘That is because Fantasy is primary genre. It is the place from which all genres sprung. Never forget that.’ And we get into an intense and immensely practical conversation about how to convey key physical characteristics in Fantasy species quickly (more than two non-standard features at once overwhelms the mind – pick your battles) and psychomachia in Tolkien and I realise that real writing takes commitment and thought and love.

Every week, I spend four hours in sessions with the Creative Writing Society. We read stories and poems to each other and offer feedback and do workshops together. I learn to write for an audience. I learn that some feedback is just fucking dumb, and you can ignore it. I learn how to offer feedback, how to articulate my concerns, how to zero in on a problem. I learn how to listen.

After each session, we hang out in the bar and talk about books and writing and stupid, unreachable dreams of one day doing it all professionally, and we get drunk together and sleep together and we grow up together.

I’m still friends with some of them now. They’re still teaching me.

I’m 24. I’m sitting with Terry Pratchett at the Hay-on-Wye Literature Festival.

Back in Mr Walton’s class, I once drew a cartoon version of me, glaring out at the reader and declaring – via speech bubble – that I was a better writer than Terry Pratchett. The picture showed me clutching a hatchet, which I think was an attempt at a pun.

Now he is listening intently while I try to explain the premise of my Fantasy novel to him. Dai, the cameraman, moves behind me to get a shot over my shoulder. This interview is going to be on TV and everything, and I expect Terry Pratchett will want me to finish waffling about my inane novel about a meditating dog-boy who gets dragged into a civil war, so he can talk in a charming, raconteurish way about his own books.

In fact, I am quite keen for him to cut me off. When I talk about my story out loud, it sounds rather stupid. But he does not cut me off. Indeed, he gives every indication that he is deeply interested, and instead of delivering the kind of soundbites that will make good tape, he proceeds to ask me a series of incredibly sharp technical questions about the mechanics of my invented world and the people who inhabit it. He asks: if the people in this world are descended from dogs rather than monkeys, how has that influenced them culturally? How would descending from quadripedal beings rather than bipedal beings affect their relationship to, say, height? Thinking of climbing a tree – of going up – might be the equivalent of discovering fire.

And what about their enhanced sense of smell? That changes one’s whole relationship to the world. Having a strong sense of smell, he tells me, is like being able to see through time. Just think of how someone with a peanut allergy can tell if a bag of peanuts has been opened in a room the previous day. They feel it in the air. How would that affect a society – everyone able to sense traces of where others had been, to smell who had been in a room the previous day?

He is generous and engaged and incredibly smart. He treats me with kindness and enthusiasm and not a shred of condescension.

As he speaks, and Dai Moonwalks away from us for a wide shot, I realise two things. The first is the incredible scope an SF novel has for interrogating and overturning and reimagining the world. The possibilities for thought experiments and for defamiliarising the mundane, for snapping us out of our jaded, routinised mindsets and showing us the world refreshed.

My second thought is that my novel offers none of these things, and I am fucked.

These are two of the most important writing lessons I ever learn.

I’m 31. I’m at a weekend writing class organised by Writers Centre Norwich.

Led by Henry Sutton, we discuss short stories and principles of composition, then we share excerpts from our novels in progress. When the class comes to mine I confidently anticipate tears and bouquets thudding at my feet.

My extract provokes polite skepticism. Most of it, the group decides, is a bit discursive and boring. But they like my protagonist. Love her, in fact. Why haven’t I included more of her? Why am I pushing my most interesting character out of the story?

A light goes on.

I’m 33. I’m hunched over my laptop in the wee hours, writing a lengthy and digressive blog entry in which I hope to elucidate the precise ways in which Hanif Kureishi is a fuckwit.

Naturally, I’m hopelessly biased. I’ve drunk the Kool Aid, I’ve paid for my Auditing – I even teach a bit of creative writing, for Christ’s sake. I have a vested interest in keeping the pea-and-shells game going – half cognitive dissonance, half pocketbook ideology. I mean, really – what am I going to say? That I got conned? That I wasted my life? That I earn a portion of my living conning others?

So it may come as a surprise to learn that I agree with Mr Kureishi, insofar as a creative writing course probably is a waste of time, if your tutors have been picked on the basis of literary prestige and not on their ability – or willingness – to teach a fucking class.

Apparently, the ‘talentless 99.9%’ inflicted upon him by his course at London’s Kingston University ‘worry about the writing and the prose’ when they should be worrying about story.


Mr Kureishi offers a glimmer of salvation when he concedes that his students ‘start to perk up after about three years’.

That is not an indictment of ‘creative writing courses’ – that is an indictment of his total inability to inspire students. If they’re perking up after three years I’d suggest the only reason is that they’re about to finally be shot of him.

No one has ever suggested you can plonk a surly illiterate with a constitutional revulsion for books in a six-hour weekend class and transform him or her into a Booker-winning novel-shitter. To imply as much is to tacitly admit defeat, by aiming one’s attacks against a ludicrous strawman.

Listen. Authors have a massive vested interest in pretending that writing a novel is some nebulous, mystical process only available to the annointed few. That it is mysterious and unteachable.

Bollocks. Story is teachable. Style is teachable. Tone is teachable. Theme is teachable.

I have been taught these things. I have taught them.

If you can’t figure out ways to transmit this knowledge, then before you pronounce creative writing tuition useless and the system from which you draw your salary a pyramid scheme, allow me to introduce you to my friend Mr Occam and his miraculous razor.

Could it be that the problem is you?

I would love to lead a class of students who ‘worry about the writing and the prose’. How can you write a novel if you think learning to knock out a decent sentence is beneath you? The sentence is the in-breath, the moment, in which the novel lives. The novel can’t exist anywhere but in each sentence.

Yes, story is incredibly important. Fundamental. So is nailing your work on the line. If you can’t teach both, you shouldn’t be in your job.

Stand down, Mr Kureishi. I dare say you are a nice chap underneath it all, but your patronising grandstanding is shortchanging your students. If the students are crap, that’s an admissions issue. If you have frustrations that you can’t translate into lesson plans, that’s a skills and competence issue. To blame creative writing tuition as a whole is an act of absurd bombast.

Creative writing can be taught. Is taught. Has always been taught.

The question is not ‘can it?’ but ‘how well?’ I have been blessed with good schools, and good teachers. Mr Kureishi should try seeking some out, and asking their advice on how he can improve his own practice.

Maybe he’ll learn something.

Want more ranting about writing from me? Try my award-winning memoir on writing, publishing, and crushing disappointment, We Can’t All Be Astronauts.

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  1. Hi Tim, I really did enjoy this post (& comments. I wrote something on the this subject for a local website and quoted/linked to your (this) article.. I do hope that’s ok with you.. keep up your great work.. Michael J.

  2. Scratch says:

    That’s a fabulous exposé of kureishi’s fundamentally flawed position. Can’t help thinking the the Pro-Vice Chancellor that undersigns his pay cheque would have been less than happy to read that pile of defeatist, assumptive wank. Had to comment Tim, you made me make a loud noise representative of laughter and given that I’m such a miserable git I’m obliged.

  3. “Story is teachable. Style is teachable. Tone is teachable. Theme is teachable. . .
    I have been taught these things. I have taught them.”

    And I still do.

    “Creative writing can be taught. Is taught. Has always been taught.”


    Thank you for this, Tim–a very lovely “portrait of a writer as a young dog.” 🙂

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