When I was eight years old, my anxious father went into my school to ask my teacher if I was (and I quote – this was his term, not mine) “backward or something,” because I had not yet learnt to read or write. The teacher reassured him: although I could not read or write yet, I clearly loved books and regularly sat in the Library Corner “stroking them.” I was sure to pick it all up soon, if only through a process akin to osmosis – by stroking books, I might absorb the words through my fingertips.
Sure enough, I did gradually catch up. In the thirty years since, I have learnt to read or write – and am still learning, because these things are always in process, step-by-painful-step. In those thirty years, I have also written a novel, a memoir, a poetry collection, a short story collection and two academic monographs, and now lecture in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Still, my experience as an eight-year-old who loved books, but who couldn’t quite crack the reading code, has left me with an abiding sense of written language as precisely that, an artificial code; and hence, learning to read and write in that code seems to me by no means a natural process, but rather a difficult, infinitely subtle, never-ending challenge. In other words – as any structuralist might tell you – there is nothing natural about the system of written language, and hence nothing natural about learning how to use that system.
All of which is why I take issue with the oft-repeated question: “Can you really learn or teach Creative Writing?” Most recently, the (rather wonderful) writer and Professor of Creative Writing at Kingston University Hanif Kureishi has been particularly vocal on the subject. He reportedly told an audience at the Independent Bath Literature Festival that, on Creative Writing courses, “It’s probably 99.9 per cent who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent. A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.” (See http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/04/creative-writing-courses-waste-of-time-hanif-kureishi).
Clearly, I don’t agree with Kureishi in this respect. I firmly believe that Creative Writing can and should be learnt and taught, and that recourse to terms like “talent” merely obfuscates the writing process. In particular, my problem with Kureishi’s kind of argument is that it is inherently, and no doubt inadvertently, élitist, undemocratic. It upholds an aristocracy of talent (the 0.1 per cent), of which budding writers are either part or not. You either have it (that is, talent) or you don’t, and no amount of work can change that basic fact. There is no recognition of a democratic continuum here, nor even of a graduated hierarchy of writers, from the great to the good to the tens of thousands of writers, storytellers, editors and publishers who serve their particular communities in diverse, vital ways; instead, there is nothing more than a two-tier system of naturally creative aristocrats versus the vast majority of us, with no possibility of moving from one tier to the other, via education. Kureishi’s argument closes off the aristocracy, rendering what it does seem mysterious, even biologically unobtainable. In light of centuries of analogous arguments posited on various forms of biological determinism – to do with race, gender, class, genetics and so on – we really should be suspicious of such hypotheses of innate “talent.”
So politically speaking, such hypotheses are dubious; and they are also dubious theoretically speaking as well. If, as most post-Saussurean theorists would assume, language is an artificial system, it is hard to see how linguistic “skill” could possibly be natural, as opposed to being learnt within a particular social context. That is certainly how I experienced written language as an eight-year-old – and, indeed, ten, twenty, thirty years later: as something which is learnt, through dogged perseverance, through practice, through reading, rereading, writing, rewriting, editing, redrafting, workshopping, sharing, dialogue – and maybe even, you never know, through stroking.