Can you learn to write creatively?

One of the other hats that I wear is Professor of English at the University of Montana Western. Among other things, I teach creative writing and fiction writing. So it should be clear from the get go that I do believe you can teach creative writing (and therefore learn it). But. Isn’t there always a but?

There are a lot of things you can teach in a creative writing class. A lot of it is craft. We talk about plot and rising tension, believable dialog and setting, book saidisms (all those words instead of said that writers use), and so on. These are the building blocks. These and other elements are the basic tools a writer has to learn to use before s/he can begin constructing a story. Without at least an acquaintanceship with them, you probably won’t be a good writer. With them, you still might not.

Now let me add here that I don’t think you have to take a creative writing course to learn how to use these tools. Not at all. You can pick them up just by reading avidly. In fact, reading a lot is crucial and necessary to learning to be a creative writer. You can read about them in books and magazines. The benefit of the class is that you get regular and fast feedback from your teacher and classmates (and allow me to discuss at another time classroom critique groups and how useful they are or are not. That’s too long to deal with here). Also in a class you usually are given a lot of assignments that will stretch you, help you go places you otherwise might not have gone, and help generate ideas if you’re suffering from too few.

So you can learn the tools and how to use them in a class. But that doesn’t make you a good writer. It might make you efficient, even competent. But the writing is in that creativity, and there’s no teaching creativity. There’s helping students find it. There’s helping students let it loose without fear. But creativity and talent can’t be taught. You’ve got it or you don’t. And frankly, many students do. Look at how creative children are–they grow up into college students and don’t lose the creativity. They suppress it often, though. They want to fit in, want to look cool, want to not embarrass themselves, and creative writing is risky to the ego.
So. A lot of students can be creative. Many are unwilling in one way or another. They either are unwilling to risk looking foolish, risk making a ‘mistake,’ risk exposing too much of themselves, and so on. Or maybe they don’t like what they see when they let loose their creative juices. Whatever it is, call it superego smothering what is taboo, call it self-patrolling with labels of stupid and silly, call it fear or whatever. A lot of students aren’t capable of creativity because they block it (and yeah, professors can be snotty s.o.b.s that crush the life out of students too–I know it, you don’t have to tell me. I’ve lived it and promised myself never to be that prof.)

So what is my point? If you’re going to learn to write creatively, a good class can help you learn the tools and help you experiment and take risks. It won’t make you a great writer. But it will help you hone your craft. It will help you feel not alone in a process that is all about being alone, and it will help you thicken your skin (crucial when it comes to submitting out to publishers).

So let me ask you–have you taken classes? What worked for you? What didn’t? And let’s not talk critiquing too much yet. Like I said, that’s probably next time.


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  1. 1. Sarah Prineas

    I took a creative writing class a looooong time ago in college and what I got out of it was confidence. The teacher, who I respected a lot, took me aside at the end of the semester and told me that I was a good writer and that I was particularly good at creating believable characters. Then I stopped writing for almost 15 years, but that bit of encouragement helped a lot when I picked it up again.

    Also, I’ve taught creative writing to college students and have found it to be a much bigger challenge than teaching a lit seminar. I take the same approach you do–these are tools you can add to your writerly toolbox. But measuring improvement is so hard over just one semester. It can be frustrating.

  2. 2. brandon

    I have hundreds of ideas , jbut im a bad writer.
    can you email if you can help.

Author Information

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Recently released was The Turning Tide, third in her Crosspointe Chronicles series (look also for The Cipher and The Black Ship). In October 2009, look for Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western, and is an avid lover of all things chocolate. Visit site.



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