Can Writing Be Taught? (Can Teaching?)

Novelist and playwright Hanif Kureishi recently savaged creative writing MFA programs as “a waste of time,” having done one himself:

It’s probably 99.9 percent 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.

Scott Esposito offers constructive criticism:

I agree with this in spirit. But I would very quickly add that learning how to write is not the point of the MFA. They’re more about having time off to write and making connections than actually being taught how to write.

I think in the best case you have a group of talented, motivated people who want to learn things from truly great writers, and the program ends up being partly getting a master’s “spin” on writing/editing, partly two years of uninterrupted time to do your thing. (Or fuck around on Facebook, if that’s what you prefer.) Yes, programs admit people who have no clue, and those people probably won’t get much out of their MFA and will end up in some completely different line of work in a year or two, but I don’t know that there’s any kind of professional degree where this isn’t the case.

Matt Haig objects to Kureishi’s hypothesis on innate talent:

Creative writing lessons can be very useful, just like music lessons can be useful. To say, as Hanif Kureishi did, that 99.9 percent of students are talentless is cruel and wrong. I believe that certain writers like to believe they arrived into the world with special, unteachable powers because it is good for the ego. …. Of course, it is always important to know your limitations. For instance, I could have 7,000 guitar lessons but I wouldn’t be Hendrix, though I would be a lot better than I am now. Like most art forms, writing is part instinct and part craft. The craft part is the part that can be taught, and that can make a crucial difference to lots of writers.

Jane Messer suggests Kureishi could learn a thing or two about teaching:

Kureishi, it would appear, is from the school of teachers whose focus is not on the learner, but on themself. This approach focuses on the transmission of knowledge from the expert to the receptive learner. Ideally, the student is an elite talent: preternaturally bright, both an autodidact and a willing disciple. Students for whom sentences and narrative are not easy, whose best work comes with much rethinking and rewriting, who are sometimes inarticulate on the page; these students are hard work in Kureishi’s world. In the learner-teacher model in which the learner is a reflection of the teacher, such students offer the teacher a spotty mirror image.

Previous Dish on MFAs in the visual arts here.